“The best parody is the parody of self.” - Mr. Bean.
This past Sunday evening the Cardinals’ offense exploded against the San Francisco Giants, earning an important series win against a quality opponent from the West Coast.
The game was out of hand by the 7th inning, and with the team’s bullpen in need of a breather, rookie manager Oliver “Oli” Marmol made a bold move: he used the club’s designated hitter, Albert Pujols, as a pitcher to get the final three outs.
The outing did not go well. Pujols allowed 3 hits and 4 runs in this 1 inning, giving up 2 homers and a walk. He did not strike anyone out.
It’s possible that the historical gravity of the moment got the best of the hitter turned hurler.
After all, with this appearance, Pujols matched only George Herman “Babe” Ruth, Jr. – a two-way slugger for the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees – as the only players in baseball history to have 600 or more home runs and an inning pitched. Third on the list is another Red Sock – James “Jimmie” Emory Foxx – who only managed 534 homers, but does have Pujols beat in cumulative innings thrown.
What about team records? Stanley Frank “Stan” Musial only has 475 home runs but there is no recorded instance of him taking the mound. Pack Robert “Bob” Gibson has the innings totals but wasn’t able to get enough plate appearances to challenge Pujols or Musial in home runs. Since both players are now deceased, neither Mr. Musial nor Mr. Gibson will be able to add to their team totals, God keep their souls.
Adam Wainwright, however, is not dead. He has thrown more than one inning – 2415.2 to be precise. He has 10 home runs so far in his career. As an active player, it’s possible he could catch Ruth and Pujols in the record books if given enough plate appearances.
While some fans might think of this outing as nothing more than a fun moment on national television for a team legend and a good way to fill some innings, we must consider the possibility that the Cardinals intend this to be more.
After all, his rare ability to play multiple positions was one of the attributes that the Cardinals valued in Albert Pujols when he first transitioned from the minors to the majors in 2001.
Pujols was a third baseman in his one brief season in the Cardinals’ minor league system. Anthony “Tony” La Russa, the Cardinals veteran manager in 2001, valued versatility and positional flexibility in his roster makeup. Even though Pujols was exclusively a third baseman for Peoria, Potomac, and Memphis, respectively of the Midwest, Carolina, and Pacific Coast Leagues, La Russa played him in both right and left fields, but not center field (which is in between right and left) as well as third base and first base. If you’re unfamiliar with a baseball field, first base and third base are on opposite corners of the infield diamond.
During his career in St. Louis, La Russa would also give Pujols innings at second base, which is the top corner of the diamond, and shortstop, a strange position with no base where the fielder stands between second and third and does backflips before the game.
Because of their broad usage of Pujols during his career, it’s clear that the Cardinals organization value the positional flexibility that Albert Pujols offers – something that can not be said of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the Los Angeles Dodgers of Los Angeles, who had previously employed Pujols, but only played him as a first baseman and at Designated Hitter (a batter in the lineup who does not play the field presumably because they forgot their glove at home.)
Perhaps when Pujols became a free agent after 2021, the Cardinals not only saw in him the chance to fill the designated hitter’s slot as a right-handed hitter but also an opportunity to use him all over the field, just as they had in his previous tenure in St. Louis.
We caught a glimpse of the Cardinals’ unique plan early in the season. Back in April, after the starting catcher made the final out in an inning, it was Albert Pujols who caught the warm-up tosses for the pitcher during a commercial break.
It’s easy to draw conclusions from there. Perhaps this signaled the Cardinals’ desire to have him serve as a catcher in future games? Almost certainly!
Entering this season, catcher and pitcher were the only two infield positions that Pujols has not played in his extensive career. Logically, it makes sense to get Pujols experience at both catcher and pitcher to further maximize his documented positional flexibility, which the Cardinals have obviously wanted to take advantage of.
I’m surprised the Dodgers, known for their creativity in roster usage, didn’t think of this first!
Instead, it was rookie manager Oliver Marmol of the Cardinals who developed and executed this bold strategy. Pujols pitched on Sunday night. I expect him to catch sometime soon – possibly during one or both of the doubleheader games on Tuesday.
The problem with this approach is that while Pujols has and can play everywhere on the field – except centerfield – the question we must ask is “can he play them well?”
Here we must challenge what the Cardinals’ manager and coaches see in the 42-year-old third baseman/first baseman/second baseman/shortstop/left fielder/right fielder/designated hitter/likely future catcher/relief pitcher and why they were willing to use him in a ninth-inning situation against one of the better teams in the National League?
Might Pujols want to add “closer” to his already lengthy career resume?
Let’s look at the numbers.
In his one-inning outing, Albert Pujols threw 27 pitches. His repertoire was unusual. Baseball Savant reports that Pujols “relies on 3 pitches”. He threw 18 sliders – 14 to right-handed batters and four to left-handed batters – at an average velocity of 62.3 mph. He also threw 8 curveballs – 6 to righties and 2 to lefties – at 53.3 mph.
He threw 1 changeup at 64.4 mph. In small sample sizes like this, Statcast can mislabel pitches. Since his one changeup was actually the hardest pitch he threw, that was likely a fastball. At the same time, it had the most horizontal break of any of his pitches – 11.1 inches. The next time he throws we should be able to further refine this data and more precisely label this pitch type. As he builds innings this season, the data will become more and more accurate.
It is odd that Pujols would not throw a fastball. His breaking/offspeed to fastball ratio of 100% would be the highest in baseball if he had enough innings to qualify for league records. However, the league has been trending toward an increasing number of breaking pitches and fewer fastballs. Percentages of fastballs thrown league-wide are now below 50% for the first time in Statcast history.
It looks like Pujols is already a few decades ahead of the curve!
This surely is a factor in Marmol wanting to give him time on the mound.
Of course, the rate of pitches thrown only matters if the pitches themselves are quality in terms of both location and spin.
Here is the heat map for Pujols’ pitches:
Pujols primarily locates his slider on the edges of the zone inside to right-handers. He has trouble controlling it on the outer half, missing frequently. His slider tends to drift high. He did give up a home run on his slider, and his wOBA against the pitch is .900. That’s probably too high. But his expected batting average on his sliders was only .252 and his expected wOBA was only .525, which is .400 points below .900! So, Pujols’ slider played better than his actual results, which is very encouraging.
His curveball has a different shape and sat closer to the bottom of the zone and a few feet below. It has a 12-6 break, with 78.1 inches of vertical movement but only 5.4 inches of horizontal break. This horizontal break is 18% below average. At 56.4 mph, it’s also significantly slower than the average curve league-wide. His expected batting average against his curve was .390. With poor vertical movement and poor horizontal movement and poor velocity and poor location, he probably needs a little more work to better refine this pitch. A few side sessions in the bullpen ought to straighten this issue out.
Spin was also an issue for Pujols. He generated 1634 rpm on his slider and just 1528 on his curve.
If he does want to work toward becoming a late-inning reliever, he’ll have to generate more spin. Ryan Helsley, for example, spins his slider at 2452 rpm and is currently one of the best-rated relievers in the game. Adam Wainwright spins his curve at 2702 rpm, and despite his low homerun total, some consider him a pretty good player.
With a little more practice, Pujols might be able to get closer to those kinds of spin levels, but he’ll have to work hard.
Lastly, velocity isn’t all that important for breaking pitches. A major league pitcher will struggle to survive in Major League Baseball if he can’t throw a fastball hard. However, since Pujols doesn’t throw a fastball at all, that doesn’t apply to him. More velocity on his breaking and offspeed pitches would help him generate more spin. However, it might hurt his location, since hard-throwing pitchers tend to show less control than weak-throwing pitchers.
In conclusion, the Cardinals have always valued the positional flexibility that Albert Pujols offers and they clearly have plans to expand that flexibility this season. He still has more work to put in, but if he can get a few outings under his belt, not feel the pressure of making history, develop 1000 rpm more spin on his breaking pitches, improve his location, add 30-40 mph of velocity, and consider throwing a fastball just to keep hitters on their toes, he should be able to become a quality late-inning reliever.
Mostly, though, he needs to just not try to do too much, which is the key to baseball success in life.
If you would like to read more about this subject, you can do so at the following link.
Hopefully, we’ll see Albert Pujols back on the mound again soon and likely behind the plate, too, and he’ll become the quality high-leverage reliever that Oli Marmol imagines he can become.