On Friday night, Los Angeles Angels first baseman/designated hitter Albert Pujols notched his 3,000th career hit in Major League Baseball, an opposite-field single off Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Mike Leake.
It was a battle of two former St. Louis Cardinals, but it wasn’t Mike Leake who captured the attention of Cardinals fans for the last week. Albert Pujols, as he approached the 3,000 hit plateau which had only been reached by 31 other players in history, became a source of nostalgia for fans to wax poetic about the first and greatest eleven seasons of Albert Pujols’s career, spent in St. Louis.
It is no secret that the St. Louis Cardinals offered Albert Pujols a sizable contract following the 2011 season, and it is no secret that when he instead opted to sign with the Angels, there was a sense of anger among many Cardinals fans that the player to whom they had grown accustomed would leave St. Louis. But in the years which have followed Pujols’s departure, fan sentiment has mellowed considerably.
Albert Pujols’s offensive decline has been sharp and dramatic. While his first five seasons in Anaheim were mediocre as a whole because of his poor fielding and base running, he was still an above-average hitter. But last season, Pujols added legitimately poor offense and was, by Wins Above Replacement, the worst player in baseball. His offense has rebounded a little bit so far this season, to roughly league-average, but along with his lack of other baseball skills at this point, and the high offensive expectations placed on a designated hitter, this doesn’t make him a very valuable player.
For much of the post-Pujols era, Cardinals fans contrasted his decline in performance with the continued success of the team he left behind in St. Louis. In 2013, the Cardinals won 97 games; Albert Pujols battled injuries and the Angels won 78 games despite the presence of Mike Trout, the best player in the world. To date, Albert Pujols has participated in three playoff games with the Angels, losing all three. In that time, the Cardinals won 21 playoff games.
But in the wake of Albert Pujols reaching career milestones: 500 home runs, 600 home runs, and most recently, 3000 hits, as an Angel, came a bit of revisionist history on his exit. While the notion of these moments being meaningless to fans in suburban Los Angeles is a bit hyperbolic, it’s certainly not a stretch to think that for Cardinals fans who had seen the majority of Pujols’s home runs and hits up close and personal, these milestones were more meaningful for them. And while the Cardinals have been consistently competitive over the last half-dozen years, they haven’t won a World Series post-Pujols. At some point, the question becomes whether to prioritize continuing with Pujols, even if it is the objectively “wrong” thing to do statistically or to prioritize efficient, relentlessly unsentimental teams which put up good records but ultimately do not win the World Series.
There is certainly a tendency in baseball analysis to ignore the emotional value in baseball events. Excitement cannot be quantified, and thus it must be meaningless. But sentimentality matters–in the long-term, an emotional investment in a team and players is what keeps fans coming back to baseball, and from a purely financial perspective, maintaining a consistent income source in passionate, invested fans is a good long-term strategy.
But in the case of Pujols, part of his legacy in St. Louis is that we never saw Albert Pujols as a bad player. His worst season as a Cardinal, noticeably so (his diminished performance was noticed even in the moment), was 2011, and he still finished fifth in National League MVP voting. His consistency, more than his peaks of excellence, was his hallmark–he didn’t post the downright silly on-base percentages of Barry Bonds, nor did he managed the elite Wins Above Replacement totals of “excellent defensive shortstop, 50 home run hitter” Alex Rodriguez. But he was what he was every year.
Albert Pujols isn’t that player anymore. Even in 2012, when Pujols was solidly above-average (his 133 wRC+ tied for 23rd among 143 qualified hitters), he wasn’t Albert Pujols. And since then, he’s been markedly worse. Since his 2011 dropoff was noticeable, his more dramatic dips in performance certainly would have been. And it would have taken some toll on Albert Pujols’s reputation locally.
This isn’t to say Pujols would be hated. But consider Adam Wainwright, the former ace of the Cardinals who has struggled recently and now, in the final year of his contract, is subject to scrutiny and criticism that he should be demoted to the bullpen. His past is recognized and revered but beyond the first year of his current extension (2014), his recent history isn’t really a part of that story.
What Albert Pujols gave Cardinals fans for eleven years was one of the greatest runs in baseball history, a remarkably consistent record of greatness. And fans can feel nostalgic for what Pujols was with the Cardinals while recognizing that, had he stayed in St. Louis, he was not going to maintain that level of performance.
A common analogy for Pujols and Cardinals fans is with dating, but let’s try a different analogy here–high school. Say you really enjoyed high school–you made a lot of great friends, you had a lot of fun, the memories are memories which you will treasure forever. Should you fail classes and stay in high school as long as you can? Of course not. Your friends that you made would have moved on. Whatever big man or woman on campus stature you had would have diminished.
The memories of your experience, however, will remain once you leave. And if you have a healthy and well-adjusted attitude towards it, you can simultaneously have reverence for what happened and enjoy the new experiences which come moving forward. And this is the case with Albert Pujols.
And for old time’s sake, here he is hitting the train track again.