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The Curious Case of Al…

May 4, 2012 Leave a comment

In 110 plate appearances this season, Albert Pujols – the greatest slugging first baseman since perhaps Lou Gherig – has a whopping zero home runs. Unless you live under a rock, you probably already knew that. I mean, there have been thousands of words spilled over this pandemic all week. It’s as though the sky is falling. Seriously, repeat after me people:

Small Sample Size.

That’s right, weird things happen in April. Actually, weird things happen at any point in a baseball season, it’s just that those weird things are so glaringly obvious in April when they can’t dissolve into 300 productive at bats. Should the Angels be concerned about Pujols? Absolutely, but their concerns should relate not to this year’s homerless streak, but rather to the way his offensive numbers have declined for three straight seasons. Drastically declined.

In 2009 Albert was coming off a seven year run in which his WAR had not dipped below 8.2 – or superduperstar level. He had hit .327/.443/.658 that year, with a .449 OBA. The year before he’d abused NL pitchers to the tune of a .357/.462/.653 line. He controlled the strike zone (16.4% BB rate) and he mashed the ball (.331 ISO – .250 is considered excellent!). He was the best hitter in baseball and the best player in baseball.

Over the following two seasons however, Pujols’ WAR dropped from 9.0 to 7.5 to 5.1. His OBP went from .443 to .414, to .366. His slugging from .658 to .596, to .541. Perhaps of greatest concern, his walk rate dropped from 16.4% to 14.7% to 9.4%. Those numbers represent a trend. Do they mean that Albert is washed up as a player? Of course not, a player with a .299/.366/.541 slash line is still exceptionally valuable, but these numbers do represent a large sample of evidence that Albert is declining as a player.

Of course, this is information that the Angels knew five months ago, and if it didn’t bother them then, it shouldn’t suddenly bother them after 110 at bats. It should, however, have bothered them then. At 32 Pujols can reasonably expect to have another three seasons similar to the last two he just completed. Perhaps he’ll suffer a mild depreciation of his counting numbers; say, closer to 30 home runs than 40, but generally similar overall production. And those numbers are very good. They are all-star level numbers, but they aren’t numbers requisite with the best player in the game.

For 240 million over the following decade, the Angels weren’t hoping to acquire an all-star first baseman, they were looking for the best player in the game. Sure, they knew that the last two or three years of the deal would get ugly, but they also figured those decline years would be justified by these first few seasons of dominance. They weren’t alone either; before the season started, ESPN counted down the top 500 players in baseball for this season. They crowned Pujols #1.

Was there good cause to do so? Obviously, but there was also good cause not to. For starters, Pujols plays the least important defensive position on the diamond. Sure, he plays it very well, but basically for him to be the best player in baseball, he has to provide 99% of that value with his bat.

It’s a truth of our sports media bubble – and (ahem) the bloggers who exist increasingly on the inside of that bubble – they are slow to identify changing trends. We take for granted that what was true yesteryear continues to be true today. From 2003-2009 Albert Pujols was the best hitter in baseball. And with the exception of that guy out in San Francisco, it wasn’t even really close. Albert’s 62 WAR over those seven seasons leads A-Rod by 12, and A-Rod leads the eternally underrated Chase Utley by 9. Of course, WAR includes defense. For his prime, Pujols also led baseball* in batting average (.337), OBP (.435), SLG (.640), and wOBA (.443). HR (295), and – not that one should care – RBIs (855) and Runs (841). He was a beast. And, he was the best player in baseball.

* (I excluded Bonds, who only played about half the seasons in that span, but had otherworldly rate stats. Seriously, I know he was hopped up on flax seed oil and I know he was an arse, but go back and look at that 2001-2004 stretch, it was insane. We will never see anything like that again.)

The last two seasons? Pujols was still awesome, but…┬áHe was 8th in WAR, 6th in wOBA, 7th in OBP, 4th in SLG. Sure, he was still second in HRs, but the rate stats show a depreciation of his skills. Not a huge depreciation, but enough to lower him from the Demi-Gods to the extremely gifted mortals. And that’s an important drop.

Look, Pujols is going to hit a home run soon. Probably this weekend. And when does, he’s probably going to go on a run where he hits a bunch. He’s a really good hitter, and streaks are the nature of baseball. April just doesn’t represent a large enough sample size to tell you that Albert’s done. But, that also doesn’t mean that the games in April don’t count, they do. What Albert’s done, or not done, through 26 games does represent actual production, actual value. If Albert matches his exact 2011 numbers from May onward, his final season line will read:

.291/.348/.457 with 36 2B, 30 HR, and 56 BB.

That’s a solid player. When you add in his excellent base running and superb defense, it’s a borderline all-star, but is a borderline all-star what the Angels where hoping for when they gave him a 240 million ten year contract?

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