Here's a question: When was the last time you thought about Albert Pujols?
It's possible you noticed him a few times last season, when he hit 31 homers and knocked in 119 runs -- a feat that would have earned him more plaudits a decade ago than it does now -- and slowly crawled up the all-time home run leader list, going from Reggie Jackson to Rafael Palmeiro to Harmon Killebrew to Mark McGwire to Frank Robinson. (He's currently ninth, 18 behind Sammy Sosa.) But this is the only way Albert Pujols is noticed now. We only pay attention to Pujols when his compiled stats -- fortified by his years in St. Louis -- reach some milestone that reminds us that he is, in fact, still playing out there. Pujols is a legacy player, a man who still plays when he can, a shadow of the player he used to be, someone who occasionally reminds you that he was once Ted Williams, but only occasionally.
Just for posterity, let's look back at the first 11 years of Pujols' career, all with St. Louis. He averaged:
Slash line: .328/.420/.617
He won three NL MVP Awards and finished in the top five of MVP voting 10 times. (Seriously: 10 times!) He won two Gold Gloves. He played in 74 postseason games. He won two World Series. In one of his final four games as a Cardinal, he did this:
At his peak, it felt like Pujols was just playing an entirely different sport than everybody else. Sure, he was the best hitter in the game, but he was also its fiercest competitor. His entire Cardinals career, his manager was Tony La Russa, and he absorbed TLR's obsessive, often oft-putting obsessiveness with winning. Pujols was stubborn and hard-headed and sort of difficult at times, but it never mattered, because his teams always won, and he was the primary reason why. Pujols was about the homers and the doubles and all of that, but he was also the heads-up GRITTY baseball player of La Russa's dreams.
One of my favorite Pujols plays was in the 2011 National League Division Series against the Phillies, a team that was heavily favored, leading 3-2 in the sixth inning of a game the Cardinals needed to stave off elimination. With one out, Chase Utley was off with the pitch from first base, and Hunter Pence grounded the ball to shortstop Rafael Furcal, who threw to first. Utley rounded second and broke for third, and Pujols did something extraordinary: He stepped off first base -- thus ignoring the easy force out -- to gather momentum to throw the ball to third to catch Utley. And it worked. You really have to watch this.
It was an insane play -- St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Derrick Goold called it a "riverboat gambler" play -- and required whip-smart, almost otherworldly baseball instincts. It was something that an all-time talent, a Hall of Fame competitor operating at the peak of his powers, would pull off on the grandest stage. And he did it without thinking. When Cardinals fans think of Pujols, they of course think of all the home runs. But they think of that just as vividly. Albert Pujols walked around the field like the sun was a spotlight just for him. And he was right.
But that Albert Pujols is gone now.
Remember three years ago, when Pujols, coming off an injury-plagued season with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, groused to USA Today reporter Bob Nightengale how unfair it was that people kept comparing Mike Trout to him? No, no, not unfair to Trout: unfair to him. Nothing that someone had asked him, "Are you motivated to put up the same numbers as Mike Trout?" Pujols, according to Nightengale, "stares ahead in disbelief." Then he rants. "Can you imagine someone saying that to me? I felt like saying, 'Come on, are you serious? Are you really asking me that? Check out my numbers. I know what Mike Trout has done in his first two years is pretty special, but will you look at my numbers. I've been doing this for almost 14 years. The only guy in baseball who can match the numbers I've put up is Barry Bonds, and someone is actually asking if I can put up numbers like Mike Trout? Are you freaking kidding me? He's a great kid who always wants to learn and is so humble. But if it takes someone comparing me to Mike Trout to motivate me, it's time for me to get out of the game."
That's quite a quote! Particularly because, well, here are Mike Trout's and Albert Pujols' numbers since that quote.
Mike Trout: .300/.406/.567
Albert Pujols: .261/.318/.468
Mike Trout has won two AL MVP Awards in that time. To be fair, Albert Pujols did appear on five ballots in 2014. Pujols has put up a 91.2 WAR total in 16 years. Trout has put up a 47.4 WAR total in … six. On the same team, the Angels -- who have played in only three postseason games during Pujols' five years as the team's highest-paid player, all of which have been losses -- have the future of baseball, and its past.
This is a shame, to say the least. Pujols at his best was the best player I have ever seen, and any fellow Cardinals fan who takes joy in Pujols' fall is no friend of mine. In recent years, the idea that the Cardinals wanted to let Pujols go, that they were just being smart when he left for the Angels after the 2011 season, has appeared to calcify in the public conversation. But the Cardinals were devastated when Pujols left: They always thought he was going to stay, and general manager John Mozeliak, when word broke that Pujols had signed with the Angels, took a few days away to recover. They had put together a whole multi-year plan -- had revamped their entire front office -- to make sure they could get Pujols to stay. They wanted him to be the next Stan Musial. They were able to recover after he left -- the Cardinals have played 42 postseason games since 2011, to Pujols' three -- but that didn't mean they happily waved goodbye. If everything would have gone according to the Cardinals' plan, these decline years of Pujols' career would be taking place in St. Louis, not Anaheim.
But that's not how it went down. And now Pujols is this. According to Baseball Reference WAR, Pujols was the eighth best player on the Angels last year. Eighth! On a team that went 74-88. Here are the top 10 Angels in 2016 Baseball Reference WAR:
- Mike Trout, 10.6
- Andrelton Simmons, 4.2
- Kole Calhoun, 3.6
- C.J. Cron, 2.1
- Matt Shoemaker, 2.0
- Yunel Escobar, 1.6
- Ricky Nolasco, 1.4
- Albert Pujols, 1.4
- Cam Bedrosian, 1.3
- Jefry Marte, 1.2
Marte was nearly as good as Pujols last year, and I'm pretty sure you had no idea who Jefry Marte was until you just read it. And remember, too, that Pujols had foot surgery in the offseason and may not in fact be ready for Opening Day. (The post-surgery rehab did not go optimially.) Dan Szymborski called Pujols' contract the worst in baseball before last season, and there are still five years to go. He's only halfway through.
Pujols is still going to reach a bunch of milestones in the next five years. If he hits just 20 homers this year, he'll move into seventh on the all time list, passing Sammy Sosa and Jim Thome. With 175 hits this year -- a number he hasn't reached with the Angels yet, but still could -- he'll reach 3,000. He still has an outside chance of catching Barry Bonds' all-time home run mark: He needs to average 34.2 over the next five years, though, again, he has only reached that number once in Anaheim.
But the team seems mired in a malaise that is wasting Trout's peak years as the clock ticks toward his own free agency after the 2020 season. (Pujols will still have one more year left to go at that point.) Pujols seems further away from the postseason than at any other point in his career. And that was what what made Pujols Pujols. He was brilliant every day. But he became something even larger when the lights shone brightest. Now he doesn't even get that chance. And, alas, he, and his contract, is a large part of the reason why. Three years ago, Pujols couldn't believe people would dare compare Mike Trout to him. Now he is just an old ghost piling up numbers in meaningless games for one of baseball's worst teams.
Getting old happens to human beings, of course. But Albert Pujols wasn't supposed to be a human being: He was supposed to be a machine. 2017 looks to be another year where Pujols -- Albert Pujols! King of Men! El Hombre! The Machine! -- just tries to stay healthy and play out the string. There are four more years behind it that are gonna be just like it. No great ballplayer ever goes out perfectly. But man, this will get worse before it gets better. It's just a shame.