Albert Pujols, future Hall of Famer, is now an average player. I never thought I would have to write, say or hear those words. Yet there they are. Truth be told, according to WAR, an average free agent or triple-A player would have been better. Let’s move passed this harsh reality.
With the arrival of Shohei Ohtani, Albert’s role as an Angel seems to be a little up in the air. Pujols’s lack of mobility has limited him to designated hitter duties but if the Angels actually use Ohtani as a two-way player logic dictates that it will be Ohtani in the DH role when he’s not pitching. That’s how the Angels put their best team on the field.
17 years ago this fall my college roommate tried to convince me that he knew this rookie for the Cardinals named Albert Pujols. Never one to shy away from a sports debate I called his bluff. And I was wrong. My roommate played with Albert on the Fort Osage high school team. Turns out his stories about Pujols, the shortstop, throwing the ball so hard to second base for a force out that the ball beat the second baseman and rolled out to the right fielder were true. So were the stories of Pujols telling his history class that he wanted to play for the Atlanta Braves. I heard so many stories sometimes I feel like I played with him.
While his rookie season was among the best of all time the cynical side of me thought “let’s see you do that again”. He did and I continued, to my delight, to hear more stories. By the time we left college in the spring of 2004 Pujols hadn’t just convinced me. More importantly, he’d convinced the entire baseball world that he was a legitimate star with an unlimited ceiling.
You may not remember but just 10 years ago some in St. Louis were wondering aloud if Albert Pujols belonged in the same class as Stan Musial. Stan is still the only “Man” in St. Louis. Though more than a footnote, it seems even Cardinal fans have already forgotten just how great Albert was.
Albert openly discouraged fans from referring to him as “El Hombre”. El hombre is spanish for “The Man”. Often times Pujols would say, “Only Stan Musial should be referred to as “The Man”.
At some point while in St. Louis, he picked up the nickname “The Machine”. In what is one of my favorite SportsCenter commercials Albert insists “Guys, I’m not a machine. I’m just Albert.” One look at his yearly stats while playing for the Red Birds and it’s obvious that his nickname wasn’t a marketing ploy. Only a machine could produce so consistently for a decade. Here is a screenshot from baseball-reference.com of Albert’s stats over the first ll years of his career; his entire tenure in St. Louis.
Over this 11-year stretch, Pujols averaged 155 games, 117 runs, 188 hits, 41 doubles, 40 homers, 121 rbi, 8 stolen bases, 89 walks, 64 strikeouts with a slash line of .328/.420/.617, and a 170 OPS+.
If you prefer advanced stats over traditional stats he accumulated 86.4 WAR or 7.9 per year, 673.5 RE24 or 61.2 per year and his wRC+ over the ll-year span was 167 with a high of 184 (2003 & 2008) and a low of 147 (2011).
Stories abound about how he made up for lack of speed with learning how to be an efficient baserunner. Or about how he lacked a position. How he logged significant playing time at third base and outfield before finally getting first base to himself. And then, of course, he made himself into a Gold Glove first baseman.
The Machine collected some impressive hardware during his run as well. He first won the 2001 NL Rookie of the Year award, earning the first of his nine All-Star nods as a Cardinal, and the first of six Silver Sluggers. Pujols would go on to win three NL MVP awards winning back to back awards in 2008 & 2009 to go along with his 2005 award. He would finish 2nd in the MVP voting four times, twice to Barry Bonds (2002 & 2003), once to Ryan Howard in 2006 and once to Joey Votto in 2010. All total his MVP finishes for the ll years he played in St. Louis went like this 4th-2nd-2nd-3rd-1st-2nd-9th-1st-1st-2nd-5th.
Albert is chasing some exclusive statistical benchmarks. He’s nearing 3,000 career hits, 2,000 rbis while he fights against age to keep his career batting average above .300. Considering the length of his contract with a few more relatively healthy years he has a realistic shot at 700 home runs, 700 doubles, and 1,900 runs scored. As it has always been our sports heroes reach significant career milestones on the back side of careers and the accomplishments sometimes seem to be anti-climatic because they aren’t the dominating force we remember. It will be no different for Albert.
As hard as it is to see him as the average player he is now and as unbelievable as it may be that an entire generation doesn’t know “The Machine”, those of us who saw him play will never forget the greatness we witnessed. Each milestone he reaches is a reminder of what he once was and leaves us longing for one last glimpse of the player he use to be. Regardless of what he thinks about himself, he will never be “just Albert”. To me, he’ll always be “The Machine“.