I will start off by acknowledging my prior history–I was and am extremely skeptical of the St. Louis Cardinals’ signing of Albert Pujols for reasons that I have published in the past and about which I will expand upon in a moment.
But it would be willful ignorance to pretend that what the Cardinals did was simply to sign a 42 year-old with limited defensive versatility and zero above-average offensive seasons since Barack Obama was president, just as it would be malpractice to not acknowledge that this drop in effectiveness is very much real. The St. Louis Cardinals signed Albert Pujols as a short-side platoon designated hitter/sporadic pinch-hitter/sporadic backup first baseman, a position which they arguably did not need filled and probably could more efficiently fill with since-outrighted to the AAA Memphis Redbirds Juan Yepez, because he’s Albert Pujols.
Albert Pujols, despite the hurt feelings his departure from St. Louis initially created, is an overwhelmingly popular figure in 2022 among St. Louis Cardinals fans. And St. Louis Cardinals fans are the target audience, and Major League Baseball is fundamentally an entertainment product. Lingering resentments towards Bill DeWitt Jr. (which, to be clear, keep those up) make the cynical argument about the Albert Pujols signing–that it was made purely to sell nostalgia to fans–an easy one. It’s probably not a wrong one, either–the number of Albert Pujols jerseys, which the team was not permitted to sell since they were shuttling off their excess stock in 2011 and early 2012, that will fly off the shelves is going to be overwhelming. The memorabilia about Yadier Molina and Albert Pujols (and maybe Adam Wainwright at some point, though this is less official) on their last ride with the Cardinals is going to be everywhere.
One can view this through the prism that Bill DeWitt Jr. just wants to print money and distract fans from the fact that their pitching depth is such that I might get a start by August. But giving fans what they want is the entire premise of not only professional baseball, but of entertainment. When the casting director of The Irishman was hiring some people to play characters who were in their thirties or forties for most of the film, do you really think they thought Robert De Niro (76), Joe Pesci (also 76), and Al Pacino (79) were the choices to most faithfully execute their roles? I assume they didn’t, but it worked, partially because a major theme of the film–a man reminiscing with false glory about the highlights of his youth–works well with an older actor, but mostly because it’s just really fun to see a bunch of famous people that you know and like already.
For those who brimmed with nostalgic joy over the Albert Pujols signing, citing statistics seems like a way of side-stepping what makes the story endearing. For those who enjoy the signing but fully concede that Albert Pujols is no longer a particularly good MLB player–even those who don’t continuously parrot that “Albert Pujols absolutely crushes left-handed pitching” despite this really only being true over 146 plate appearances last season and not consistent with any other trends throughout the last decade of his career–this is a matter of prioritizing sentiment over cold, hard efficiency, and that’s fine. But for as persistent as the truism that statistics have ruined the romanticism of baseball has become, it would be absurd to pretend that St. Louis Cardinals fans do not largely crave efficiency.
There is a very compelling argument to be made that the Moneyball era of baseball statistical analysis has made the sport more boring. In the NFL, the lessons of advanced metrics were “throw the ball more and punt less”, which make the game more fun. In the NBA, the lesson was “shoot a bunch of three-pointers”, which most people seemed to enjoy until everyone started turning on the Golden State Warriors. In the NHL, the lesson was “just shoot the puck a whole bunch”, which, again, is fun. For MLB, the lesson was “take a bunch of pitches, abandon the ‘starting pitcher as game protagonist’ narrative arc, and stop attempting to steal bases”, all of which makes sense from an efficiency standpoint but which does make games a lot less fun for most fans, including myself. But if you are a fan of a team, there’s a bit of a Prisoner’s Dilemma situation which unfolds–the game would be more fun if every team just ran constantly and swung at everything they could reach, but the ultimate force for fun is when your team wins, and your team’s chances of winning improve when you start playing in a boring fashion.
There is, of course, a balance to strike here. Bringing in Albert Pujols because he’s a fan favorite and because it’s a neat story isn’t the same thing as bringing back Tim McCarver to cover behind the plate on one of Yadier Molina’s five off-days in 2022–Pujols can at least be mistaken for a credible big-leaguer on any given day. But then I think about Matt Carpenter and Carlos Martínez, both of whom had their team options unceremoniously declined following the 2021 season. Neither is a Cardinals legend to the extent that Pujols is, but on statistical merits they should both at least garner support for the team’s Hall of Fame–Carpenter is a top-twenty position player in the World Series era for the Cardinals by FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement while Martínez is in the top thirty among pitchers, out-pacing players such as recent inductee John Tudor. Unquestionably, moving on from these two players was the proper move from an efficiency perspective, but there is clearly some wiggle room for the Cardinals on this matter. That either player would have made far more money under these team options than Albert Pujols will make is not irrelevant here, but the Cardinals did not even pretend to court Carpenter nor Martínez at a lower cost, and Carpenter has the added bonuses of being a better defensive player (he isn’t a great fielder but he at least did play second and third base last year, if not well), being a left-handed batter on a team bursting at the seams with righties, and being a Replacement Level player since 2020, a thing which cannot be said of Pujols on either individual season.
There is some (probably informal) calculus at play here–the sentimental value of Matt Carpenter (realistically, a thirty year-old pitcher wasn’t going to entertain retirement) was not enough to compensate for his poor play (probably true), but the Cardinals believe that the Pujols retirement tour is worth it for the fans, and that the only thing that should actually matter for a team is how fans feel about something. And I agree with this! There are players in Major League Baseball that I do not want the Cardinals to acquire (Trevor Bauer and Aroldis Chapman stand out as clear, relatively self-explanatory examples) despite the fact that I know that the Cardinals would be a more productive team with them. I consider it very fortunate that while there are some Cardinals that I do not necessarily especially like as aesthetic baseball players, there aren’t any players I truly dislike, Albert Pujols being among them no matter how poorly he plays in 2022.
But you know what else fans really like, besides Albert Pujols? Winning. And despite Albert Pujols’s objectively admirable charity work, the primary reason that Cardinals fans grew to love Albert Pujols in the first place is because he helped their favorite team win baseball games. And the possibility that Albert Pujols is straight up terrible in 2022 is a very real possibility, and unlike with the team bringing back Adam Wainwright, who could easily end up being the team’s best pitcher in 2022, or Yadier Molina, who even if he is bad at the very least seems like not the worst starting catcher in Major League Baseball, it would become very easy to question why Albert Pujols was ever there in the first place.
Over the last week, I’ve seen a ton of takes about how Albert Pujols transcends winning and how this unprecedented chance to send off a generation of Cardinals immortals at once is more valuable than winning a World Series–I disagree, but ultimately this is a personal value judgment. But it’s also one which inevitably comes from those who have already gotten the chance to experience two World Series titles. Do Cardinals fans who are currently under the age of 17 or so care about Albert Pujols at all? When I was growing up, I didn’t care about Jack Clark or Tom Herr at all; heck, I actively disliked Willie McGee because to ten year-old me, he was just a godawful fourth outfielder who made the team worse every time he played.
Willie McGee is where a fan favorite signing goes wrong, but it’s also hard to argue that, as bad as he was in 1999, he was the reason the Cardinals missed the postseason, when they went 75-86 and finished 21 1/2 games out of a playoff spot–the one time the Cardinals were a legitimate playoff threat during McGee’s second run in St. Louis was in 1996, when McGee was perfectly competent. And maybe that’s where the Pujols reunion will land–if the Cardinals aren’t competitive this season, it doesn’t really matter if Albert Pujols is terrible or not, and it’s not as though signing Pujols was what precluded the Cardinals from signing the starting pitching depth that might have made a real difference. But if the Cardinals barely miss October baseball–an outcome which is certainly within the realm of possibility, based on 2022 season projections–and Pujols has a rough season, there may be questions about whether this whole thing was worth it. And that’s the real question about this whole experiment–whether the reunion plays out as well as it sounds in the abstract.
The notion itself that a team cannot or should not appeal to its fans is ludicrous, but this could easily wind up a case of people not realizing in the moment what they really want. It sounds incredibly condescending, and I promise that this is not a rhetorical question–maybe St. Louis really does just want a retirement tour and that the team’s ultimate success is secondary to the nostalgia, and it will be the more heartless fans among us who realize as it is happening just how much seeing Albert Pujols in a Cardinals uniform again mattered to us. And that’s fine. But we’ve also seen how quickly fans will turn on unproductive players, and while no player as accomplished with the franchise as Pujols has ever actually been unproductive in a Cardinals uniform, the basic principle that fans want their teams to succeed is a fairly consistent one.