From 'insult' to injury, what can Angels expect from Albert Pujols?

BySam Miller ESPN logo
Monday, March 20, 2017

A little more than five years ago, the St. Louis Cardinals reportedly offered Albert Pujols a five-year contract to stay with the club, a bid that Pujols' wife called "an insult." Not long after that, the Los Angeles Angels offered Pujols 10 years. Ten days ago, Pujols made his Cactus League debut, after his fourth offseason surgery in five offseasons as an Angel. The difference between five years and 10 years has never been more obvious.

The Angels still owe Pujols $140 million as he embarks on the second half of the deal. Had he been a free agent this past winter, he might have made, oh, $30 million over a couple of years. Maybe $20 million. Or maybe less, considering how similar his recent numbers are to those of the much younger Mark Trumbo (who got three years and $37.5 million in January) and Chris Carter (who got a 1-year, $3.5 million deal in February), and how much worse they are than those of Jose Bautista (who got $18 million for one year in January).

The Angels weren't naive when they made that offer, and neither were the 4,000 fans who rallied outside Angel Stadium a few days later to chant "Arte" and "Jerry" in appreciation of the deal's architects, owner Arte Moreno and GM Jerry Dipoto. They knew that the 11 historically great years Pujols had produced belonged to another franchise's fans, and that whatever he might do for them as he grew into an old man would almost certainly be worse.

But worse is relative. That same week, Dan Szymborski used his ZiPS projection system to forecast Pujols' next decade, 10 projections of diminishing production:

Even knowing that Pujols, at 32, was moving away from his staggering Hall of Fame peak, this straight line south could have been seen as oddly encouraging. It created an illusion of certainty -- one of a declining player but a still-great one who could anchor a championship team for a long time. If he followed that slope, he'd produce 28 wins in the first half of the contract and 10 in the second half, arguably just about enough to break even on the deal. That predictable rate of decay wasn't depressing, exactly: It was the plan.

But nothing is promised in baseball, not even its straight slopes down. Pujols' first five years as an Angel exist at the intersection of baseball's most and least predictable tendencies. To understand his decline -- and to grasp how mysterious his next five years remain -- is to appreciate how illusory trajectory can be.

In some crucial ways, Pujols has hardly declined at all. Over the past three years, he has the 12th-lowest strikeout rate in the game. He has the 10th-most home runs. When the pitcher is ahead in the count, he has the 10th-highest OPS. He remains an extremely skilled hitter, an intimidating hitter, a -- forgive the cliché -- professional hitter. Look deep into that countenance, and there's still an Albert Pujols in there, begging to be unleashed.

Yet in other instances he's collapsed, in some cases immediately, in some cases almost painfully. In four big ways, he bears almost no resemblance to the player he was on the eve of that 10-year contract.

1. He doesn't walk anymore.

The day after Dipoto signed Pujols, a reporter asked Dipoto whether he had a philosophy about when to offer a long-term contract. The GM answered: "I'll say this, that in regard to the evolution of a hitter, as hitters begin to age, into their 30s, to whatever point you can project, there's a certain quality or trait in a hitter, the patience, that they exhibit. Albert has had an extraordinary career in regard to maintaining control over the strike zone."

Pujols had walked more than 100 times in each year from 2008 to 2010 and walked 99 times in 2007. In the three years before his free agency, only three major leaguers had walked more often. But he walked a career-low 52 times in his first year as an Angel and hasn't walked as many times in any season since. His 7.7 percent walk rate during that time ranks 135th out of 241 qualifying batters, tied with Nori Aoki and Yunel Escobar.

Pitchers quit intentionally walking him -- from a high of 44 times in 2009 to an average of 10 walks per year as an Angel -- but that doesn't nearly explain the drop. His rate of unintentional walks collapsed, too:

2. His body broke down.

Pujols played at least 143 games in every season of his career with the Cardinals. He played at least 160 games three times, at least 157 seven times, and in 11 seasons he missed only 76 games for any reason. There were often reports of the pain he was playing through, but he was playing through it -- and always playing very well.

But as the 2013 season began, he was in so much pain it was hard to watch (or, alternately, hard to look away). He was recovering from knee surgery in his first offseason as an Angel, and his plantar fasciitis made it difficult for him to run hard all the way to first base. After Pujols partially tore his left plantar fascia that July, the Angels shut him down after a career-low 99 games, 65 of them as the designated hitter.

He's played regularly since then, missing only 18 games in the past three years, but he's almost never looked totally healthy. In 2015, he played withan injured plantar plate on his right big toe, aggravated after he stepped awkwardly on first base. He had offseason surgery and later blamed his resulting lack of offseason preparation for his slow start in 2016. He played much of that season in pain, too, and needed foot surgery once again this past winter. Each year now starts with quotes about how good he looks or feels, and most end with surgery.

It's never entirely clear how much the pain Pujols plays through affects him. "The last couple of years," Mike Scioscia said in 2014, "you saw Albert go out there and play, really, with very little lower half helping him to hit." There were times when his knee would lock up on him in a swing. He no longer covers the outer half of the plate as well, whiffing more often and hitting for less power on pitches there. It affects his range. It limits him to DH, where about half his starts have come since 2014.

3. He doesn't hit meatballs anymore.

As noted, he's still a great hitter, relative to his peers, when he's behind in the count. During his five years as an Angel, his .246/.252/.423 line in pitcher's counts is better than those of Joey Votto, Nolan Arenado, Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Yoenis Cespedes and any number of other superstars. But over those same years, his OPS when he's ahead in the count ranks 158th in baseball, among 227 batters who met our minimum for plate appearances. He's two points of OPS ahead of Coco Crisp, four points ahead of Conor Gillaspie, 10 points behind David DeJesus. As an Angel, his isolated power on pitches down the middle is, at .277, barely better than the league average (.259). As a Cardinal, it was .444.

4. He's slower and more cautious on the bases.

As a baserunner last year, Pujols took the extra base -- going first to third on a single, first to home on a double, or scoring from second on a single -- 18 percent of the time. As a Cardinal, he did it 49 percent of the time. In his first four years with the Angels, he took the extra base 39 percent of the time. But in the fifth he dropped to 18 percent, just like that.

Lost foot speed is undoubtedly part of why his batting average has plummeted, even while his strikeout rate has stayed among the game's lowest. Over the five years, his batting average on balls in play is .257, the fifth lowest in baseball. As a Cardinal his BABIP was .311. On ground balls alone, his BABIP has dropped from .262 as a Cardinal to .209 as an Angel, the 24th worst in baseball and the fourth worst among right-handed batters.

Pujols is a very good player and a terrible player. He's both at the same time, in different parts of the same game, adding up to something strangely average.

Let's look at a slightly expanded version of that projected WAR chart:

The red line shows Pujols' updated projections before each season, so that the 2014 projection takes into account everything we knew up to 2014 instead of relying on pre-2012 information. The orange line is his actual performance, by WAR, each year so far.

The closer we get to reality, the less smooth the line, because reality isn't smooth. When we get to reality itself, it's a series of jags with only the hint of any pattern at all. Five years ago, it was hard to imagine Pujols could be as bad as he was in 2013. Three years ago, though, it might have been hard to believe he'd still be as good as he is today.

If the smooth, predictable decline of the original chart was counterintuitively encouraging -- because at least it seemed to promise the Angels 28 very valuable WAR in the front half of the contract -- it's the chaotic reality of Pujols' first five seasons that is counterintuitively encouraging now: Whatever trajectory you think Pujols is on, he's not. He's not five data points on a direct line with a sixth; rather, he's 640 muscles, 206 bones and about 10,000 baseball skills, all decaying at different speeds on uncertain timetables.

The Angels will not win this contract. They will not get $240 million worth of production from Albert Pujols. The first half of the deal was just too much of a disaster. But the second half was always supposed to be a disaster, and it still might not be. Pujols has maintained enough of his signature skills and reversed his trajectory often enough that the orange line might still someday cross up through the blue line, way off in the dark part of the future we were always only guessing at.