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How Albert Pujols' Legacy Has Changed Since Leaving the Cardinals for the Angels

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How Albert Pujols' Legacy Has Changed Since Leaving the Cardinals for the Angels
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

You're going to want to tune in to the action in Anaheim on Tuesday night, as there will you see a truly fascinating sight: Albert Pujols playing against the St. Louis Cardinals.

Yes, the time has come. And yes, it's going to be weird.

Pujols has been wearing a Los Angeles Angels uniform for a year and a half, but unless you regularly follow the Halos, your brain likely still associates him with Cardinals red. It's a psychological hangup owed to the mighty legacy the slugger crafted for himself in St. Louis.

Your brain might also realize that this legacy has been made decidedly less mighty in the months since Pujols left St. Louis. It's still a considerable legacy, but it's not what it once was. Or, depending on who you ask, what it might have been.

Take a second to think back to the last time we saw Pujols in a Cardinals uniform. That was the night of October 28, 2011, and he was celebrating the team's second World Series victory in the last six seasons.

At that moment, he had it all. 

 He was well established as the greatest hitter of his generation and one of the greatest hitters in the history of the game to boot. He was also a champion player who owned the rarest of baseball commodities: a name and a face practically synonymous with a historic franchise.

Much has changed since then.

Well, except for one thing. Pujols is still the greatest hitter of his generation. Miguel Cabrera is the game's best hitter now, but nobody should make the mistake of thinking that Miggy has supplanted Pujols as the best hitter to come along in the new millennium.

Consider their numbers through the age of 30, which is where Cabrera is now:

Player G AVG OBP SLG OPS OPS+ HR
 Pujols  1558  .331 .426   .624  1.050  172  408
 Cabrera  1592  .321 .398   .567   .966   154  346

That's all there is to say about that.

Meanwhile, in other realms, Pujols still compares favorably against the greatest hitters in history. His 1.010 career OPS ties him for seventh all-time with Rogers Hornsby. His 165 OPS+ is good for 10th. He's now only 12 homers shy of 500, a mark that he should reach by the end of the season.

With numbers like these, Pujols could retire tomorrow and easily be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. If that were to happen, he'd go in as one of the greatest hitters ever and arguably the greatest right-handed hitter ever.

Harry How/Getty Images

But there was a time when Pujols looked like he was going to go into Cooperstown as undoubtedly the greatest right-handed hitter ever. And who knows? Maybe he would have gone in as the greatest hitter from either side of the plate. 

Now, whatever chance he has of going in as either is fading.

Pujols was a .328/.420/.617 hitter in 11 seasons with the Cardinals. In a season and a half with the Angels, he's a .273/.336/.486 hitter. There's a 215-point difference between his OPS as a Cardinal (1.037) and his OPS as an Angel (.822), as well as a 41-point difference between his OPS+ as a Cardinal (170) and his OPS+ as an Angel (129).

None of the other top hitters in baseball history through the age of 31 suddenly saw his production decline that dramatically.

Player Through 31 OPS+ 32-33 OPS+ Difference
Babe Ruth  212  216  +4
Ted Williams  193  166*  -27
Ty Cobb  185  150  -35
Lou Gehrig  184  183  -1
Rogers Hornsby  178  189  +11
Mickey Mantle  177  160  -17
Stan Musial  172  168  -4
Albert Pujols  170  129  -41
Jimmie Foxx  170  145  -25
Frank Thomas  169  156*  -13

*Ted Williams missed much of his age-33 season in 1952 due to military service. Frank Thomas missed much of his age-33 season in 2001 with a triceps injury.

There's a lot of negative movement in that "Difference" column, which goes to show that even the greatest hitters are prone to the cruel whims of Father Time. But nobody else dropped off as much as Pujols has, which underscores just how quickly he's careened towards mediocrity with the Angels.

This doesn't make the guy a bum; Pujols is still one of the greatest hitters ever. Nonetheless, there's no denying that he's not the player he once was since joining the Angels.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

It's not just Pujols' legacy as a hitter that's taken a hit in the last two years; his legacy as a winner has taken a hit too.

The Angels' record since the start of 2012 is 128-116. They missed the playoffs last year, in large part because they had a very hard time getting off the ground while Pujols was struggling mightily in April. After three months of play in 2013, the Angels are nine games back in the AL West and once again look ticketed for an October filled with golf rather than baseball.

Meanwhile, in St. Louis, the Cardinals are just fine without Pujols.

The Cards made the playoffs and came within a win of the World Series last year. This year has seen them occupy first place in the NL Central for all but a couple days. Given the strength they have up and down their roster, they once again look like a World Series contender.

It's not Pujols' fault that the Angels have been so mediocre since they signed him. After all, they have many more problems than just him.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

But Pujols had a Derek Jeter sort of vibe going for him as a Cardinal. He appeared to be the key cog of a legitimate dynasty that produced three pennant winners and two champions in eight years. In addition to the hitter he was in St. Louis, the Angels were surely hoping he'd be the same kind of leader for them.

No dice. With his Angels stuck in the mud and the Cardinals carrying on as usual, the Jeter vibe is yet another thing that's fading for Pujols.

But let's stop here and be fair. Pujols' legacy as one of the greatest hitters in the history of the game is trending in the wrong direction, as is his legacy as one of the game's great champion players. But these are things that can be fixed.

Maybe Pujols will be the next guy to experience a late-career resurgence at the plate. While he's at it, maybe he'll lead the Angels to a World Series or two. He has eight more seasons to try after this one. That's a lot of time, and one presumes the Angels won't be making misguided decisions forever.

If Pujols once again becomes a great hitter and eventually goes on to help lead the Angels to a World Series victory or two, his Angels legacy will be able to hold a candle to his Cardinals legacy. What's more, he's going to have an all-timer of a redemption story to add to his overall legacy.

The tricky part is going to be winning over those who resent the fact that he even has an Angels legacy in the first place. That's something he may never be able to do.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
For the record, I don't hold Pujols' decision to leave St. Louis against him. I see no reason to. 

Pujols didn't choose the Cardinals. They chose him, and for 11 years, they got way more out of him than they were paying for. He finally got a chance to be paid fair-market value, and he took the best deal he could get. 

Former big leaguer Dirk Hayhurst said it best in a guest column right here on B/R: "It’s always easy to demonize a player for going with dollars over emotions, but to hate a person for doing what many of us would do ourselves if put in the same scenario is hypocritical."

Pujols took the money. So what? I would have too. So would you if you had been in his shoes.

But any of us would also have realized what Pujols hopefully understood the moment he said yes to the Angels' offer: A lot of people were about to become very angry.

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

It's a reaction that comes hand in hand with every big-money free-agent signing. Players who sign for as much money as Pujols did aren't viewed as businessmen; they're viewed as sellouts.

Especially if they're leaving behind what seemed to be a match made in heaven with a team that could, nay, should, have lasted forever. For many, Pujols leaving behind something that felt so right was just so wrong.

Gregg Doyel of CBSSports.com put it bluntly:

Pujols could have been Derek Jeter. He could have been Cal Ripken. He could have been Ernie Banks or Ryne Sandberg or, yes, Stan Musial.

Instead he'll be Alex Rodriguez or Manny Ramirez or Gary Sheffield, just another big-bopping mercenary playing out the string in a city he chose because it offered the biggest selection of his favorite color: green.

This was before anyone knew what would become of the Cardinals. We know now that they're still among the game's best and that they should continue to be thanks to a front office that seems to be a million steps ahead of the curve.

The fans don't mind celebrating the irony of it all. They certainly were when the Cardinals found their way into the playoffs last year while Pujols and the Angels missed out and went home. Kevin Kaduk of Yahoo! Sports was kind enough to round up a few telling tweets.

"Here's hoping No. 5 is watching," said the general message of the tweets. "I want him to see what he's missing."

Meanwhile, on Facebook, there's an "Albert Pujols is a sellout" page. More than one, in fact. There's also an "Albert Pujols is a greedy trader" page—which, not surprisingly, hasn't been found by too many people.

They don't speak for everyone, but the haters are out there, and their numbers are not small. As soon as he jumped ship to Anaheim, the trick was going to be for Pujols to avoid giving them any ammunition. It was going to be on him to take the high road at every turn.

He failed to do so in his recent one-on-one with Jon Morosi of FoxSports.com. He started off by hitting all the right notes—e.g. “St. Louis is still a special place for me" and "that city made me who I am today”—but then he offered up this eyebrow-raising remark about his exit:

I think the only thing I’m bitter about is the way the front office handled it a little bit. I think they should have handled it a little better. I’m bitter about that. They tried to make me look like I was a bad guy. But that’s OK. I’m a big boy.

Maybe Pujols has a gripe, maybe he doesn't. It's academic from a PR standpoint, because all Pujols was interested in doing with this comment was pointing an accusatory finger at the Cardinals.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
That's not taking the high road. That's playing the blame game, and participating in one of those is no way for Pujols to win back his critics. For jilted fans, the only thing that's more pitiful than a sellout is a sellout who can't bear the label.

Unwittingly, that's what Pujols made himself by professing his bitterness. And it's a label he may find sticking to him for a while.

We've reached the end of this exercise. For the most part, it felt like a bummer. I'm not going to bother crunching the numbers, but I'm guessing I wrote twice as many negative things as I did positive things.

I wish that wasn't necessary, but, well, that's just how it is. Pujols' time in Anaheim has been a disaster, so I'll be damned if there's a way to put his Angels career next to his Cardinals career and find a way to be all happiness and sunshine about his legacy.

Do you think leaving the Cardinals hurt Pujols' legacy?

Submit Vote vote to see results

Yes, it's still a truly awesome thing when taken as a whole. Remove context from the equation, and Albert Pujols is the best hitter of his time and one of the greats the game has ever known. Every hitter in the league would die to be him, and there are a ton of guys who would love to have his rings and to experience for one year what he got to experience for over a decade in St. Louis. For his legacy, the word "enviable" doesn't even come close.

But even when taken as a whole, it's hard not to notice the dents. After so many years of not taking hits, Pujols' legacy has taken an awful lot of them ever since he left St. Louis.

Speaking as a longtime Pujols admirer, all I can say is that it watching it happen hasn't been fun.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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