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Saturday SOC: The Designated Hitter, Nostalgia, and Albert Pujols

Let’s talk DH, Nostalgia, and if Albert Pujols is a fit for the Cards.

Sporting News MLB Baseball Collection Photo by Albert Dickson/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images

It’s official. The world is ending.

Rob Manfred took to the airwaves for the first time in months Thursday to announce that the owners and players have reached an agreement on non-core financial issues for the next CBA. That includes the designated hitter expanding from the American League to the National League.

Manfred also announced that the game will be instituting a draft lottery, which they hope will reduce the desire to tank – lose games on purpose to get a better draft pick. Lastly, they are eliminating draft pick compensation for free agents who receive a “qualifying offer” from their previous team.

Those last two items should have an impact on the way teams approach free agency and roster building. The first item, the universal DH, will have a substantial impact on the play on the field.

As a lifelong National League fan, I, of course, despise the DH and all things American League. Nothing brings me more joy than seeing Kwang-Hyun Kim come to the plate with two men on and two men out in a critical 6th inning at bat.

Oh, who am I kidding? Kim never pitched into the 6th inning!

Seriously, though, I don’t think anyone enjoys watching pitchers hit. The argument against the DH centers more around the strategy involved in pinch-hitting, double-switches, and bullpen decisions that can impact a game. The DH steals some of that strategy and I really can’t characterize that as anything less than a loss.

The shortened 2020 season sold me on the DH, though. With so little baseball during the pandemic, I savored every minute of what we had, watching every Cardinals game during the 2020 season. It was probably the longest stretch of AL-style baseball I had watched.

I never once missed pitchers hitting that season. I also never once ran out of strategy to consider and talk about online.

My strategic interest in the game shifted from in-game lineup switches to more nuanced and probably more important aspects of play: like pitch selections, bullpen usage, the running game, defensive replacements, shifting. I could go on.

As I said in my last article: baseball is simple. Throw the ball. Hit the ball. Field the ball. But within that simplicity is a smorgasbord of decision-making nuance that we could (and frequently do) fill pages on.

The NL with the DH is not a less strategic game. It just shifts the focus of that strategy to other equally interesting and critical areas.

Nostalgia in Baseball

That brings me to the second area I want to stream my consciousness about: nostalgia. I think a high percentage of people that are “never DH’ers” are that way not because they actually hate the AL game. They probably haven’t even watched that much of the AL. I think it’s that they love the history of the NL, the game they grew up watching.

It’s about nostalgia. The NL game is the game Stan the Man played. They got to watch Gibson hit. Double-switches showed off the value of fan-favorites like Jose Oquendo. Who doesn’t go crazy when Wainwright, the games’ active leader among pitchers in hits, cracks a double or hits a homer?

All of that is fun. But it’s more fun in memory than it is in actuality.

As good a hitter as Wainwright is for a pitcher, he’s pretty terrible when compared to other hitters.

For his career, Wainwright’s slash line is .194/.222/.294 with a 35 wRC+.

Gibson is a bit better - .206/.243/.301 with a 49 wRC+.

I don’t want to take much away from these two because their primary responsibility was to throw the ball. Not hit the ball.

Still, as a point of comparison, Justin Williams has been so bad as a hitter for the Cardinals. His career line is .160/.270/.256 with a 44 wRC+ — better that Waino.

In 2013, Pete Kozma had 448 PAs for the Cardinals and hit .217/.275/.273 with a 49 wRC+ — the same as Gibson.

Even the best and most celebrated hitting pitchers that we’ve seen are only on par with the worst hitters that we’ve seen. Game-to-game pitchers in the batter’s box provide almost no production or entertainment value. They do not in any way contribute productively to their team winning on a routine basis. Instead, they frequently detract from winning by providing 10% or more a team’s outs in the batter’s box every day.

Here’s what I learned last year: nostalgia wins in the offseason.

Case in point, it was late early February 2021 before Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina signed with the Cardinals last season. As those two sat on the market, there was significant angst among Cardinals fans who were desperate to see their fan favorites return.

A lot of fans did not want to hear that those players were old or declining or injury risks. They just wanted their favorite players in Cardinals red! I heard more than a few fans express this kind of sentiment: “I would rather lose with Molina and Wainwright than win without them!”

Fast forward to July of the 2021 season. The Cardinals were mired in a slump. There was conflict in the clubhouse. More and more tickets were available for sale but the number of fans in the stands was still shockingly light, even when considering the impact of the pandemic.

Cardinals fans were frustrated and mad. That was true despite Wainwright and Molina on the team and performing relatively well.

How many tickets did Wainwright and Molina sell for the Cardinals last season? How much goodwill did their presence buy for the club in the heart of the summer?

Maybe a little. But I don’t think I heard very many people say, “yeah, losing sucks, but I’m so excited to go to the game and see Molina catch today!”

Nostalgia wins during the offseason.

Winning wins during the season.

When the Cardinals started their winning streak, guess what happened in the stands? They filled up. Fast.

So, yes, fondly remember the good old days of Wainwright and Gibby and NL-style ball.

But be ready to enjoy Juan Yepez coming up in the DH spot in a critical mid-game scoring opportunity instead of Miles Mikolas or Steven Matz.

A Pujols Return is Not in the Cards

This nostalgia talk wasn’t only about the DH coming to the NL. Immediately upon the announcement of the DH, Cardinals fans took to Twitter calling for the club to bring back Albert Pujols.

I love that idea. From the perspective of nostalgia.

Pujols is a legendary Cardinal. He belongs on the shortlist of the club’s greatest players – right with Musial, Gibson, Hornsby, and Smith. His offensive prowess was something to behold and something that I don’t think we’re likely to see again in our lifetime.

If that legendary player were a free agent and available to suit up as the DH in 2022, I would sign him without blinking, budget be forgotten.

But he’s not. That version of Albert Pujols has been gone for nearly a decade.

It’s true. Pujols started his decline way back in 2010. In ’09, Pujols had a 180 wRC+ and 8.4 fWAR. MVP numbers. That’s his last truly peak season.

Here is his wRC+ and WAR in the years that followed:

2010: 164, 6.8
2011: 147, 3.9
2012: 133, 3.3
2013: 112, 0.5
2014: 123, 2.7
2015: 114, 1.6
2016: 110, .8

That’s seven years of decline. It’s also the last time that Pujols was above replacement level as a hitter. 2016, folks! That’s 5 full seasons ago!

Since then, Pujols’ has produced just a .241/.290/.410 slash line, with a .297 wOBA, 85 wRC+ and -3.3 fWAR.

If you’re tempted to say, “well that line doesn’t look that bad”, please understand that only one qualified hitter in baseball produced a lower fWAR than Pujols during that stretch: Chris Davis.

It hasn’t all been bad for Pujols. Fans like to point his resuscitation with the Dodgers last season. In 200 plate appearances with the matchup-conscious Dodgers, Pujols muscled up for a .254/.300/.465 line with a 103 wRC+ and .321 wOBA.

For a few months, Pujols was … his old self? No. For a few months, Pujols was league average again while playing in a very controlled situation.

How significant are his 200 plate appearances with the Dodgers compared to the nearly 2800 PAs well-below-average PAs he has had overall since 2016? Not significant at all.

One could argue that Pujols is more likely to replicate his Dodgers production if the Cards were very careful in how they used Pujols, limiting him to DH-only against lefties. But then the club has to commit precious budget and roster spot to a 42-year-old who shouldn’t play the field and can only bat against a quarter of the league’s pitchers (lefties).

Hitting lefties is the club’s current strength. If the Cardinals started play today with their current roster, their bench would include just one left-handed hitter: Lars Nootbaar. Adding Pujols to it would kick slugging corner infielder/outfielder Juan Yepez to Memphis for another season. Yepez crushed lefties and righties last season in AAA, can play 4 defensive positions without embarrassing himself, and he’s only 23 years old.

In the offseason, the nostalgia for seeing Albert Pujols play for the Cardinals wins.

During the season? Once June comes and Pujols is replicating his usual sub-replacement level of production while Juan Yepez is replicating his usual elite-level of production for Memphis, the nostalgia won’t count for much.

If you want to disagree with me, just ask yourself how much love and goodwill nostalgia bought Matt Carpenter last season when he was struggling to sub-replacement level production in the same kind of controlled playing environment we’re suggesting for Pujols?

The winning move at DH for the Cardinals is to either stick with internal options – Juan Yepez looks like he was engineered in a lab to be the Cardinals’ future at DH – or go sign one of the half dozen or so proven slugging lefty DH’s still on the market.

Personally, I’ve loved watching Juan Yepez hit the baseball for Memphis and I think every one of you Cardinals fans will love watching him hit, too.

As always, thanks for reading. With no baseball, I’ll be watching curling today. Go Shuster and team USA!