Hopes were high in 2012 when the Los Angeles Angels signed former St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols. The then 31 year-old slugger was supposed to solidify the middle of a lineup that ranked 17th in the MLB in runs. While Pujols is seen as a negative on the Angels roster, is he really that bad, or the product of an ever changing MLB.
Let’s begin by admitting Pujols has not been great for the Angels. His 10 year $240 million contract is considered one of the worst in the MLB. His batting average has only surpassed .270 twice as an Angel. The designated hitter’s BsR, a stat used as the base running aspect in WAR, as an Angel is -39.5. Pujol’s career on base percentage has dropped 38 points from .420 as a Cardinal to .382 overall.
With this, Pujols in his own right has not been the worst hitter in the league. While he certainly has not lived up to his contract, the first baseman is by no means a bad hitter. The graph below from Fan Graphs shows the basics of understanding quality of contact. The contact percentages represent all balls batted by a player
|Rating||Soft %||Medium %||Hard %|
The former Cardinal, in his MVP years in 2005, 2008, and 2009, never had a soft contact percentage more than 15.5%. In 2018, his soft contact percentage was 18.9%. However, as an Angel, he’s only ever had a soft contact rate above 16 twice, this year and 2016. For Pujols, his downfall can be categorized by a lot more medium contact, leaving him in the average to above average range.
While this can be explained by a decline due to age, Pujols has never consistently hit the ball hard. He has had six seasons where his medium contact rate is 50% or above, making him average to below average. Despite this, his average wRC+ in those seasons was 148. This means on average, in seasons where he would be rated as “average”, he created 48% more runs than league average.
Even in terms of OPS+, the future Hall of Famer has not been as bad as people perceive. League average OPS+ is 100. In the seven seasons Pujols has been an Angel, he has produced above 110 OPS+ seasons in five of them. While his worst seasons have been his last two, they have been expected for a 37 and 38 year old to begin to decline. However, he has proven his tenure with the Angels has not been a terrible one.
So why do people continue to say Pujols is one of the worst players on the Angels, let alone the league? It’s because the league has changed. The MLB is going through a massive youth movement, where young, athletic, OPS machines are taking over the game. This season, 12 of the 17 Silver Slugger winners were below the age of 30. All six of this year’s MVP candidates are below the age of 28.
While he certainly isn’t bad with his bat, Pujol’s base running and defense make him an outdated player in a changing era of baseball. His quick decline in athleticism, due to age and injury, has made him an easy to ridicule player. The decline is emphasized by his back loaded contract, earning him up to $28 million in 2019.
Despite injury and Father Time knocking on the door, Pujols manages to put together productive season after productive season. His last two seasons have admittedly been terrible. Before 2017 however, Pujols averaged 29 HR, 98 RBI, a 122 OPS+, and a 118 wRC+.
Pujols is not perfect. He is an aging star on a massive contract. However, the ridicule of Pujols is not warranted. He was signed to solidify a lineup that had ranked 17th in runs scored the year before he signed. After he signed, the Angels were a top 10 offense for three straight seasons.
Let’s appreciate Pujols while we still can. He is an imperfect player on an imperfect team. Through all his flaws, he manages to give the team everything he has to win games. While Mike Trout is the present and future of the MLB, Pujols is the past, trying as hard as he can to contribute to an ever changing league. To that, we thank Pujols and wish him luck on what is likely his last few seasons.
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