The thing that’s strange – the thing that’s sad – is how little excitement there is now when he comes to the plate. Let’s go to a moment in Sunday’s Angels-White Sox game. The count is 3-0, and Albert Pujols has the green light. There should be an electrical charge buzzing the air. Only … really … there isn’t a buzz. There isn’t a charge. There isn’t anything at all. The thrill-o-meter is at zero.
So strange. So sad. It used to be one of baseball’s great thrills to watch Albert Pujols hit. Whether you were a Cardinals fan or not, you would find yourself marking the pace of games by Albert Pujols' at bats.
Pujols just hit, so he probably won’t come up for another two innings, let’s get a hot dog.
St. Louis is down two, but Pujols is scheduled to hit fourth in the eighth.
Hey, the Cardinals avoiding the double play means Pujols will get up one more time before the game’s over.
Stuff like that. Here are the top five players in baseball history after 10 years in Batting Wins Above Replacement – so, perhaps, the five best hitters after 10 seasons (the slash statistics are batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage):
Ted Williams: .347/.484/.633 with 366 doubles, 323 homers, 1,261 RBIs, 1,273 runs.
Albert Pujols: .331/.426/.624 with 426 doubles, 408 homers, 1,230 RBIs, 1186 runs.
Lou Gehrig: .343/.440/.640 with 321 doubles, 267 homers, 1,143 RBIs, 1,075 runs.
Stan Musial: .347/.431/.584 with 373 doubles, 206 homers, 923 RBIs, 1,044 runs.
Babe Ruth: .346/.477/.701 with 271 doubles, 305 homers, 932 RBIs, 969 runs.
Now, Ruth was a pitcher for much of his early career, and Pujols played in a better offensive era than many, but let’s not get too technical about all this. In his first 10 years, Albert Pujols hit more homers than any player ever, and also more doubles.
But the thing that was most striking about Pujols is that he was always exactly as good as he had been the year before. He never had a bad year. He never had anything RESEMBLING a bad year. They called him “The Machine.” If you take the WORST statistical totals he had those first 10 years – that is, the lowest batting average he had over those 10 years, the fewest home runs he hit, etc. -- you STILL come up with this season:
.312 average, .394 on-base, .561 slugging, 33 doubles, 34 homers, 117 RBIs, 99 runs.
Repeat: Those are his WORST numbers in those first 10 years. The guy was a first-ballot Hall of Famer on his worst day.
And he was thrilling to watch hit. He stood at the plate with that wide stance – he looked so sturdy and immovable, like he was magnetically connected with the batters’ box. He was like a marble statue up there.
The pitcher would throw a ball just off the plate, and Pujols would not only refuse to swing, he would look down and kick at the dirt as if the pitch had never happened, as if it was not even worthy of his disdain. Then, when the right pitch came, his pitch, he would unleash with such ferocity you could almost see the cartoon exclamation points dancing around the collision of bat and ball. Everyone has a Pujols example. He was always one swing away from inspiring awe.
That made him exciting, riveting, one of those athletes who could stop time … and now it’s just gone. It isn’t just that Albert Pujols is hitting .241, slugging about 200 points below his career average and striking out more than he’s walking again. By now, we must have gotten used to Pujols slow starts.
Through May 3, 2011: .231/.298/.419 with seven homers.
Through May 14, 2012: .197/.255/.275 with one homer.
Through May 19, 2013: .241/.313/.418 with seven homers.
Each of the last two seasons, he hit well enough the last four-plus months of the season to end up with strong numbers. Last year, for instance, after May 14 he hit .312/.374/.589 with 42 doubles and 29 homers. You have to believe that he will start hitting again at some point.
But, even assuming he does again find the range, even assuming he has a few more productive years, the truth is that Pujols has entered a different phase of his career. After years of being the best player in baseball, Pujols is now sort of beside the point.
Look: He is 33 years old, just beginning a $240 million contract, and he’s playing for an overpriced and kind of dreadful team that looks like it was built by a rotisserie baseball beginner who ran out at the last minute and bought three fantasy baseball magazines. He looks hurt. He looks tired. He looks out of place. He looks … well, truth is, who is even looking anymore?
Miguel Cabrera, who for years had to deal with being kind of a poor-man’s Albert, won the Triple Crown, something Pujols could never quite do. He’s the one who inspires awe now. St. Louis, the team and town he had come to represent, has gone on without him, and the Cardinals have the second-best record in baseball. And Pujols is not even the most exciting or interesting player on his own team.
You tell me: If you are a young Angels fan, who will you associate with and whose jersey will you buy – Albert Pujols or Mike Trout?
It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. Few players in baseball history have worked as hard as Albert Pujols to achieve greatness. He was doubted every step of his life. He moved to Kansas City from the Dominican Republic when he was young, and everyone always whispered that he was older than he said. As a high schooler, he hit legendary home runs his average topped .500 … but he was not even on the Kansas City’s Star’s all-metro first team, and he was not drafted. He went to Maple Woods Community College and crushed the ball with such ferocity that no self-respecting scout could possibly miss it … he hit .461 with 22 homers in 40 games and, according to legend, did not strike out a single time. But scouts did miss it. Pujols was not drafted until the 13th round by the Cardinals.
Eighteen months later, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa got his first good look at Pujols. His mind was utterly blown. Pujols played every day in St. Louis and had one of the greatest rookie years in baseball history. He was better every year after that.
He was driven by the doubters, spurred by the skepticism, galvanized by people’s pessimism. He talked often about his faith and how God awakened and strengthened him. He spent hours swinging bats in the cage. He cut out anything at all that might be a distraction. And he became the best player in baseball. Then, he became the best player in baseball again. Then he became the best player in baseball again.
It was a never-ending cycle for him. They said he was slow – he stole 16 bases the next year. They said he struck out too much – he started to annually appear in the Top 10 for fewest strikeouts per at-bat. They said his defense was a liability – he won two Gold Gloves and almost certainly deserved a few more.
Then, two years ago, he was a free agent and, he did not think the Cardinals respected him enough. Their first offer to him was insultingly low (well, relatively speaking, it was a five-year deal for $130 million). The Cardinals seemed to want him on the cheap (well, relatively speaking, $210 million with a bunch of it deferred). There’s no way to get into Pujols’ mind but you suspect he thought that, as the best player in baseball, he deserved the most money in baseball.
He got $240 million. He will be getting an average of almost $28 million a deal for the next eight years. Other than Alex Rodriguez’s insane contracts – which brought their own pain – it was the highest baseball deal ever signed.
But, there’s a cost too. And the cost is … well, back to Sunday’s game. It is Angels and White Sox, a couple of sub-.500 teams, and the count is 3-0. The Angels announcer points out that Pujols does not often swing 3-0, but this is a good time to swing if the pitch is right. Sure. Swing away! The air is warm, meaning the ball will travel if hit right. The Angels are up comfortably. Here is a chance for Albert to break out of a slump, to get a little greedy, to give the fans a thrill.
The pitch is right. Pujols unleashes the swing. There are no cartoon exclamation points. Instead, he pops up to the shortstop, completing his 0-for-4 day. There will be better days, of course. But the big thing, is nobody really seems to notice. Nobody really seems to care. That’s the cost.
Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on Twitter @JPosnanski. Click here to subscribe to Joe's stories.