In 2021, following a dreaful month and a half start to the season, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim released Albert Pujols. Pujols, whom the Angels signed coming off one of the finest first eleven season stretches in baseball history, had been a major disappointment since departing the St. Louis Cardinals for the Los Angeles suburbs, but it took a particularly awful stretch in the final season of his contract to prompt the Angels to act. After he cleared waivers, with no MLB team willing to take on his $30 million salary, Pujols stumbled into a magical scenario–he signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers, therefore not even having to move while also playing for the defending World Series champions. The Dodgers, typically known for their depth, found themselves with a rare scarcity–one for right-handed hitters–and although Pujols was severely limited defensively, the Dodgers’ everyday first baseman–Max Muncy–is capable of playing other positions, thus crafting a role for Pujols. And for the remaining four and a half months of the regular season, not to mention what were technically three rounds of the postseason for the Dodgers, Albert Pujols found his old form. The 41 year-old had seemingly discovered the fountain of youth, propelling the Dodgers offense and silencing all doubters, particularly those within the St. Louis Cardinals organization who bypassed the opportunity for a reunion between the team and its greatest player, conservatively, of the previous fifty years.
Most of the previous paragraph is true, but in the final two sentences, I decided to succumb to the Wayne’s World-style mega happy ending. The truth is that while Albert Pujols did improve on the Dodgers end of his season, to call his run great is exceedingly generous and could only be considered true relative to how awful the first month and a half of his season were.
In 204 plate appearances, Pujols was an above-average hitter–barely, with a 101 wRC+, but it still counts. He was also, as he has been annually for some time, the literal slowest runner in baseball and a defensive butcher incapable of playing any position other than first base. The latter two considerations, particularly the latter, are far less relevant in a world in which the designated hitter exists, and there is a quality of hitter that exists that can exist in baseball with Pujols’s extreme deficiencies in other areas of the game. But for a league-average-ish hitter at a spot where the barrier for entrance is, for obvious reasons, much higher offensively than at any other?
That Albert Pujols has pronounced lefty/righty splits makes him a little bit easier to talk into–it seems intuitively easy to keep Pujols far away from matchups against right-handed starting pitchers (he had a 36 wRC+ against righties in 2021) and to preserve him for lefties, against whom he batted with a 146 wRC+. But this works under the assumption that Pujols is an actual 146 wRC+-type talent against lefties–this was his highest wRC+ against left-handed batters since 2012. In 2017, his wRC+ was 64 against southpaws, followed by an 82, a 112, and a 64. Three of these splits would be considered wholly unacceptable; the 112 isn’t horrible, but of the twelve designated hitters last season with at least 200 plate appearances at the position, a majority were superior against all pitchers, much less the ones upon whom they are superior. And particularly in an era where managers deploy relief pitchers liberally, in a lineup loaded with right-handed bats where there isn’t exactly disincentive to use right-handed relievers, it’s not as though playing Pujols as a DH would mean that he would get four or five plate appearances against lefties.
Admittedly, signing Albert Pujols makes more sense today than it did last May, when the one person he could reasonably displace would be a right-handed first baseman, Paul Goldschmidt, who is undisputedly better than he is. As a far as a true designated hitter goes, the likely competition for Pujols would be Juan Yepez, an unproven prospect with zero MLB plate appearances. But, by the ZiPS projection system, (the also right-handed) Yepez projects to be noticeably better at the plate, with a projected .324 xwOBA, to Pujols’s .287. And this is only if you assume that the Cardinals must have a full-time designated hitter, a thing teams without a transcendent bat who can only play there rarely deploy. Yepez has minimal defensive versatility, but he can play first base and may even be a long-term solution there in three years post-Paul Goldschmidt. Nolan Gorman, also projected as a better hitter (albeit from the left side of the plate), can fill in well at second and third base. Pujols’s sole function, other than spelling Paul Goldschmidt on his very rare off-days (he had four of them last year), would be as a big bat, and he hasn’t been a big enough bat to justify a roster spot for years.
I understand the emotional attachment to Albert Pujols–I really do. But there is a line to be drawn here. I do not for a second begrudge that Albert Pujols signed with the Angels in 2011, nor that he defected to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2021 despite proclaiming that he was seeking a full-time role– a thing that was obviously impossible with the deepest team in baseball. But this just underscores that the Cardinals do not actually owe Pujols a send-off. Yadier Molina and especially Adam Wainwright remain viable players, so for all of the sentiment that will be attached to their 2022 farewell tours, there is also a practical reason behind it. Albert Pujols is no longer at their level.
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