Last Friday night, Angels designated hitter Albert Pujols found himself in a familiar spot. In the third inning he faced Toronto pitcher Mat Latos with the bases loaded and two out. Through his career, Pujols has been in this base/out position many times — 118 in fact, totaling a surprising .278/.339/.436 slash line. Surprising because, well, for the first 10 years of his career, this was ALBERT PUJOLS, the best player on the planet. In situations such as this, he was always supposed to inflict terrible damage on the opponent.
On Friday, he ended up doubling and clearing the bases to give the Angels the lead, though it was a grounder over third base rather than a boomer off the wall. Therein lies the problem with Pujols. While every bases-loaded situation can’t end in a crushed liner to a power alley, there is a magic that has faded from him. No longer is he the Mighty Pujols. These days, he’s just another guy.
It’s a shame too, especially given the player Pujols shares the field with every night. Baseball was robbed of a transcendent figure overnight, or it feels that way. Pujols was Mike Trout before Trout; from the very outset, pure excellence. Starting from his age-21 season, he was an MVP candidate every year, and once Barry Bonds retired, he inherited the title of unavowed best player in baseball. He was a machine. Well, he was The Machine. He did it a different way than Trout (and realistically wasn’t quite as incredible, since Trout gets the added center fielder swag), but he was a force of nature.
Over a period of 11 years with the Cardinals that covered his age-21 to age-31 seasons, he recorded a 170 OPS+. He’s one of 13 men who have reached that mark over those ages in their careers. From Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig to Jimmie Foxx and Ted Williams, these players were all not just Hall of Famers, but legends, indelible figures in history. Almost to a man, they had similarly illustrious second halves to their career. Almost.
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Pujols’ second act has been famously middling. Since joining the Angels, he has hit .265/.324/.470, which works out to a 121 OPS+ in those age-32 to age-37 years. It's a near-unprecedented fall from the mountaintop he stood on. Of the men who joined him as mentioned earlier, those that logged a 170 or higher OPS+ in their age-21 to age-31 seasons, only one man had the kind of stark decline that Pujols has gone through. That man was Jimmie Foxx.
“Double X,” as he was known, was as strong as any man living. One apocryphal tale suggests that on a scouting trip, Philadelphia A’s owner, GM, and manager Connie Mack stopped his car on a country road to ask a young man who was pushing a plow the way to the next town. Supposedly, that young man picked up that big piece of farm machinery and pointed it in the right direction. Mack signed him on the spot, and 20 years, 534 home runs, and three MVP’s later, Foxx was a Hall of Famer.
Whether the origin story is true is immaterial. Foxx nearly lived up to the moniker "the Right-Handed Babe Ruth.” But that was all built on the back of an incredible first decade of play. Alcohol abuse and other hard living withered the mighty Foxx, prematurely ending a stunning career. He played until he was 37, but it wasn’t the same. After a 188 OPS+ when he was 31, it fell to 152, 139 and 93. World War Two might have ended his career a bit early (though he was a bit player after that, playing part-time until he was 37), but Foxx was basically finished at 34. Up until that point in baseball history, and again until Pujols, a fade this drastic (without hideous injury) was unprecedented.
There is nothing to suggest any kind of substance abuse is what is robbing Pujols of his ability to dominate. If anything, it’s just the inexorable march of age that has slowed him. More specifically, foot injuries not allowing him to turn his strength into the bat speed and power that propelled him to such heights for a decade. At first, we all hoped it was a blip, some kind of sapping injury that he could recover from. But after a year or two, we got to the point where this is who Albert Pujols would be, and who he is now.
Who Pujols is now certainly isn’t terrible — he’s right in line with Kyle Seager, Carlos Santana and Yoenis Cespedes over the last six years by OPS+, and he’s hit more home runs than any of them. They're trending upward though, and he's in his late 30's. He set such a high bar for himself that seeing this now is uncomfortable. You watch him and ask yourself who this man is, masquerading as a legend? He still wears red and plays first base sometimes, but it’s all wrong, the hue and the look and his very stance in the box. It's been five years of cognitive dissonance with Pujols, and we've basically got five more years of it to deal with. It will never get less strange.
In an alternate universe, Albert Pujols never signed with the Angels. In that universe, hard negotiations, a come-to-Jesus moment or two and some understanding of what he could mean for a team and city that loved him meant Pujols stayed in St. Louis. It’s hard to forge a place for yourself in the Cardinals pantheon, but Pujols was once so good he challenged baseball’s perfect knight, Stan Musial, as the all-time face of that franchise. In retrospect that seems absurd now, but he was given (and rejected because he felt he didn't deserve) the nickname El Hombre by fans. It was a tip of the hat to Pujols’s own greatness, and a recognition of how he was as important to the team as Stan the Man once was.
By numbers, Musial was actually a smidge better than Pujols was in his first decade as a player, notching a 172 OPS+ to Pujols’ 170. They won the same number of MVP’s, three, with Musial besting him in the championship count at three to two. But even if Pujols had led the Cards over the Red Sox in
‘07 ‘04, or the Giants and later Angels in ‘02 and perhaps one more, even if he’d won the five or six MVP’s he truly deserved, just the fact that he left means that he will fade in baseball lore to something substantially less than Musial. In our universe, rather than a statue alongside Musial’s in front of Busch Stadium, Pujols gets merely the kind of recognition that Enos Slaughter or Red Schoendienst get. He’ll always be a Cardinal legend. But he could have been more.
Legacy is a silly thing. It’s unquantifiable, nebulous, built on vague memories, half-myth and barbershop talk. But whether right or wrong, we do hold players to a higher regard when they stick with one team rather than moving about. Derek Jeter was a pretty good player, worth 71.2 WAR over his career, which places him 88th all time. He’s certainly a Hall of Famer, but nationally among fans he’s held in higher regard than, say, Jim Thome (72.9 WAR, played for four teams and was the sweetest man). Not that this means anything, but it’s a bit wrong. Thome was awesome — just as awesome as Jeter. So is Pujols, or he was, at least.
So no, Cardinals fans, and baseball fans in general, will never consider Pujols to be even a fifth as good as Stan Musial was. And he shouldn’t be, simply because he's become so comparatively pedestrian. But it’s still hard to see him as a bit player next to the modern greatness of Mike Trout, just because a team on the west coast threw a Brinks truck at him when the Cardinals would not. It’s the frustrating business side of this beautiful game, and it’s undermining the legend of Albert Pujols.
In the constant need for new information, in the "what have you done for me lately" attitude we all seem to have taken on these days, it’s easy to lose sight of just how amazing Pujols once was. Considering how great he was it still stuns me to say that in the past tense. He’ll have his day in the sun again. People will remember him destroying Brad Lidge and causing St. Louis to erupt with elation. But for everyone’s sake, life would be better if the man we remember was still the man in the field today.