When Albert Pujols signed with the Los Angeles Angels (at the time, “of Anaheim”) following the 2011 season, many St. Louis Cardinals fans, myself included, were a bit relieved. Baseball players, particularly in eras without rampant performance-enhancing drug use, tend to be worse in their thirties than in their twenties, and while Albert Pujols was still a near-MVP caliber player in 2011, his results had a noticeable drop-off from his previous ten years in St. Louis.
Regression was inevitable. All parties knew this at the time, including the Angels. And while Pujols signed a nearly quarter-billion dollar contract to play in Anaheim for the next decade, and such a contract was always risky, the team expected to get several years of highly productive play from the first baseman. Even in his least valuable season in St. Louis, Pujols was worth $30.1 million per FanGraphs. In his moderately disappointing debut season in Anaheim, Pujols was worth $23.4 million, nearly the average annual value on the contract and more than his actual 2012 salary.
But as is usually the case, the Angels expected Pujols to definitively exceed his value early in the contract while being relatively overpaid in the later years. But the regression of Albert Pujols in this, the sixth year of his ten-year contract with the Angels, is nearly unprecedented in Major League Baseball history.
Of the 958 batters in Major League Baseball this season, Albert Pujols ranks dead last in FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement.
One does not became “worst player in baseball” bad by being bad at one thing—it requires a comprehensive decline. And while Albert Pujols has suffered an offensive decline—his wRC+ presently stands at 80—the most jarring part of his decline has been his steep declines in the field and on the bases. Defensively, the only players in baseball who have been less valuable than Pujols have been Wil Myers and Khris Davis (the latter’s throwing troubles are well-documented, while Pujols’s negative value has something of a floor since a vast majority of his games have been at designated hitter). In terms of base-running, Pujols is the slowest runner in baseball this year. His inability to beat out anything resembling an infield hit has led to some infield alignments which are downright disrespectful.
The Astros are playing Albert Pujols to a) pull the ball and b) crawl to first base. pic.twitter.com/J9s4hED6gK— R.J. Anderson (@r_j_anderson) September 15, 2017
Albert Pujols was always, first and foremost, a hitter. But during his Cardinals heyday, he was a well-rounded player, and the second half of his career ought not obscure his historically great first half.
Before I continue, I just want to clarify something: Watching Albert Pujols be great at baseball is a treasured part of my baseball upbringing. I take zero joy in watching his precipitous decline and wish him all the best in games he plays against teams other than the Cardinals. I probably wouldn’t have signed with the Angels over the Cardinals, but I also grew up a Cardinals fan and recognize that my opinions are biased by my own experiences and as underpaid as he was in St. Louis, I hope he collects every penny he is owed in Los Angeles. Don’t let them shame you into passing up nine figures. They wouldn’t be giving you a raise if you outperformed your contract.
2017 Albert Pujols gives the Angels one of two undesirable options: play him at first base (which has been increasingly uncommon, due to his decreasing mobility) or play him at designated hitter (a by-definition premium offensive position being filled out by a below-average hitter is very rare, and Pujols is having a historically lackluster offensive season for the position). But in 2001, a key feature to Pujols was his versatility.
To be clear, Pujols was versatile in the way that Pete Rose was versatile—he wasn’t great defensively at third base nor left field nor right field, but that he was able to play the positions at all was valuable. He could fill in for the oft-injured Mark McGwire, Ray Lankford, or J.D. Drew, or he could slide into third base while Placido Polanco played at shortstop or second base. In a world without Barry Bonds, Pujols is a bona fide MVP candidate as a rookie.
For the next two seasons, after the Cardinals signed Tino Martinez, Pujols played mostly in left field. While Pujols was no Alex Gordon at the position, he was competent enough to allow the Cardinals to play Martinez at first base rather than a lesser-hitting left fielder with Pujols playing at first base.
And after a (slightly) below-average season on the bases in his rookie campaign of 2001, Pujols became a productive runner in his second and third seasons. He wasn’t a high-volume base thief, but he was efficient—2002 was the first of five consecutive seasons in which FanGraphs marked Albert Pujols as above-average. In 2002, Pujols wasn’t even particularly good at base-stealing efficiency (he stole two bases and was caught four times) but was good enough at “the little things” on the bases that he provided non-batting value.
In 2004, following the departure of Tino Martinez and without an obvious candidate to replace him, the Cardinals moved Albert Pujols to first base. On the surface, it seemed that the Cardinals were trying to hide Albert Pujols, and maybe they were, but for the next eight seasons, Albert Pujols was as good defensively as one could reasonably expect from anybody, much less one of the game’s premier hitters.
Had the organization not already employed Keith Hernandez two decades prior, Pujols would be regarded as the best defensive first baseman that St. Louis baseball fans have ever seen. Pujols won the Gold Glove twice, scoring positively by Ultimate Zone Rating from 2004 through 2010, and rating only barely below-average in 2011. Between 2002, the first season of UZR data, and 2011, the final season of Pujols in St. Louis, he was the best defensive first baseman in baseball—second place Mark Teixeira, who had more innings at the position, trailed Pujols by 10.5 runs saved and third-place Doug Mientkiewicz trailed by twenty-three runs.
Pujols reached his defensive peak between 2006 and 2008, ages 26 through 28, the point at which Pujols best combined relative youth and athleticism with an increased feel for a position he didn’t adopt full-time until his fourth season in Major League Baseball. 2007, in particular, was the gold standard. In the UZR era, no first baseman has had a finer defensive season by total runs saved. There are two ways to look at this: that Pujols had unsustainably strong defensive metrics aided in part by luck (true), or that Pujols took advantage of opportunities and that his true talent still suggest he was an incredibly gifted defensive first baseman (also true).
Without question, Albert Pujols was a hitter first, a fielder second, and a runner third. But that he was a complete player was what separated him from, say, Manny Ramirez—a great hitter and overall a very valuable player, but not quite to the first-ballot Hall of Fame echelon. Future generations will have highlights of Albert Pujols hitting the train track and such, but the nuance of a respectable fielder at a non-premium defensive position and solid base running with a pedestrian number of steals seems destined to be lost to history, especially as Pujols struggles mightily in both facets in the latter stage of his career. But the well-rounded greatness of Pujols deserves to be remembered.