Albert Pujols' push for 3,000 powered by dominant decade

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It’s easy to forget, 18 seasons later, what a phenomenon Albert Pujols was back in 2001. Remember, he had spent almost all of 2000 -- his only season in the minors -- in the Midwest League. Baseball America ranked him as the St. Louis Cardinals’ No. 2 prospect behind Bud Smith and projected he’d start the season in Double-A. Most baseball fans had never heard of him.

Instead, he was so good in spring training that Tony La Russa insisted he make the big league team. Pujols did, essentially skipping three levels, and the 21-year-old went on to hit .329 with 37 home runs. He won Rookie of the Year honors and finished fourth in the MVP voting. That was Mark McGwire’s final season, and Pujols, who had played third base in the minors, played all over the field, starting more than 30 games at four positions (third base, left field, right field and first base).

In those early years, everyone tried to figure out what made Pujols so great. He moved to first base full time in 2004, but his consistency at the plate had earned him the nickname “The Machine,” which also was seemingly a reflection of his personality. He was never the soft and cuddly type.

“His physical skills are exceptional,” La Russa explained to ESPN The Magazine in 2005. “His technical skills are outstanding. He is as intelligent as you can be about eating, about working out, about understanding his swing. He remembers at-bats going back years. He has terrific courage at the plate, and this relentless desire to be part of a winning team.”

Back then, Pujols, never one to give too much of himself, offered a simpler explanation. “I appreciate every inning, every little moment of baseball,” he said.

Now that Pujols has become the 32nd member of the 3,000-hit club -- and just the fourth alongside Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Alex Rodriguez to also hit 600 home runs -- we can appreciate his career accomplishments. He’s either the greatest first baseman of all time or the second-greatest, depending on how you view Lou Gehrig and the segregated era he played in.

Pujols’ legacy rests largely on his 11 seasons with the Cardinals -- or, really, his first 10, when he hit at least .312 every season, drove in 100-plus runs every season, led the league in runs scored five times, topped 40 home runs six times and won three MVP awards, finishing second four other times. Outside of Barry Bonds, Pujols was the best and most feared hitter in the game -- witness the 44 intentional walks he received in 2009. He was definitely a feared hitter in the postseason, as Brad Lidge can attest. Pujols has hit .323/.431/.599 with 19 home runs in 77 career playoff games.

Pujols’ final season in St. Louis (2011) ended in triumph: The Cardinals won their second World Series with him and he knocked in 16 runs in 18 postseason games, including a three-homer, six-RBI performance in Game 3 of the World Series. Those were the only runs he drove in during that World Series, however, and he had started to slip a bit that season, dropping under .300 for the first time, failing to drive in 100 runs and posting a then-career-low .366 OBP.

Covering that World Series, one thing I remember is Yadier Molina receiving bigger ovations from the home fans in St. Louis than Pujols. There was no doubt Pujols is and was loved and respected in St. Louis, but as he was heading to free agency, the fans seemed willing to accept that he might move on.

He signed with the Angels, of course, and it’s that part of his career that clouds how we now view him, especially as we see his OBPs dip under .300. The preeminent baseball writer Ken Rosenthal wrote recently in The Athletic:

Even if you’re an analyst who views counting numbers as outdated, Pujols’ pending milestone merits celebration, or at least a renewed appreciation of his career achievements.

But that’s not where we’re at, is it?

Instead, a good amount of the recent media discussion around Pujols centers around how he is an albatross to the Los Angeles Angels, how he might be older than his listed age of 38, and how he no longer is productive even though he finished last season with 23 homers and 101 RBIs.

I understand the sentiment, although I’d argue that you can both appreciate what he has done in the past and critique his value in the present.

I was curious to see how Pujols’ career mapped compared to other great players. I looked at the 20 position players with the most career WAR who started their careers after World War II (Pujols is 10th at 99.5) and compared their first 10 full seasons versus their next seven (for Pujols, that’s 2011-17) and the difference in average WAR per season:

Pujols has had the largest decline at minus-5.6 WAR per season, and only Ken Griffey Jr. had less total WAR. Junior is a pretty good example for how we’ll eventually view Pujols’ legacy. Much like we all kind of ignore Junior’s injury-plagued tenure with the Reds and celebrate the period when he was a superstar with the Mariners, we’ll remember Pujols when he dominated with the Cardinals.

What happened after he joined the Angels? I’d offer three primary reasons for his decline:

1. Injuries. He had knee surgery after his first season with the Angels, battled plantar fasciitis in his second season and various foot ailments since then. At times, all his power has had to come from his upper body. That’s no way to hit.

2. Age. The bat speed probably was already slowing in 2011 with the Cardinals. That has led to more guessing at the plate to “speed up” his bat. In 2009, he swung at 39.7 percent of the pitches he saw and had a chase rate of 23.8 percent. While he still doesn’t strike out much, in 2018 he has swung at 51.2 percent of pitches with a chase rate of 38.8 percent.

3. The shift. We usually think of the shifts on left-handed batters, but Pujols has become such an extreme pull hitter that he’s easy to shift against. Throw in that he can’t run and infielders can play even deeper. He hit .278 on grounders in 2009, but .187 in 2017.

Pujols still can punish a mistake. He actually looks like he’s moving better than he has in a long time (he has already played more games at first than he did all of 2017). We can discuss what the Angels should do with him another time. On this day, we recognize one of the best.