Albert Pujols: The Machine returns
By Alex Vetter
2015 is the year of the comeback. From Tommy John returns from Matt Harvey and Jose Fernandez, to a now neck-pain-free Prince Fielder, to an even more improbable Alex Rodriguez resurrection following his season-long suspension, all of these players have produced at an incredibly high level.
But one bounce-back player in particular has stood out more than anyone: Albert Pujols, The Machine. He had disappointed up until this year after signing one of the largest contracts in baseball history in 2012 at ten years, 240 million dollars. In his first three years, he only showed glimpses of the player he once was. Now, his stardom has returned.
From his rookie season in 2001 until 2010, Pujols was the best player in baseball. He won three MVP awards and finished second in voting four times. In those ten seasons, he averaged 8.1 WAR, and the lowest total of games he logged in any one season was 143. In eight of those ten seasons, his OPS was over 1.000. Even in his "worst" season during that stretch, 2007, he hit 32 homers, had 103 RBIs, scored 99 runs, and hit .327. He was the king of baseball. Pitchers feared him. But then came his last season in St. Louis…
2011 was the first year in Pujols’ career that he did not hit above .300. The Cardinals won the World Series that year, despite it being Pujols’ “worst” year to date. In Game 3 of the World Series, Pujols hit 3 HRs, tying a World Series record. He set himself up for a gigantic contract in the offseason, and obtained just that when he left St. Louis and signed a ten-year deal with the Angels. That’s when the adversity began.
In 2012, Pujols had career lows in AVG, OBP, OPS, and SLG. He finally showed that he was, in fact, a human. Many media pundits decreed that it was the end of the Pujols era, despite him being just 32-years-old. The Angels finished a disappointing 3rd in the AL West that year. But Pujols’ poor 2012 was hidden by the emergence of Mike Trout as a star. For the first time in his career, Pujols’ was not the best player on his team.
2013 came, and Pujols got hurt. He played just 99 games that year, which was the first time he ever played less than 143 games. He hit just .258, .027 points worse than his previous season low. The pundits continued clamoring about how this contract was one of the worst in MLB history. Once again, the Angels finished 3rd in the AL West. Pujols was declining rapidly, and Trout was rising quickly. With eight years left on his massive contract, the Angels needed Pujols to play at a high level once again.
2014 provided us a glimpse that there was still some life left in Pujols. He played in 159 games last year and hit 28 HRs, had 105 RBIs, and hit .272. These numbers were nowhere close to where he once was, but they certainly provided the Angels hope that Pujols could still be an above-average productive player. With or without Pujols at his best, Angles fans still saw stardom: Mike Trout won the AL MVP and cemented himself as the best player in baseball. The Angels finished with the best record in baseball, but got swept in the first round by the Royals.
Now it’s 2015, and Pujols is 35-years-old. For the first time since 2010, Pujols made the All-Star Team. He’s not back to his career average of .315, but he is showing the world that he is still one of the best players, currently leading all of MLB with 29 HRs. He and Trout have developed into one of the sport's best duos. After trailing the Astros in the West for most of the season, the Angels now have a two game lead and the third best record in baseball. Pujols isn’t the best player anymore, but he is the player the Angels needed.
Pujols has been in Mike Trout's shadow for his four years with the Angels. While the best player in baseball declined, Trout took his place on the mantle. While on the Cardinals, Pujols was the best, but he never drew extra attention to himself. He never did anything to create controversy. He played the game how he wanted to and that helped him become the best. Trout has clearly learned from Pujols in the manner that he handles the spotlight. Trout is out there to have fun, win, and be the best that he can be.
The Angels are paying 240 million dollars over the course of ten seasons (6+ remaining) to a former super star. But through his struggles, he’s been a teacher for the best player in the game. Pujols’ impact on the sport isn’t done yet: it will last for years to come.
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