Thursday’s news that Albert Pujols, the greatest living St. Louis Cardinal, was designated for assignment by the Los Angeles Angels invited a whole host of emotions.
Pujols, in the final year of a ten-year contract which lured the long-time Cardinal to Anaheim in the Fall of 2011, is by any measure a shell of his former self, no longer capable of piling up MVP awards nor being the focal point of a Major League Baseball team. Pujols’s first season with the Angels was also the first season for Mike Trout, who spent nearly every minute of Pujols’s lofty contract as the best player in the sport. That Pujols, though still a competent fielder in his final years in St. Louis, signed with an American League team seemed to be a concession that he knew he would eventually have to transition to a designated hitter role, but the unexpected arrival of Shohei Ohtani, the starting pitcher/all-world hitting renaissance man who was seventeen years old when Pujols became an Angel, limited his opportunities. On one hand, you could make a case that Albert Pujols fell victim to a confluence of events that rendered him forgotten before his time–he was immediately not the best player on his own team, and the Angels’ inability to surround Trout and Ohtani with other great players, save Anthony Rendon, meant that Pujols concluded his Angels tenure with zero playoff wins. But on the other hand, it’s hard to deny that Pujols, largely incompetent in every non-hitting facet of baseball and below-average at hitting since 2017, didn’t provide much help to the cause.
Albert Pujols’s departure from St. Louis was met with a lot of hard feelings, but time (not to mention a far more generally pro-labor stance from large swaths of fans than existed even a decade ago) has not only healed this tension but has made Albert Pujols a widely beloved player among Cardinals fans yet again. Which led to an outpouring of support for the Cardinals bringing back Albert Pujols when he inevitably clears waivers.
By and large, there are two camps on the Albert Pujols issue. First, there are fans driven by utility, who see Albert Pujols as somewhere between flawed and broken and view him, even when he inevitably makes somewhere near the league minimum, as a roster-construction nightmare. Second, there are fans driven by sentiment, who resent the implication that a player’s strict and immediate on-field productivity should be the most important thing for a team.
But what if these aren’t the only two sides? What if Albert Pujols–Actual MLB Contributor is not a far-fetched notion for 2021? And what if having Albert Pujols in a Cardinals uniform in 2021 is actually a bad idea beyond lackluster play? Here’s the thing–I don’t actually believe both of these stances. I do believe one of them. But the other one is an argument that, while I do not agree with it on the balance, is not completely irrational. Primarily, I wish to deconstruct a false binary that one’s stance on Albert Pujols: 2021 St. Louis Cardinal is a strictly black-and-white issue between sentimental whimsy and statistical absolutism.
Note: The odds that Albert Pujols signs with the Cardinals are extremely low. Reports indicate that the primary reason for his semi-amicable divorce from the Angels is that Albert Pujols did not want to take a diminished role with the team, and the Cardinals are absolutely not going to bench Paul Goldschmidt for Pujols. But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that this rule applied to the Angels but not the Cardinals and that Pujols would be willing to take on a lesser role with the Cardinals.
The statistical case for Albert Pujols
There is no denying it: Albert Pujols is not even close to the caliber of player that he was from 2001-2011. He is not as good of a player as Paul Goldschmidt, a player who has been underwhelming with the Cardinals in 2021 but who has been superior in every facet of the game than Pujols. But, to polish off some well-worn metaphors, Albert Pujols doesn’t need to be able to outrun the bear. He just needs to be able to outrun the other guy. Even during a part of his career where he can’t literally outrun just about anybody.
In 92 plate appearances in 2021, Albert Pujols hit five home runs. Over the course of a full season, Pujols would project for 30+ home runs. Not every 30+ home run hitter is built equal, of course, but Pujols was hitting for power at his strongest pace since 2015. The main facet of his offensive game which has disappeared since his time as a Cardinal is his plate discipline, and his 3.3% walk rate, with his recent marks usually falling somewhere in the fives, isn’t exactly inspiring. But he is also suffering from a .176 batting average on balls in play. Yes, if there is one player in baseball I would expect to be atrocious at legging out base hits, it’s Albert Pujols, but a .176 BABIP is too far even for me, and it’s quite a bit worse than his (admittedly quite bad) BABIP numbers in previous seasons.
By Expected wOBA, Pujols has a .359, which is his best mark in half a decade and puts him in the top half of Major League Baseball’s qualified hitters. Those who follow baseball analytics closely may note that the case for Albert Pujols is not dissimilar to the case for Matt Carpenter, the Cardinals’ much-maligned infielder whose raw offensive numbers are moderately worse than Albert’s (though have been consistently better in previous seasons) but whose xwOBA is a solid .392. A certain type of Pujols supporter has juxtaposed him with Carpenter, asserting that if the team has to choose between ineffective veterans, they should choose Pujols. I want to be clear that I am not taking this stance–even setting aside offensive productivity, the fact that Matt Carpenter can at least fake defensive competence at three infield positions better than Albert Pujols can at one is reason enough that, if forced to choose one, a statistically-minded fan should choose Carpenter.
But the choice is not, and would never be, about Carpenter vs. Pujols. It is about Pujols vs. John Nogowski or Lane Thomas, sparsely-used reserves with worse offensive numbers in 2021 than Pujols. Even if Albert Pujols’s sole use was as a pinch-hitter, frequently against left-handed pitchers and as a third option behind Carpenter and Justin Williams against righties, he probably wouldn’t get considerably less playing time than a John Nogowski. No, the Cardinals shouldn’t expect vintage Albert Pujols, but unburdened by massive contractual expectations, a spot as a team’s 26th man isn’t quite as absurd.
The emotional case against Albert Pujols
Without question, sentiment weighed into the Cardinals’ decision to offer contracts to Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright last off-season. But the numbers are there. Molina is no longer an MVP candidate, but he is a competent MLB catcher. Wainwright is not an ace, but he is capable of eating innings at a non-disastrous level. Albert Pujols is not that guy.
In the early years of his Angels contract, I think Cardinals fans exaggerated his decline. In his first half-decade in Anaheim, Pujols had two firmly above-average seasons and three more perfectly competent ones, with plus hitting. And perhaps as some kind of corrective measure, I think we’ve largely underestimated just how bad he has become.
The last time Albert Pujols had an above-average offensive season, Barack Obama was president. And this is far and away his finest baseball skill. On the bases, he is over a full foot per second slower than Yadier Molina, who is the third-slowest player in baseball. Defensively, while he isn’t quite that bad, he is a liability, and he is certainly not the Gold Glove-caliber fielder he was with the Cardinals. I would happily stomach a fielder and base runner like Albert Pujols if he could hit like Cardinals Albert Pujols, but he is a long way removed from that.
Hammering Pujols’s level of play may seem off-topic in a post about the emotional argument against Pujols, but it is relevant because Pujols’s on-field greatness is what gave St. Louis the emotional attachment to him in the first place. In St. Louis, Albert Pujols was a winner–in the four seasons in which the Cardinals did not make the playoffs with Pujols, he was the team’s most valuable player, usually by a wide margin. In his eleven years with the Cardinals, Pujols was never the reason the Cardinals didn’t win. But on a team which currently sits one game in first place and was widely considered to be positioned for a very tight playoff race, one lousy player could be the difference between making the playoffs and missing them. And it is inconceivable with what Albert Pujols has become that he would make a positive on-field difference in 2021.
Albert Pujols was the dominant force on the St. Louis Cardinals team with which I came of age. In his last game as a Cardinal, he won a World Series. I don’t want to resent him. I don’t want to blame him. I don’t want younger fans, people who are currently teenagers and don’t remember Albert Pujols first-hand, to view him as this old liability who prevented the generation of players that they will embrace as their own. A legend with the stature of Albert Pujols deserves better than to go out like that.