|Pujols just passed Lou Gehrig and Fred McGriff on the all-time home run list|
Everybody seems to think that Pujols has been a disaster since signing his mammoth contract with the Angels, and that's simply not true. He hasn't been as good as he was before he signed the contract, but we had no reason to expect him to be. Pujols was already past his prime at 32 when he inked his contract and was already on his way down, having suffered declining performance in each of the previous two years. Moving to Angels Stadium, a notoriously tough park for hitters, and a division with pitching friendly venues in Seattle and Oakland, wasn't going to help. Throw in the pressure of signing the third-largest deal in baseball history at the time (behind only the two signed by Alex Rodriguez) and it was pretty much guaranteed that we had already seen the best of Pujols.
It didn't help that Pujols made a bad first impression with his new team. He went homerless in April 2012, knocking in only four runs and batting just .217/.265/.304--easily the worst month of his career up to that point. With Pujols sputtering (and Mike Trout still in the minor leagues) the Angels struggled, going 8-15 and effectively dooming their postseason chances. It goes without saying that had Pujols hit like Pujols and Trout was on the team from the start, the 2012 Angels would have made the playoffs and maybe won the World Series, and if that had happened then people would surely have a much different perception of Pujols's Angels tenure.
Alas, we will never know. Pujols did not break out of his funk until he swatted his first home run of the year on May 16th. But from that point forward, he hit like the Pujols of old, batting .308/.371/.588 the rest of the way.
Though his .285/.343/.516 final line represented career lows in all three triple slash categories, it was still good for a robust 138 OPS+. He reached 30 homers for the 12th consecutive season, topped 100 RBI for the 11th time and had exactly the same number of hits (173) and total bases (313) as the year before. He also cranked 50 doubles--his most since 2004 and one shy of league leader Alex Gordon--and was worth nearly five wins above replacement according to Baseball-Reference.
If anything, Pujols was underrated that year. Though he was one of the league's ten most valuable position players, he did not make the All-Star team and finished a distant 17th in the MVP voting (after never having finished lower than fifth before that) behind the likes of Derek Jeter (2.2 bWAR), Fernando Rodney (3.8 bWAR) and Jim Johnson (2.5 bWAR). All-in-all, it was a pretty good year, though certainly a bit below expectations.
Then came 2013, the year that essentially destroyed Pujols's reputation as one of the game's elite. All because for the first time in his career, Pujols was unable to stay healthy. After averaging 155 games played per year from 2001 through 2012, Pujols played just 99 games in 2013 before he was shut down for the season in late July. Hampered by plantar fascitiis and various lower body ailments, Pujols played in pain the entire season, and it showed in his numbers. He batted a lowly .258/.330/.437, struggled in the field and was a nonfactor on the bases. Hobbled by injuries, Pujols clearly wasn't the same player, and given his age it was fair to wonder whether he would be ever again.
And so people counted Pujols out. They said he was old and washed up. They doubted his abilities. Everyone called his contract an albatross, a horrible mistake. They said he was done. All at once, everyone seemed to lose faith in the greatest hitter of his generation. Once money in the bank, he was viewed as one giant question mark or worse--damaged goods.
The more I think about it, the more I think we all overreacted. Pujols had one bad season, which wasn't even that bad. It was poor by his lofty standards, but really not so terrible otherwise. His OPS, when adjusted for league and park, was still 16 percent better than average. He was on pace for around 25 home runs and 100 RBI before he was shut down. And yet everyone grabbed their pitchforks and treated him like the next Jason Bay, or the next Vernon Wells. So it goes when you're locked into a ten-year, $240 million deal that expects you to earn the bulk of that money in the first few years of your contract.
All the talk about his decline seems premature and exaggerated. Pujols is 34, still young enough that he should have several more good years in him. He's not going to be the monster who won three MVP awards in five years, who like Miguel Cabrera was a threat to win the Triple Crown every year, but he still has the skills to be a very good hitter. He still has power, as he showcased the last couple nights, and he still has that perfect, balanced swing. He doesn't strike out very much. He remains a dangerous hitter, arguably more dangerous now that he has something to prove--that he can still rake.
Pujols still has something left in the tank. Not enough to catch Barry Bonds, but enough to keep climbing up the career leaderboards and cement his status as one of the greatest to ever play the game.