The Tenth Inning
 The Tenth Inning Blog
Periodically, I will post new entries about current baseball topics.  The posts will typically be a mixture of commentary, history, facts, and stats.  Hopefully, they will provoke some  of your thoughts or emotions. Clicking on the word "Comments" associated with each post below will open a new dialog box to enter or retrieve any feedback.
Prince Albert a Sure Bet to Join Baseball's Royalty

Albert Pujols joined one of the most elite groups in baseball with his 3,000th career hit last Friday night.  He had already accumulated over 600 career home runs.  Upon achieving that combination of milestones, he became only the fourth player in Major League Baseball history to reach both.

Pujols joined previous 3,000-hit/600-HR club members Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Alex Rodriguez.

However, the elite group is defined as much by who is not included, as it is by those Pujols joined.  For example, it does not include Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, and Stan Musial, all of whom are considered among the all-time greatest players in the sport and of course have a bronze plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame.  Pujols is a sure-fire, dead lock to get his own plaque one day.

Pujols has experienced two distinct parts of his career, currently in the 18th season.  His record with the St. Louis Cardinals from 2001 to 2011 is as good as anyone’s in history.  In fact, if the first-baseman had ended his career after 2011, he would still be elected to the Hall of Fame.  His performance during that period was that impactful.  Only a handful of players have ever attained Hall of Fame status with fewer significant seasons.  For example, Hall of Fame pitchers Dizzy Dean and Sandy Koufax were each elected largely on only six outstanding seasons during their 12-year careers, but their situations involved circumstances in which their careers were prematurely cut short due to injuries.

During that 11-year period which started when Pujols was 21 years old, his slash line was an amazing .328/.420/.617.  He accumulated 445 home runs and 1,329 RBI.  He was National League Rookie of the Year in 2001, and he finished in the Top 5 of the MVP Award voting in 10 of his first 11 seasons.  He captured the award in 2005, 2008, and 2009.  Pujols led the Cardinals to three World Series, winning in 2006 and 2011.

Pujols’ first 11 seasons remarkably paralleled first-baseman Lou Gehrig’s first full 11 seasons (1925-1935), during which the Yankees slugger’s slash line looked like .342/.446/.637, to go along with 377 home runs and 1,557 RBI.  Pujols also wasn’t too far behind Babe Ruth’s 496 home runs and 1,441 RBI during the Bambino’s first full 11 seasons as a position player (discounting Ruth’s first few years primarily used as a pitcher).  That’s pretty impressive company for Pujols.

But then beginning in 2012 at age 32, Pujols’ production took a dramatic downturn compared to the standard he had set for himself in the prior 11 seasons.  Through 2017, his slash line had dropped to .262/.319/.459, although he was still averaging 28 home runs and 98 RBI per season.  For many other major-league players, however, those numbers would have been more than acceptable.  During his time with the Angels, Pujols has been on only one play-off team.

Pujols’ decline coincided with his being acquired as a free agent by the Los Angeles Angels, after the St. Louis Cardinals decided to not re-sign him after the 2011 season.  Cardinals management was heavily criticized for not retaining the marquee player in baseball at the time.  However, they were unwilling to shell out Pujols’ market value in a long-term contract.  The Angels signed Pujols to a mega-deal worth $240 million over 10 years.

However, neither Pujols’ change in scenery nor his big bankroll were the reasons for his offensive drop-off.  He didn’t age well, primarily plagued by plantar fasciitis in both feet.  Although he has played through the injuries for most of the time, his 2013 season was ended in July when he went on the disabled list (though not choosing to have surgery.)  The Angels have been forced to use Pujols as a DH much of the time to help him deal with the pain.

When the Angels promoted top prospect Mike Trout in 2012, they reckoned to have one of the best offenses in the game, led by the combination of Trout and Pujols.  However, Pujols didn’t deliver as expected; but Trout did his part, and in fact his career started much like Pojuols’ did with the Cardinals.  Trout was the American League Rookie of the Year in 2012 and has recorded six Top 4 finishes for the MVP Award in his first six full seasons, including first place in 2014 and 2016.  One wonders what the Angels could have been if Pujols had been able to sustain the performance he experienced with the Cardinals.

The Angels are saddled with a contract that still owes Pujols $87 million after this season.  His contract, along with the one Alex Rodriguez had with the Yankees, have become prime examples of why most major-league organizations now avoid such deals.

It’s not clear whether Pujols will finish out his contract with the Angels, which ends in 2021 when he will be 41 years old.  But one thing is pretty certain, Prince Albert, as he became known in St. Louis, will go down as one of the premier players in the history of the game, regardless of how or when he completes his career.

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