Albert Pujols' successful debut shows why Dodgers signed him
By Pedro Moura
FOX Sports MLB Writer
The Dodgers reached out to the recently released Albert Pujols on Thursday, before they experienced their most recent rash of injuries.
By all indications, the pitch then was for the 41-year-old to become a bench bat. Then shortstop Corey Seager went on the injured list with a broken hand, outfielder A.J. Pollock went back onto it with an aggravated hamstring strain, and utilityman Chris Taylor needed a couple of days to nurse a sore wrist.
And so, up stepped the .198-hitting Pujols for his Dodgers debut Monday as the club’s first baseman and oldest cleanup hitter ever. Max Muncy, who for the first time as a Dodger had been focusing almost all of his energy on playing first base, slid over to second. Gavin Lux moved from second base to shortstop. For the foreseeable future, manager Dave Roberts updated the plan: Pujols will play first base with some regularity.
When the Los Angeles Angels cut Pujols earlier this month, they said it was because he wanted an everyday role. He insisted Monday that was not the case and argued that he hadn’t expected to receive as much early-season playing time as he had in Anaheim. But he had told reporters last month that he expected to play every day there.
Now, with the Dodgers, the two sides say they are in agreement on Pujols’ role and, it seems, in agreement that it will be fluid. Pujols declined to detail what exactly he heard from Roberts and president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, but he made clear that he is fine with it.
"When a veteran player understands and accepts their role," Roberts said, "they can thrive."
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It’s easy to envision the ideal situation for Pujols to thrive as a pinch hitter: a late inning, a left-hander pitching, a run needed and baserunners on second and/or third. He is susceptible to ground-ball double plays, but he is good at advancing runners when those are out of the question.
Since 2019, Pujols has batted 50 times with a runner on third and fewer than two outs and 33 times with a runner on second and no outs. In both situations, he has advanced the runner 58% of the time. The league averages are 51% and 55%. The 2021 Dodgers are pacing the sport in getting runners to third with fewer than two outs, but they’re getting them home at the second-worst rate, only 41% of the time. They’ve advanced runners from second 46% of the time, seventh-worst.
Situational hitting is the only area of Pujols’ game that has improved with age. It is also the most obvious area where he can help the Dodgers.
"When you have a big spot and you need to move the ball forward, he’s got a nose for that better than any player that I can remember seeing over the last 15, 20 years," Friedman said. "His ability to move the ball forward, drive in key runs, is real."
Pujols has retained that ability in part because even now, at his advanced age, he puts the ball in play, striking out only on occasion. That has not been enough to make his overall offensive profile valuable, but the Dodgers believe there are underlying measures to his play this year that point to potential improvement. According to Statcast, Pujols' average exit velocity is harder than it has been in five years. He is barreling baseballs more often. In a small sample, he is hitting left-handed pitching.
"We feel like his body, his swing, the efficiency in his swing, is better than it has been in the past," Friedman said. "I think he talked about how much healthier he feels right now. And he’s impacting balls. His ability to still impact the ball is something that, obviously, will only make him that much more productive offensively."
That remains to be seen. Pujols has continued to time fastballs well as he has aged, and this year, opponents have caught on. They’re throwing him 20% fewer than a year ago and replacing them with breaking balls, which have troubled him.
Maybe the Dodgers can find spots to maximize his skills, against fastball-heavy lefties or in situations that call for a medium-length fly ball. After an ovation from Dodger Stadium fans, Pujols swung at the first pitch he saw as a Dodger, a cutter up in the zone. He hit it high and hard – 101 mph – but only 322 feet. With a runner on third, it would've been perfect. As it were, it ended the first inning of the Dodgers’ game against the Diamondbacks.
Two innings later, "The Machine" stepped up to bat with runners on the corners. He fell behind, no balls to two strikes. Madison Bumgarner’s third pitch was a well-located cutter, but Pujols put his bat on the ball. It escaped the infield, and the Dodgers had their all-important second run in what was ultimately a 3-1 win.
In Pujols' Dodger debut, he supplied exactly what the team envisioned.
Pedro Moura is the national baseball writer for FOX Sports. He most recently covered the Dodgers for three seasons for The Athletic. Previously, he spent five years covering the Angels and Dodgers for the Orange County Register and Los Angeles Times. More previously, he covered his alma mater, USC, for ESPNLosAngeles.com. The son of Brazilian immigrants, he grew up in the Southern California suburbs. Follow him on twitter at @pedromoura.