We know how great Albert Pujols is.
After all, we were there to watch him at his best. From his rookie season when he shocked the league with 37 homers and over 7 fWAR. To his peak performance during the MV3 seasons of the mid-2000s, leading the Cardinals to multiple World Series appearances.
We saw the All-Star games. The Silver Slugger awards. The MVPs. Gold Gloves. Batting titles.
I would probably hit my self-imposed word count just by listing all the accolades he’s rightfully earned.
We know how great Albert Pujols is.
Because that was all in the past.
This seems like a great time to remind all of you about just how bad Albert Pujols was during his final few seasons with the Angels.
Go back to 2013. Yes, 2013. Just one full season after he left St. Louis with his new mega-contract in hand.
Pujols struggled through his first season of significant injury at the age of 33 (or so). He played in just 99 games and produced an extremely forgettable line of .258/.330/.437. That’s a 112 wRC+ and just .5 fWAR.
It was his first truly bad (for Albert) season in the majors. Instead of being a blip, however, it started a rather shocking trend. Over the next three seasons, the best Pujols could do was a 123 wRC+ and 2.7 fWAR.
Those were numbers he had never seen at that point in his career. In his first 11 seasons in the majors, all with the Cardinals, Pujols averaged an MVP-caliber .328/.420/.617 slash line with a 167 wRC+. His average fWAR per season was 7.4.
Pujols was falling off the proverbial cliff.
But he still had that mega-contract, which meant the Angels had to keep paying him and playing him, hoping that things would turn around.
It never did.
Believe it or not – and I know you’ll believe it because you watched it just as I did – Pujols actually got worse.
From 2017 through 2020, Pujols, a certain first-ballot Hall of Famer and one of the greatest players the game has ever seen, was below replacement level.
That’s a term most of you would be familiar with, but it helps prove my point to explain it again. “Replacement level” is a standard of production that any team could expect from any random AAA player. This season that’s players like Connor Capel or Kramer Robertson. Or, because position matters in “replacement level” conversations, it’s last year’s backup first base/designated hitter John Nogowski.
Albert Pujols was worse than that. Over 1842 plate appearances – far more than most replacement-level players see – Pujols had an 84 wRC+ and a -3.1 fWAR.
The only player worse than Pujols during this time frame was the equally over-paid, contract-locked Chris Davis with the Orioles.
Yeah… there was a rather long stretch where Albert Pujols was Chris Davis bad.
I understood that he was still getting paid and wasn’t going to forfeit all that cash, but I honestly wanted to see him retire just so he didn’t do too much damage to his legacy.
There was absolutely no reason whatsoever – statistically, emotionally, philosophically, hypothetically – to believe that Albert Pujols was anything except done. D. O. N. E. Done.
Have I made the point yet? No, not quite.
You can see why I didn’t give the Cardinals glowing reviews when they picked him up late in the offseason. There was every reason to believe his signing was primarily about getting fans to the ballpark. A walk-off-into-the-sunset tour for Pujols alongside Molina and Wainwright was a public relations and box office dream.
But would it help them win? Wainwright? Certainly. Molina? Doubtfully. Pujols? Not really.
Oh, sure, Pujols was waived by the Angels and then had a pretty decent stretch with the Dodgers last season. The Dodgers, smart franchise that they are, limited Pujols’ exposure and used him almost exclusively as a platoon player against lefty pitchers.
They also had a manager with a lot of experience using high-performance players in limited roles. They were committed to their analytical process. They had a team full of stars. Albert Pujols was just another guy, and they could treat him as such, historical performance notwithstanding. They had no financial reason to get his name on the lineup card.
The Cardinals, though? With a rookie manager? With a club that as of very recently had a coaching staff who weren’t too keen on listening and applying the information given to them by their analytics department?
The Cardinals aren’t the Dodgers. Not in personnel. Not in philosophy. Not in practice. It was easier to imagine Pujols getting used more like he did with the Angels. You know, when he was terrible? Playing him that way might sell tickets early in the season but it wouldn’t sell anyone on their chances in the division.
Locking him into a roster spot would also push potentially productive young players like Juan Yepez or Nolan Gorman to the bench or off the roster entirely, delaying their development.
Considering all the factors, the recent history, the state of the roster, the team’s needs, their recent inability to utilize platoon options, and their future, there was little chance that this Albert Pujols experiment would go measurably well. There were a lot of reasons to believe this would just get ugly for everyone.
Ok, now I think I’ve made the point. Haven’t I? I think so.
That’s 784 words about just how bad Pujols was supposed to be this season and just how questionable of a decision it was to bring him back to St. Louis.
And none of it ended up mattering. Not a single word of what I just wrote has mattered at all.
Because Albert Pujols does magical things in St. Louis wearing a Cardinals uniform. And apparently, it doesn’t matter if he is 21 or 42.
As of Monday afternoon, Pujols has appeared in 71 of the Cardinals’ 120 games. He has 227 PAs. He has a .273/.348/.515 slash line, which is good enough for a 141 wRC+. He’s been worth .9 fWAR on the season.
(Update: He’s likely only added to these totals with Monday’s homerun! Insane.)
It’s his first positive fWAR season since 2016. It’s his highest fWAR since 2015. It’s his highest wRC+ since 2011 (147) with the Cardinals.
While Pujols hasn’t quite been his Hall-of-Fame-caliber self this season, he hasn’t been that far off. And that’s pretty amazing, considering his age and recent history.
The image above shows a search for players age 42 or higher since 1900, sorted by fWAR and limited to at least 200 plate appearances. There are a few incredible performances here.
Luke Appling produced 5.2 fWAR with the White Sox with a quality all-around season.
Carlton Fisk was still performing in 1990, also with the Sox. He did it again in ’91. Is Fisk the best (non-Bonds) “old hitter” in history? Arguably so.
Of course, the aforementioned Barry Bonds shows up on the list, with 28 homers and a 27.7% walk rate in ’07.
Ichiro Suzuki hit .291 for the Miami Marlins in 2016. I had completely forgotten that he played for them.
The Cardinals’ Stan Musial was still swinging it in ’63 but was below average by that age.
Julio Franco warrants a mention. He was still a plus hitter at age 45 with the Braves! (Maybe he’s the best “old hitter” in baseball history.)
And then there’s Pujols. 12th on the list in terms of fWAR production by players over the age of 42 since 1900. Not too shabby! He has one of the highest wRC+ totals and slugging%’s on the list and he could easily climb higher up in the rankings if he keeps hitting as he has since the All-Star Break. (Narrator: And he has!)
How’s he doing it?
You know by now. Pujols can still hit left-handed pitching. And I mean really hit left-handers.
This image has production by right-handed batters against left-handed pitchers during the season. That’s it. No qualifiers. No sorting by position. No allowances made. Just righties versus lefties.
Paul Goldschmidt, who kills everyone regardless of which hand they throw, is first on the list with an amazing 276 wRC+. wRC+ is on a scale of 100, so, yes, Goldy is 176 points above average against lefties! Say it with me: M.V.P.
Then there’s not-quite-so-MVP candidate Austin Riley.
Then it’s 42-year-old hasn’t-been-above-replacement-level-in-nearly-a-decade Albert Pujols with a 225. 125% above average against lefties. The third-best player in the league against this split.
Pujols has 98 PAs against lefty hurlers, just less than half his season total. Astute readers can probably guess, then, what his production is against righties… but I won’t mention it because this half of the article is supposed to be extra happy and positive.
Simply put, Pujols is having one of the best split performances in baseball this year and that’s helping him produce one of the best old-man seasons in baseball history.
Do you prefer Statcast numbers?
There are several things I could point to as underlying keys to his statistical success. The one that jumps off the page is an 11.5% barrel rate. What does that mean? It means that 11.5% of his struck balls have a very high chance of being an extremely productive hit – most likely a homerun but at least a double.
He’s getting those barrels off fastballs, which should be a problem for him at his advanced age and with his history. Even though the percentage of fastballs that he is seeing is well down this season, when he does see one from a lefty, he crushes it. His average exit velocity off fastballs is 93.2 mph. Wow. His slugging% on the pitch is .557.
He’s been particularly good lately when the Cardinals have needed a legendary performance from a legendary player to separate themselves in the division standings.
Since the All-Star Break, Pujols has a .449/.500/.939 slash line, which is good for a 1.439 OPS. That’s a 298 wRC+ in a small sample size of 58 PAs. 34 of those have come against lefties and he has a 399 wRC+ against them.
I would call those “video game numbers”, but you’re not going to see that kind of performance in video games either.
Albert Pujols with the Cardinals in 2022 is doing Albert Pujols with the Cardinals kinds of things.
And I couldn’t be happier to be as wrong as I was about many of the points I was making before the season started.
What’s the takeaway here?
I could say something about how “you never know” when it comes to baseball analytics. I could talk about trends and history and sample sizes and norms and outliers.
But that’s just silly.
Yes, what Albert Pujols is doing is statistically improbable. Oh sure, I know many of you will say “I predicted this would happen”. Uh… you predicted Pujols would have a 399 wRC+ against lefties in the second half of the season? Sorry, friend, but no.
More of you probably thought that Pujols would be “pretty good” or “revitalized by his return to St. Louis”. Those takes were much fairer. But they were still just fan(atical) hopes based more on fairy magic and rainbow dust than on statistical mathematics or historical probability models.
That’s the thing, though isn’t it? That’s the real kicker here.
What does greatness care about probability? Why would brilliance concern itself with the math?
When something is amazing, that’s what makes it amazing. Or pick your adjective. Incredible. Extraordinary. Virtually unprecedented.
By definition, those amazing performances sit outside of the normal models of likelihood and expectancy or they wouldn’t be amazing.
You know that 2+2 equals 4. But then, suddenly, for a brief period of time, if 2+2 starts to equal 5, you stop and take notice!
Greatness goes beyond the means and modes, the models and spreadsheets, the historical trends and projection systems.
Albert Pujols is unquestionably great. He is one of the best players in the history of the game. Improbably so, considering his background and history. That’s been his story since the day he was drafted in the 13th round.
And he’s having an unquestionably great 2022 season under the most improbable of circumstances.
So, throw everything we think we know out the window. And instead, just enjoy what we get to see. Something truly, authentically amazing!
Celebrate it. Buy those tickets to go see it. Stop what you’re doing every time he comes to the plate.
Because we’ll never see another player as great as Albert Pujols in St. Louis again.