The lost years of Pujols

Albert Pujols used to be amazing

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Albert Pujols is about to finish his fifth year with the Los Angeles Angels. Fifth year. It does not seem possible that he left the St. Louis Cardinals that long ago, but he did. It has been so long that there is now a generation of young baseball fans — probably just about every fan 13 and younger — who know him only as this, a cautionary tale against big contracts, an overpaid designated hitter in the middle of the lineup for a going-nowhere Los Angeles Angels team. That’s the shame of it. Albert Pujols was amazing.

Before we get into that, though, we should first get the sad stuff out of the way: Albert Pujols is no longer a great, good or even average baseball player — and he probably won’t ever be again. Yes, sure, there will be an effort by some to say Pujols is actually having a pretty good year because, you know, RBIs. He has 100 of them as of August 26, just one off the American League lead, which means he could end up with 120 or so by year’s end. He could lead the American League. We are so conditioned to think of RBIs as a meaningful statistic that it seems illogical that someone could put up 120 RBIs and have a bad year. But that’s the case with Pujols.

He has all these RBIs for two simple reasons:

1. He comes to the plate with more runners on base than any player in baseball — and it isn’t even close. It’s nice to hit behind Mike Trout, who leads the league in on-base percentage. It’s also nice to have Kole Calhoun and Yunel Escobar hitting in front of you because they both are getting on base this year, too. As of the moment, Pujols has come to the plate with 428 runners on base, 22 more than second-place Anthony Rizzo and 50 more than the next-closest guy in the American League, Carlos Correa.

2. Pujols does still swat the occasional homer (he’s got 24 of them), and he has timed his hits pretty well. Sixteen of his 24 homers are with runners on base. He’s hitting .310 with men on base, .200 without. You can chalk this up to his clutch hitting abilities if you are in that camp (though last year he hit better with the bases empty). But the larger point is that if you took one of a half-dozen Triple-A sluggers, put them in the middle of that Angels lineup and kept them there every game no matter how badly they hit, they would rack up plenty of RBIs.

When you look past RBIs, it’s pretty bleak. Pujols can no longer play the field. He can no longer run the bases. He doesn’t walk anymore. He doesn’t hit line drives anymore. He makes a lot of soft outs. His slugging numbers are down. He has more double-play grounders than doubles.

The Angels and everyone else should have seen this coming, of course. Pujols is 36 years old. And 36-year-old baseball players, for the most part, are done. We tend not to think about it this way; we tend to believe that most good players aren’t really done until they are 39 or 40. But it just isn’t so.

Why do we continue to believe that players age better than they do? There are a lot of reasons, of course, some of them psychological: It’s hard for our minds to get around the idea that a player can be really good YESTERDAY and be completely shot TODAY. We do understand this in football, probably because of the violence. Nobody was really all that surprised that, say, LaDainian Tomlinson was otherworldly at 27 years old (1,815 rushing yards, 5.2 yards per carry, an NFL-record 31 touchdowns), somewhat less great at 28, barely average at 29 and expendable at 30. We get that it happens that way in football, especially for running backs.

But in baseball, we just continue wanting to believe that guys play well until their late 30s. Bill James brings up another reason why the age illusion in baseball is so powerful, one that I had not considered before.

Think now about baseball players between 35 and 40. Who do you see?

Well, first thing, you probably see David Ortiz, who is having a ridiculous year. He leads the league in doubles, slugging and OPS. He’s hitting baseballs harder than anyone else in the game. It’s awe-inspiring. And he’s 40.

Then you might see Jose Bautista, beat up, struggling, looking close to the end.

Adrian Beltre at 37 is still a phenomenon; this guy is a first-ballot, no-doubter, inner-circle Hall of Famer.

Mark Teixeira at 36 has already announced his retirement.

And so it goes, around the league, a mixed bag. Rajai Davis at 35 leads the American League in steals. Ryan Howard at 36 swings for the fences and is on waivers. Ben Zobrist at 35 is still versatile and valuable. Justin Morneau at 35 is just hanging on. Back and forth: Victor Martinez is hitting .300, Alex Rodriguez was hitting .200 before retiring, Matt Holliday and Curtis Granderson and Pujols himself are putting up some counting numbers with adding a whole lot of overall value.

So, it’s easy to build this idea in your mind that 35-plus players are sometimes useful, sometimes not.

But here’s the hidden part of the puzzle, the thing your mind doesn’t consider: Most good baseball players now in that 35 to 39 age bracket are OUT OF BASEBALL. And so, we just don’t think about them.

Shane Victorino is out of baseball. Alex Rios is out of baseball. David DeJesus was a fine player — he’s out of baseball. Nick Swisher was an All-Star — he’s out of baseball. Andruw Jones put up a near-Hall of Fame career. Rafael Furcal was a superb shortstop for a good while. Michael Cuddyer, Adam Dunn, Dan Uggla, Adam LaRoche, Eric Chavez, Brian Roberts, Aramis Ramirez, Orlando Hudson, Vernon Wells, Travis Hafner … none of these guys are even 40 years old.

The list keeps going. When was the last time you thought about Kevin Youkilis? He was, for a time, a fantastic player, an MVP candidate, a Boston hero. He’s been out of baseball for three years now. He’s younger than Albert Pujols.

How about Josh Hamilton? It wasn’t so long ago that Tom Verducci was calling him the best player in baseball. He might give it another shot next spring, nobody knows for sure, but essentially he’s out of baseball. He’s younger than Albert Pujols.

Grady Sizemore. Amazing player. He probably deserved to be MVP when he was 23 years old. At 25, he hit 33 homers, stole 38 bases, walked 98 times and won the Gold Glove. He has tried comeback after comeback and has not played a full season since 2009. He’s younger than Albert Pujols.

Josh Willingham. Corey Hart. Cody Ross. Carlos Quentin, Mark Ellis, Jason Bay, Chone Figgins, Aaron Rowand … we can keep going on like this for a lot longer. Jack Cust. Bill Hall. Rocco Baldelli. Hank Blalock — remember him? Jose Lopez. Brandon Inge. Adam Everett. None of these players are in the league of Pujols, of course. But they were all viable Major League players, all had good careers, and they all aged out. This is what happens.

We like the illusion that baseball players can be good until their late 30s or even early 40s. And every now and again, a player like that does come along — you can look at what Ortiz is doing now. But it’s a rare, rare thing. Albert Pujols is doing EXACTLY what the Angels should have expected. They signed a 32-year-old player already showing signs of decline, moved him into a tougher hitters ballpark in a new league. If you take emotion out of the equation and forget that his name is Albert Pujols, his decline into oft-injured designated hitter who hits a few home runs would have been as predictable as the Anaheim weather.

But we can’t just take emotion out — what fun would baseball be without emotion. And so it’s important to remember just how good Pujols was and why the Angels wanted to believe.

First, look at Albert Pujols’ numbers in St. Louis: .328/.420/.617, an average of 40 homers, 117 runs, 121 RBIs.

Just look at those numbers. And it’s not like he compiled those numbers by having a few amazing years and a few more average years — no, he basically put up those numbers EVERY SINGLE YEAR. He was a phenomenon. They called him “The Machine.”

In St. Louis, Pujols was essentially a combination of Stan Musial, Henry Aaron and Cal Ripken. He was the best hitter. He was a great fielder. He was not fast, but he made himself into a fantastic base runner. He played to win, always, and that earned him his teammates’ respect and admiration. He was, more or less, the perfect ballplayer.

The thing that made Pujols different was that he was not physically gifted like so many of the all-time greats. He was no phenom. You know the story: He was drafted in the 13th round because scouts thought he had a bad body and thought that he had no natural defensive position. The Kansas City Royals famously passed on him again and again even though he went to high school 20 minutes from Kauffman Stadium.

What they didn’t see — what they couldn’t see — was that Pujols was going to make himself into a great baseball player whether the scouts liked it or not. He had the Tom Brady “prove everyone wrong” chip on his shoulder, and he had an incredible capacity for work, and he had physical gifts that are not easily seen — breathtaking hand-eye coordination, marvelous balance and a genius’ sense of what his body could and could not do.

When Pujols was a rookie — and he had one of the all-time great rookie seasons hitting .329 with 47 doubles and 37 homers — he struck out 93 times. This is actually a pretty low number for a modern-day slugger, but it sickened and embarrassed Pujols. He determined that he would never strike out that many times again, and he never has. From 2006 to 2012, Pujols ranked in the top 10 every year in fewest strikeouts per at-bat.

When Pujols was 25, he decided that he needed to become a better base runner. It was something missing from his his game. Pujols was not blessed with much natural speed — he’s a big-bodied athlete and rated slow on the 20-80 scout scale — but that year he had 16 stolen bases, led the league in runs scored again and was five runs better than the average base runner.

When Pujols first came up, he played several different positions — first, third, a lot of outfield. This was the big knock on him, his defensive liabilities, and it’s true that he wasn’t an especially good defender at any of those positions Then at 24, he finally got a position of his own, first base, and he decided he would become the best defensive first baseman in baseball. He quickly became the best defensive first baseman in baseball. He won two Gold Gloves, two Fielding Bible awards and and probably would have won more except that people had a hard time believing just how good a defender he had become.

Of course, the big thing with Pujols was how hard he hit baseballs — he had that impossibly wide stance, and he hit baseballs squarely. Most people who were there would agree: The most VIOLENT hit in baseball history might have been the three-run home run Pujols mashed off Houston reliever Brad Lidge in the 2005 NLCS. The Houston crowd, sensing it was on the brink of the team’s first World Series, was thunderous, and even so you could still hear the impossibly loud crack of the bat as Pujols turned on the pitch. When he hit it, silence fell across the land so suddenly that it felt like something biblical.

And that was Albert Pujols again and again in those days.

Pujols will put up more numbers before his career is out — he still has five years left on that $240 million contract. He will probably challenge 700 home runs if he stays reasonably healthy. If he has a hot year or two, he might even push for the record. And when he passes various marks — when he gets his 600th homer (next year), his 3,000th hit (2018), his 2000th RBI (2018 or 2019), his 700th homer (?) — we will once again tell the story of the young Albert Pujols and how awesome he was.

But I’m not sure the kids will understand it because it’s clear that he will never be THAT Albert Pujols again. When I was a kid, I got to see Frank Robinson play. The old-timers talked at length about how impossibly great Frank Robinson was back when he won the Triple Crown, when he won MVPs in both leagues, when he dominated games with his power, his speed and mostly his will.

Well, I looked down and all I saw was an old player-manager in a silly cherry-red uniform who would insert himself into lineups every now and again because, well, why not? I believed the old timers about Frank Robinson, and I would see highlights of the man in action, but I didn’t get to see Robinson in his prime. I missed it. That always made me just a little bit sad.