Why Albert Pujols still is a dangerous hitter in his 17th MLB season

TEMPE, Ariz.—The steady crack and whistle of line drives cuts through the quiet of an empty stadium on a gray Sunday morning. The master percussionist Albert Pujols is hard at the usual cacophony of his work. The Pujols swing is at once familiar and nostalgic: knees flexed, hands churning in tight rhythm, he waits cobra-like, then lifts his front heel slightly, gets that front foot down early, and swings as flat and as square through a baseball as a hammer into a nail. It is an economy of menace.

The brutality of it is all the more impressive when you learn Pujols is swinging a custom-made weighted bat, checking in at almost 40 ounces.

Once the template of swings, Pujols’ stroke has become the flip phone of swings. Young hitters, groomed on the rocket propulsion science of modern hitting, dip their hands, raise their front knee and chase the optimum launch angle to keep a baseball airborne, not to have it whistle on a line. They willingly pay the heavy tariff of strikeouts attached to such a pursuit.

“I remember since I was a little boy, that’s one thing that I hated: striking out,” Pujols says.

As his line drives gouge like box cutters through the gaps of Tempe Diablo Stadium, Pujols, 37, attends to his business of being one of the greatest pure hitters who ever lived in stunning quietude. Despite nearing the completion of climbing two of baseball’s Seven Summits—600 home runs and 3,000 hits, something only Hank Aaron and Willie Mays have done without PEDs—Pujols is an oddly forgotten figure in a world obsessed with what’s next rather than what is.

It might surprise you to hear that Pujols needs only nine home runs for 600. The Los Angeles Angels designated hitter needs 175 hits for 3,000. (He had 172 hits in a season as recently as 2014.)

“I mean, I’m not going to say I’m going to ignore it, because it’s not fair to say,” Pujols says. “It’s a blessing and a lot of hard work. At the same time, I try not to think about it. God has given me a special career so far and I’m still playing and I want to finish strong in the five years that I have [on a 10-year contract]. Then I can have the time to look back and see what I have done in this game.

“I caught a lot of crap [in 2014] when a lot people were like, ‘Oh, 500 [homers] approaching,’ and I wasn’t talking too much. That’s not me. It’s about my team, because what I do and what I have done—I won a championship—that’s because I put my team first, and I think that’s the main thing.

The quiet that surrounds his greatness indeed is partly of his own making. Pujols attacks his job with the ethic and grim fastidious of a coal miner. Managed exclusively in St. Louis by Tony La Russa, their granite faces of determination defined The Cardinal Way for 11 seasons. No National League team won more games than St. Louis in those years. Improvisational jazz it was not.

The odd quiet, though, also owes itself to the media narrative of The Contract. Angels owner Arte Moreno signed Pujols to a 10-year, $240 million deal in December 2011. He did not do so thinking that in 2021 a 42-year-old Pujols would be worth the $30 million he will be paying him. He made a $240 million investment in an iconic player—the Aaron of our generation—and amortized it over a decade. Moreno’s thinking was that as revenues and payroll grew, Pujols’ salary would become a smaller chunk of the team’s expenditure, that with an extended prime through the first half of the contract Pujols might help Los Angeles win a world championship, and that Pujols would, to borrow from the franchise’s nickname, provide a halo effect. Pujols would make the Angels relevant (especially in Southern California, where the Dodgers under embattled owner Frank McCourt were under Chapter 11 and MLB financial control) and become a rare franchise icon. None of the 217 players in the Hall of Fame sport an Angels cap on their plaque.

(At the time Pujols signed, by the way, a fellow named Mike Trout was a .220 hitter after 40 major league games.)

When the world was watching closely because of The Contract, Pujols hit .194 with no home runs in his first 27 games as an Angel. His second season with the team was cut to 99 games because of injuries.

Sixty percent of restaurants fail in their first year. Seventy-nine percent of Broadway plays don’t make money, lasting an average of just 131 dates. First impressions are powerful. And so a meme quickly crystallized around Pujols as an Angel: the contract was an albatross and Pujols was a shell of himself.

In reality, here is what has happened after Pujols went West: he has aged the way baseball players normally age. He was not going to be better, or even as good, in his mid-30s with Los Angeles as he was in his mid-20s with St. Louis. That kind of fairy-tale career arc curbed once testing for steroids began in 2004.

By fixating on money and memes, we miss the hitting brilliance of Pujols. Over the past three seasons, for instance, Pujols has hit 99 home runs and driven in 319 runs. Only four other sluggers in baseball were that productive: Edwin Encarnacion, Josh Donaldson, Nolan Arenado and David Ortiz.

In baseball history, only three other players have matched Pujols’ home run and RBI totals in their age 34 through 36 seasons without a connection to steroids: Babe Ruth, Johnny Mize and Andres Galarraga.

 

As Pujols ages, he draws fewer walks and pulls the ball more (especially on the ground), so his value is tied less to on-base percentage and batting average and more to slugging. Our advanced understanding of statistics reveals his decline, even though Pujols has never had even one season with an OPS+ worse than last year’s 114. Our Hank Aaron has become more like Chris Davis than Hammerin’ Hank. What makes Pujols special as a slugger, however, is that he does not sacrifice strikeouts for power, not even as velocity increases, bullpens grow more specialized and strikeouts have hit record levels 11 years running.

With a man on third base, you still want Pujols, not Davis, taking the at-bat. Over the past two seasons, Pujols has hit more than 30 homers with 75 or fewer strikeouts twice. All the rest of major league players combined have done it just once (Adrian Beltre last year).

Pujols has never struck out 100 times in a season. Twenty-seven players have hit 500 home runs. Only three of them—none born in the past 80 years—were tougher to strike out than Pujols, who has whiffed in 9.98% of his plate appearances: Ted Williams (7.24%), Mel Ott (7.90%) and Aaron (9.92%).

Pujols is a career .309 hitter (21% better than league average) who hits .247 with two strikes (40% better than league average). Since 1988, when pitch data is available on baseball-reference.com, nobody else with 400 homers is within 13 points of Pujols’ two-strike batting average.

“I really don’t change my approach,” he says. “My approach stays the same. A lot of guys like to crouch, which I do sometimes when my legs are feeling good. But for the most part, I say if I’m going to go down I want to go down with my A swung. I don’t want to go down with my B swing. I feel a lot of guys feel like they have a different approach. They choke up on the bat and defend the strike zone. I feel like that can do the opposite to you. Try to play pepper with the ball instead of putting a good swing on it and makes you chase more balls because you’re afraid of the strikeout.

“I just feel real comfortable with two strikes. I feel no pressure. Actually I feel like I’m a better hitter with two strikes if you break down my career with two strikes. I mean, I feel really, really comfortable with two strikes. I feel like the pressure is still on the pitcher and if he makes a mistake I’m ready to go.

“I also feel like striking out and not putting the ball in play you’re hurting the team twice because when you strike out it’s an automatic out. But if you put the ball in play and he makes an error, even if there are two outs you can start a rally. It’s like a walk. Obviously, a walk doesn’t count as an at-bat as it does with an error, but you know what, you can’t be selfish. They make an error because you put the ball in play and then you score five runs, you’re helping the team because you put the ball in play. So that’s kind of my thinking about the whole thing. The more you can put the ball in play the more chances you’re giving your team to win.”

Before advanced statistics, stars aging between 34 and 36 with similar Triple Crown numbers as Pujols (.261, 99, 319) were venerated: Mike Schmidt (.281, 106, 318), Reggie Jackson (.275, 95, 266) and Harmon Killebrew (.253, 95, 306). The RBI has since been devalued, seen more as a statistic of opportunity. But Pujols’ skill at making contact in those spots deserves special notice. Even last year, at 36, and even with his many chances while hitting behind Trout, Pujols was a much tougher out with runners in scoring position than more acclaimed hitters with similar opportunities. Pay particular attention to his ability to put the ball in play with runners in scoring position:

PLAYER PLATE APPEARANCES BATTING AVERAGE STRIKEOUTS
Carlos Correa 209 .288 37
Albert Pujols 208 .309 19
Jose Abreu 207 .294 39
Edwin Encarnacion 198 .250 45

Pujols is a career .321 hitter with runners in scoring position (11 points better than his career average) with a reduced strikeout rate (8.1%).

No one can make the case that Pujols is not a diminished hitter at age 37. He hits fewer of those ringing doubles, he has lost enough of his opposite-field skills to frequently face shifts, and his lack of speed and his frequency of pulled grounders invite double plays. But as such diminution becomes the focus, he still represents a threat in the batter’s box with his tremendous bat-to-ball skills.

He is only halfway through his contract with the Angels. Nobody, not even Moreno, could think the second half of the deal would be a bargain.The Angels never have won a playoff game in the five seasons they’ve had Trout and Pujols on the same team. In those years, not coincidentally, their pitching staff has ranked 7th, 11th, 6th, 6th, and 12th in ERA. Their farm system has grown fallow. They should be better this year than last year’s 74 wins, but not by much, and only if a thin pitching staff enjoys remarkable health.

Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY Sports

You want to talk bad contracts? Moreno gave Josh Hamilton $124 million to ride shotgun with Pujols for five years, but the first two were so bad the owner paid Hamilton $63 million to go away. Trout, Pujols and Hamilton were three of the most exciting hitters this century—just not at the same time.

“It’s been frustrating,” Pujols says of his five years in Anaheim. “At times we had some good teams. I say frustrating because we haven’t accomplished what we came here for, and that’s to win a championship. I think the front office has done a great job putting a team together for us to go out and compete to win. Obviously because of injuries we had in the past, especially last year, we haven’t done it. Hopefully I get another shot at the World Series and bring a championship back to the city of Anaheim. That’s my main goal.”

Pujols underwent foot surgery last December, a procedure that may leave Opening Day in doubt for him—it’s too early to say, though he said he has ramped up his agility training and feels good. He has played at least 152 games in four of his five seasons with the Angels, while averaging 29.2 home runs per season—down from the 39 homers he averaged in his last five seasons with the Cardinals. Even if his power declines at the same rate over these next five seasons, Pujols still would finish his career with 700 home runs.

He will go down as one of the greatest hitters who ever played this game. He is a career .309 hitter who is nine homers away from 600 and five years away from 700. The man can still hit. Only the fanfare is gone. In his long twilight, Pujols keeps pounding away at the craft he loves, as the sound of milestones falling becomes not a roar but a murmur.

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