Thursday, April 27, 2017

Best MLB players of the last 30 years, #6: Albert Pujols

Albert Pujols was born the same year as me. Same month, in fact. On Opening Day in 2001, he became the first person younger than me to appear in the Major Leagues. He is by far the best player born in 1980, and while it's too early to know for sure, there's a strong chance he'll go down as the greatest player born at any point in the 80s. (Not that anyone actually keeps track of such a thingThat Pujols is now one of the league's elder statesmen is a reminder that I'm getting older too. I take some comfort in knowing that while 37 is old for baseball, it's only the early stages of middle age for the rest of the world. He was a star from the beginning, and I was aware of the proximity of our births from the beginning, so for his entire career, he's felt like something of an analog to me, if a somewhat more rich, famous, and successful one.

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This countdown is a way for me to look back at the three decades I've spent as a baseball fan. My introduction to the project, with an explanation of sorts, and links to every entry can be found here.

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At the beginning of Pujols' career, he and I were both riding high. He was a unanimous NL Rookie of the Year winner in 2001, as I was beginning my senior year of college, by far my favorite of the four years I spent matriculating. He finished in the top four of the NL MVP voting each of this first four seasons, leading MLB in runs scored and RBI during that stretch. Meanwhile, I graduated, moved back to the Chicago area, and worked a fantastic job that didn't pay much but provided more than enough for me to live in a cheap apartment with close friends and generally have a blast. Near the end of 2004, while Pujols was in the process of winning NLCS MVP honors, I moved to Portland with the girl I'd been dating since Albert's rookie season. The world felt full of wonder and possibility.

Soon after though, Pujols and I began to diverge.

In 2005 Barry Bonds missed almost the entire season due to injuries, giving the rest of the league an opportunity to compete for the MVP, and Albert capitalized. Me though, I was living through the disintegration of the relationship I'd moved across the country for. I went to Los Angeles to stay with my sister in hopes that time and distance might fix things, but they didn't. Then two weeks after the last strings holding that together were severed, I picked my dad up at the airport and knew immediately that something was very wrong. Hours later he was diagnosed with brain cancer.

Pujols led the Cardinals to a World Series crown in 2006, a year I have a hard time remembering many details from. I spent a lot of time sitting with my dad, some days better than others. He lived for more than two years after the initial diagnosis and operation, three times as long as we were told to expect. He accomplished a great deal in those two years too, refusing to stop going to work, refusing to slacken his commitment to his community, refusing to let anything see him feeling bad for himself. I tried hard not to let anyone see me feeling bad for myself either, but didn't accomplish all that much. Mostly I treaded water.

Pujols kept hammering baseballs, and by the end of 2011, each of us 31 years old, he'd assured himself of a spot in the Hall of Fame someday, with 445 home runs and a .328 batting average, with more extra-base hits than all but two players in MLB history through that age. He and the Cardinals also won another World Series that fall. Albert was a free agent at the conclusion of that season, in line to get one of the largest contracts in sports history. Many expected him to re-sign with St. Louis, cementing his legacy as the city's most beloved athlete since Stan Musial, but instead he signed with the Angels, a ten-year deal worth $254 million.

Pujols' first season in Anaheim was the worst of his career, and he posted his lowest batting average,  on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and total number of home runs and walks. He'd still been a good player, but not the transcendent one he'd been in St. Louis. Things were even worse in 2013. While his former teammates were on their way to winning another National League pennant, Albert missed significant time due to injuries for the first time in his career, and saw his slugging percentage drop another 79 points below the new low he'd established the year before. He's rebounded a bit since then, but never to anything approaching his previous glory.

Meanwhile, the same week Albert played his first game with the Angels, I asked a beautiful woman out on a date. In the five years since then, the two of us moved in together, got engaged, adopted a dog, married, and bought a house. Last month we welcomed a baby girl to the world. They have been the best five years of my life.

While there's a good chance his numbers would have declined in much the same way if he'd re-signed with the Cardinals, it felt like he'd made the wrong decision. If nothing else, Cardinals fans would have had the earlier seasons to fall back on when considering him, whereas in Anaheim he's always felt a bit like a disappointment. After leading baseball in WAR from 2001 through 2011, Pujols tied for 82nd from 2012 through 2016, and while it's still early this season, so far he's been a below average hitter, and hitting is the only thing he's really asked to do at this point.

I've been dwelling on his decline, which isn't fair. This series is about celebrating the best players of my lifetime, and I'm near the very top of that list now. Few players in history have approached Albert Pujols' accomplishments. He posted an OPS better than 1.000 in eight different seasons. Only five players topped that number. He maintained an OPS of 1.050 during the first ten years of his career. The last player with a figure so high during his first ten seasons was Ted Williams. Pujols is the second-best hitter of my lifetime, and he hasn't been just a hitter either: During his prime he was a good base runner and the best defensive first baseman in baseball.

I wish he would have stayed with the Cardinals, just because I prefer that narrative. We can't control anyone else's narrative though. Sometimes we can barely control our own. I hope that when his career ends, our paths converge and run in the same direction again, so that I might wish him well in retirement without dooming myself.

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