The best player in baseball. That's a title that has belonged to Albert Pujols since Barry Bonds stopped putting up double-digit WAR seasons in 2004. It's a title that, until recently, had been given to Pujols uncontested.
After all, Pujols had never OPS'd under .955 until last year, when he still managed to belt 37 home runs in 147 games. Pujols had never hit under .312 either...until last year, when he finished the season at .299. Pujols' lowest OBP of his career was in his sophomore season, when he only reached base at a .394 clip... until last year, when he only had a .366 on base percentage.
It's alright though -- Pujols is allowed to have an off year, and 2011 was it, right? I mean, most baseball players would call Pujols' 2011 a career year. After he launched three homers into the Texas night in Game 3 of the World Series, everybody knew that Pujols was just fine, right?
Once Pujols hit 30, and let's just operate under the premise that he was born in 1980 since we have no evidence at all to suggest otherwise, he began to decline. Pujols was the typical Albert Pujols in 2009, leading the Cardinals to the playoffs before being swept in the NLDS by the Los Angeles Dodgers. In 2010, he began to decline slightly, dropping from a 9 WAR player to a 7.5 WAR player. That WAR fell even further in 2011, dropping to a mortal 5.1.
So, what's been the reason for Pujols' fall from immortality?
For starters, Pujols is walking less. A lot less. In 2009, Pujols' BB% was a career-high 16.4%. In 2010, it dropped to a still-excellent 14.7%. In 2011, however, it fell to a 9.4% rate -- the lowest of his career. Though it's still very early, it's even worse in 2012, at a mere 4.7%. Hardly Pujols-esque.
Watching Pujols last year throughout the summer, Pujols seemed to be pressing. Many Cardinals fans, myself included, figured it was simply because he was pressing -- you know, the huge contract coming his way, and the fact that he struggled so mightily to start the year. Small sample size city, but watching Pujols last year, he seemed to chase 2-1, 3-1 and 3-0 pitches that he normally wouldn't -- and when he did make contact, it wasn't with authority. It seemed that last year, for the first time in his career, Pujols was expanding the strike zone. That has seemingly carried over this year.
Still, Pujols isn't this bad. Legends just aren't this bad. Heck, nobody is this bad. It's safe to say that Pujols won't be hitting .198/.235/.286 at the end of the season.
He's not that bad, but he'll never be 2009-good again. He'll never be one of the best hitters of all-time again. Father Time has caught up to Pujols. The decreased walk percentage could very well correlate to a drop in bat speed -- Pujols could have to start his swing earlier to compensate for the loss of bat speed, meaning, he has to expand his zone a bit more than he's used to.
Let's also not forget that Pujols has dealt with injuries throughout his entire career -- ranging from plantar fasicities to a fractured wrist, to actually almost needing to undergo Tommy John surgery. These injuries add up on a person's body, and Pujols clearly is not getting any younger.
So, what will Albert Pujols be the rest of the way? More than likely, he'll be a very good hitter. At times, he'll be an elite hitter, but his days of being the best hitter in all of baseball are over. Matt Kemp is here. Evan Longoria is here. Josh Hamilton is here. Miguel Cabrera is here. The Angels will likely see Pujols put up numbers more in line with 2011, when Pujols finished at .299/.366/.541 than they will from 2008, when he hit .357/.462/.653.
The Angels paid a big price to get Pujols. Unfortunately for them, they paid for what Pujols had been, and not what Pujols is and will be in the coming years. Angels fans will have to live with this, and they'll enjoy the moments when he's locked in, and when he's chasing home runs number 500, 600 and eventually 700. Still, they're stuck paying him a lot of money, and they'll never love him the way Cardinals fans loved him through his peak -- and that could be a problem for Pujols as well, as he went from a market where he could do no wrong to a market where he needs to do a lot of right to justify his contract.
Albert Pujols has arrived in Los Angeles. It's just Albert Pujols version Los Angeles Angel, a very different player from Albert Pujols, the St. Louis Cardinal -- and there's nothing to suggest otherwise.