Whenever someone brings up a Hall of Famer on his last legs at the end of a brilliant career, supposedly shrinking in the shadow of his former glory, they're almost always talking about Willie Mays. Perhaps it is the age and generation of the storyteller, but he's the example people use. It was sad to see Willie limping around the field in his final years with the Mets. He deserved to go out better than that.
Mays' final season in the Major Leagues was 1973, two years before I was born, so I wasn't able to see in person how much of a shell of himself he supposedly was. So all I can do is look at the numbers. Here are Mays' OPS-plus numbers* for the final five years of his career, starting with his age-38 season:
1969 (age 38): 124
1970 (39): 140
1971 (40): 158
1972 (41): 131
1973 (42): 81
*OPS-plus is a park- and league-adjusted measure of a hitters' ability relative to the league, with 100 being exactly league-average. If you have a 90, you're a below-average hitter; if you're 110, you're above average. For reference, the best hitter in the National League last year was Joey Votto with an OPS-plus of 168
So it's that last season that's the problem. Mays hit .211 with only six homers and one stolen base in 66 games, and he announced his retirement the final week of the season. He was still valuable enough to make the Mets' World Series roster, though, and he even singled in Game 2, a game he came in as a pinch runner and finished in center field. But those four seasons immediately after he turned 38 were fantastic, including 1971, when he led the Majors in walks and on-base percentage at the age of 40. That 131 OPS-plus Mays put up in 1972? That would have made him, in 2017, one of the top 30 hitters. That's a higher number than Alex Bregman put up, or Edwin Encarnacion, or Gary Sanchez, or Corey Seager, or Francisco Lindor, or Mookie Betts, or Manny Machado, or Robinson Cano. For a guy who is supposedly the prime example of trying to stay in the league too long, Mays looks like a one of the best 40-plus-year-old-players we've ever seen.
Which brings us to another guy whose OPS-plus in 2017, 81, was lower than Mays' in 1972 (and equal to Mays' in '73). He's a future Hall of Famer himself, though, unlike Mays in '73, he didn't play a prime defensive position to offset his struggles with the bat. And also unlike Mays, he wasn't 42 years old in that down season: He was only 37. He turned 38 on Tuesday, actually.
It begs the question, once again: What are we going to do with Albert Pujols?
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Last season was the first time in Pujols' career he was a below-average hitter. For all the talk of how the Angels have gotten the downside of his career after the Cardinals enjoyed his peak and his prime, he's had a pretty wonderful six years in Anaheim. Here is his average seasonal line in Anaheim, accounting for the 2013 season in which he played only 99 games, and also including his reaching of the 600-homer plateau last year:
28 homers, 98 RBIs, .262 BA, .319 OBP, .459 SLG
This is not bad at all! That is roughly six years of what Jay Bruce did last year at the age of 30, and Bruce just signed a three-year contract to be one of the centerpieces of a signature baseball franchise. But that is not what the Angels thought they would be getting. Here's Pujols' average season in his 11 seasons in St. Louis:
40 homers, 121 RBIs, .328 BA, .420 OBP, .617 SLG
They surely didn't expect that for 10 years. But they were expecting closer to that than what they've got.
And that's the scary part, of course: The Angels have four years left of Pujols under contract for $114 million. He and the Angels should be so lucky to have Mays' final four years of his career. If he did that, it would solve a lot of problems for the Angels, particularly with just three more years left with Mike Trout under contract.
But that's the issue, right? Mays, the supposed fading superstar, did things that we can't imagine Pujols doing over the next four years. It is even worth asking whether or not Pujols' career itself will be dinged, when the history books are written, by the way the final few years in Anaheim go down. Pujols is obviously an inner-circle Hall of Famer if he retires tomorrow, but Pujols has always been considered more than just that. He was a once-in-a-generation hitter -- a Stan Musial, Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio -- a hitting monster who just never, ever stopped. I remember when Tony La Russa, in Pujols' third season when he was only 23 years old, said that Pujols was the best player he had ever managed. La Russa managed Rickey Henderson, Mark McGwire and Carlton Fisk. And Pujols, already, was the best player he'd ever seen.
That's what Pujols was. But this back half of his career could, slowly, start to erode that. His career batting average was .328 when he left St. Louis; it's down to .305 and could be in danger of falling under .300. (If he has the same season in 2018 as he did in '17, it'll be down to .301, with three more years to go on his contract.) When Pujols left St. Louis, he was fifth on the all-time OPS leaderboard, behind Babe Ruth, Williams, Lou Gehrig and Barry Bonds. He is now 22nd. He's actually behind Miguel Cabrera and Joey Votto; if he has another year like last year, he will fall behind Lance Berkman.
This is not to denigrate Pujols, of course. He's still one of the best players I've ever seen. To watch his ascension in St. Louis was to watch a superstar arrive fully formed, as if dropped from the sky. But the Angels may have a dilemma on their hands this year, particularly now that they've brought in Shohei Ohtani and Ian Kinsler and brought back Justin Upton. They are clearly trying to win right now, and 636 plate appearances with a .286 OBP in the No. 4 spot is not a good way to do that. This is particularly true with Ohtani's desire to bat. Ohtani is only going to DH, but Pujols, once one of the best-fielding first basemen in the sport, started only six games in the field last year. If he continues to struggle … how long will the Angels stick with him?
Maybe Pujols battles back this year. After his 99-game season in 2013, you heard some of these same whispers about Pujols, and two years later he returned to the All-Star Game and hit 40 homers. But as the saying goes: Time is undefeated. And not just is time undefeated … right now, time has a big lead on Pujols, although there are still accomplishments left: He enters 2018 needing just 32 hits to join the 3,000-hit club, which would even further cement his Hall of Fame status.
Now that he's 38 years old, it is worth asking just how much these autumn years will affect his legacy. After all, they affected Mays' … and he was a ton better at 38 than Pujols was. Nobody likes seeing Pujols like this. To see that this once-indestructible baseball machine has turned 38 years old makes one feel indescribably old. Maybe Pujols can turn back the clock and have a vintage season, making us all feel young again ourselves. For the sake of the Angels, Trout and his individual legacy, he better. Because the way it's going right now: In 20 years, it might not be Mays' final down seasons we talk about. It might be Pujols'. And nobody wants that.
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