After plenty of conjecture and very little tangible evidence, rumors of Albert Pujols reuniting with the St. Louis Cardinals following a nine-plus year stint with the Los Angeles Angels were formally put to bed today when the Los Angeles Dodgers officially announced the signing of the greatest living St. Louis Cardinal to serve, presumably, in a fairly narrow role as a pinch-hitter and spot starter against left-handed pitching.
Independent of any Cardinals-related implications, it is a somewhat strange fit. Per reporting following Pujols’s departure from the Angels, the first baseman/designated hitter was unhappy with his lack of playing time and still sees himself as a full-time player, but if he thought his playing time was sparing while on a team with Jared Walsh at first base and Shohei Ohtani at designated hitter, he might be in for a rude awakening playing on a team with Max Muncy at first base (and center fielder Cody Bellinger also quite versed at the position) and only sporadic use of the designated hitter. But that said, the Dodgers disproportionately struggle against left-handed pitchers, and both Muncy and Bellinger are lefties, so the case could certainly be made that Pujols, if a somewhat odd fit, still is more of a fit in Los Angeles than on a St. Louis Cardinals team whose first baseman, a righty who has hit lefties well throughout his career, is basically a younger version of Pujols (as strange as it is to think that Paul Goldschmidt, the very essence of Chiseled Veteran energy, is over 7 1/2 years younger than Albert Pujols). Maybe Pujols realized there wasn’t a market for him in 2021 as a full-time player so he decided instead that he might as well play for the best team in baseball instead, all while not having to move. Maybe this was his plan all along. I can’t say I blame him.
A reunion of Pujols with the Cardinals never made much baseball sense to me, despite my best efforts to try to rationalize a case for it. It felt more like the Millennial generation finally getting a chance to unleash the inner Boomer that we all feel, a belief that things we enjoyed as children are inherently valuable and important and thus we must subject future generations who didn’t grow up with it to it because we are so blinded by nostalgia (I dunno, I was watching Forrest Gump on cable and contemplating how much nobody under the age of 50 cares about The Doors when the Pujols to LA story first broke, so maybe the lines are getting crossed in my head a little bit). But the idea of a Hall of Fame-level player returning “home” to where it all began would hardly have begun with Pujols. Three of the six greatest position players in baseball history–three of the relatively Spartan group of baseball players I would unequivocally rank ahead of Pujols historically–returned to the city of their initial Major League Baseball glory.
One big difference between the proposed Pujols to St. Louis reunion and the cases of Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays is that Pujols would be returning to the franchise with which he is synonymous–the other three spent their reunions with different organizations. But the city itself is what matters here, far more than the franchise with which he plays. Where was Gary Carter more popular–Montréal or Washington D.C.? Is Gary Payton more popular in Seattle or Oklahoma City? Speaking from personal experience attending St. Louis Rams games, on occasions when Eric Dickerson or some other Los Angeles football luminary was trotted out, we would give polite applause that ultimately was more hushed than ovations given to former members of the St. Louis Cardinals football team.
Babe Ruth remains one of the twenty greatest players in Boston Red Sox history by Wins Above Replacement to this date, even if he is now far better known for time with the New York Yankees. But his career closed with an oft-overlooked 92 plate appearances with the Boston Braves. The Braves, a middling team which had struggled to sell tickets relative to the Red Sox, signed Babe Ruth, who had become disenchanted with the Yankees for their unwillingness to make him the team’s manager (their manager at the time, Joe McCarthy, would go on to win six more titles in Yankee pinstripes). But while Ruth had signed with the Braves under the belief that he would be a serious contender to supplant Bill McKechnie as the team’s skipper, it became quickly apparent that Ruth was brought back to Boston to sell tickets as a sideshow. On June 2, 1935, Ruth abruptly retired.
Hank Aaron joined the Milwaukee Braves in 1954 and quickly became the city’s most beloved baseball hero. Although his most famous individual moments came after the franchise had relocated to Atlanta, Aaron (and Eddie Mathews) remain Milwaukee’s greatest players by WAR, ahead of Robin Yount and any other Brewers legend, and was voted National League MVP in 1957, the year during which he helped bring Milwaukee what is to date its only World Series title. Following the 1974 season during which Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record, Aaron expressed interest in joining the Braves’ front office as general manager, but Atlanta maintained Eddie Robinson in that position, so Aaron requested a trade back to Milwaukee as a member of the Milwaukee Brewers. Aaron became an early, well-known example of the career-twilight designated hitter, as the Brewers at the time were in the American League. And although he had been reasonably productive, if not quite his former MVP self, in 1974, the mid-seventies Brewers were a lousy team, finishing 68-94 and 66-95 in Aaron’s two seasons as DH, while the fact that their attendance increased was likely all Brewers owner Bud Selig really cared about with regards to the transaction.
Perhaps the most famous career-twilight return home in baseball history came from Willie Mays. Mays joined the New York Giants in 1951 and spent the first six seasons of his career at the Polo Grounds, where he became the National League’s best hitter and best defensive center fielder. It seems impossible, but Mays somehow actually went up a level following the franchise’s relocation to San Francisco, and today is regarded as one of the most well-rounded superstars in baseball history. But by 1972, the Giants were struggling financially and traded Willie Mays to the New York Mets that May. At this point, Mays was 41 years old and he would show his age–in his final appearance in the outfield for the Mets, a miscue on a sunny Sunday afternoon allowed the opposing team to reach second base and score what would go on to become a game-tying run. This highlight of Willie Mays, arguably the greatest defensive center fielder in baseball history, butchering a relatively routine play became the defining moment of his tenure with the New York Mets.
The cases of Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays returning to their original Major League Baseball cities are now regarded as somewhere between an embarrassment and a sideshow. It didn’t ruin the players for the cities, by any means–Aaron and Mays are still beloved in Milwaukee and New York, and the fact that Babe Ruth isn’t beloved in Boston is because of how great he was with the Yankees rather than his shortcomings in Boston. But these spells are now regarded as weird footnotes to history. And all three of them were, if you actually look at the numbers, pretty good players.
40 year-old Babe Ruth was not the fearsome superstar he was in his Yankees heyday, but if you are imagining a desperate, overweight guy just trying to get a managerial gig with the Braves, if you have a memory of Ruth on the Braves at all, it’s probably because you’re picturing John Goodman’s portrayal of him in The Babe, a terrible movie which for some reason has an eternal life on MLB Network. In 92 plate appearances with the Braves, Babe Ruth hit six home runs. He had an on-base percentage of .359. By wRC+, he was 22% above league average. His lackluster batting average of .181, of course, did him no favors in an era when batting average was considered a major, major statistic, but it wasn’t as though the Boston Braves, who finished the season 38-115, were exactly being held back by Ruth’s diminished play alone.
Hank Aaron did not put up eye-popping numbers with the Milwaukee Brewers, but he was at least competent at the plate. In his 851 plate appearances over two seasons, Aaron hit 22 home runs and drove in 95, with a walk rate which was higher than his strikeout rate. By wRC+, he was exactly league average at the plate. Is this good? For a designated hitter, no. Even for a corner outfielder, which Aaron was for most of his career, it’s not ideal. But for a going-nowhere pair of Brewers teams, a perfectly competent, above replacement level player who was absolutely beloved by the fans is nothing at which to sneeze.
Unlike Ruth and Aaron, Willie Mays was traded to a competitive team. The 1971 Mets before Mays arrived finished in a respectable third place in the six-team National League East, and in 1972 they finished in third again, with an improved 83-73 record. In 1973, the Mets finished 82-79, but improbably snuck into the postseason as division champs and upset the Cincinnati Reds to advance to the World Series. That famous defensive misplay that has been replayed countless times as a metaphor for how bad Willie Mays was with the Mets? It was against the Oakland Athletics in Game 2 of the 1973 World Series, and it was in a game which then went to extra innings–a game which the Mets won after notching four runs in the top of the 12th inning, with the first run driven in, off future Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers, by Willie Mays. By the World Series, Mays was a reserve, but he was still a competent player throughout the season, with a .303 on-base percentage and serviceable base running and even competent defensive metrics. In 1972, Mays was a legitimate star, concluding his 242 plate appearance with the Mets with a .402 on-base percentage and a 144 wRC+ which ranked first on the Mets among the 12 players with as many plate appearances as he had.
In all five seasons I have detailed, the legend who returned home was, at the very worst, at Replacement Level. By the Baseball Reference measure, Pujols has been below Replacement Level in total over the last six years. Per FanGraphs, Pujols hasn’t had a season at this level since 2016, which was also the last season that Pujols was an above-average hitter. By ZiPS, Steamer, and FanGraphs Depth Charts projections, Pujols is projected for a below-Replacement Level rest of 2021, and even if Pujols bounces back to the level of production of latter-years Hank Aaron, he would be doing so with a team that does not have access to the designated hitter and with a team that has actual playoff aspirations.
Of course, virtually nobody is trying to advocate that Albert Pujols is going to perform substantially better than his recent track record suggests is now his true talent, but rather that the sentimental value of his return makes his shortcomings in production worth it. But it is also a fallacy, based on what we have seen in baseball history, to assume that a Pujols reunion in St. Louis will be viewed as a triumphant return rather than a semi-embarrassing footnote. Poor production alone could not diminish Pujols’s reputation in St. Louis given his production from 2001 through 2011, but unless he has a highly improbable career resurgence, it seems even less likely that he adds to his reputation.
It’s not as though Albert Pujols is never going to return to Busch Stadium ever again as a representative of the Cardinals organization–there just isn’t much reason to believe that there is anything to gain from him returning as a uniformed player. Instead, it looks increasingly as though Albert Pujols’s final act in St. Louis will be going out as the most valuable player on a World Series champion. And I can’t imagine a more ideal final act than that one.