What Kind of Player Can Albert Pujols Be When He Returns to MLB?
The Los Angeles Angels have a $212 million problem on their hands involving the problematic foot injury that has landed first baseman Albert Pujols on the disabled list with a chance that he could miss the remainder of the season.
That amount of money is what the Angels still owe Pujols from the 10-year, $254 million contract he signed after the 2011 season.
Despite some obvious warning signs in his final season with St. Louis that a deal of this magnitude would turn out badly down the road (because they almost always do), few could have predicted that the fall from grace would happen this rapidly.
Pujols went from hitting .299/.366/.541 with 37 home runs in his final season with the Cardinals to .285/.343/.516 with 30 home runs in 2012 and .258/.330/.437 with 17 home runs this season.
Prior to being placed on the disabled list, Pujols was worth 0.7 wins above replacement (h/t Fangraphs), less than players like Andy Dirks and Drew Stubbs.
Now, with the injury finally getting the better of him and his surgically repaired right knee getting the chance to properly heal, Pujols and the Angels are clearly looking towards the future. The team is 13 games out in the American League West and 8.5 back in the wild card race, all but forcing them to waive the white flag for this season.
This bout of plantar fasciitis is actually nothing new for Pujols; the severity of it has just gotten much worse.
Bleacher Report's injury expert Will Carroll said that Pujols has had "regular issues with his feet since 2004" and that treatment "kept the feet functional" until now. More specifically, the beginning of this season when it became much more noticeable.
Carroll, who spoke with foot and ankle specialist Dr. Bob Barvarian, also notes that because Pujols tore the fascia in his left foot, surgery isn't necessary since the tear basically accomplished the same thing as surgery, just without the level of control involved.
So with that, we can start to examine the kind of player Pujols will be moving forward now that he has essentially performed his own surgery.
First—and this bears repeating—the Angels have absolutely no reason to rush Pujols back. This is a player who often times this season looked like he could barely walk, let alone try to run or play first base.
When a team is having a season as miserable as the Angels, at least relative to initial expectations, trying to bring Pujols back—or letting him bring himself back—would be a pointless endeavor.
The Angels have way too many years and far too much money tied up in Pujols for him to risk doing any further damage to himself in 2013.
That is not to say Pujols that will never be a superstar again. He hasn't played at that level since 2011 and is four years removed from his last "peak season" when he posted seven wins above replacement and hit .312/.414/.596 for the Cardinals.
As Cliff Corcoran of Sports Illustrated noted in his piece on Pujols' injury, it is entirely possible that this is the best thing to happen right now.
Meanwhile, the Angels owe Pujols $212 million over the next eight years. Given the steady decline in his production and health over the last few seasons, their best hope of getting a solid return on that investment was to get Pujols healthy, and given his determination to play through his injuries, his being forced to the disabled list at just the right moment for that DL stay to bleed into the offseason may have been exactly what the doctor ordered.
Pujols' numbers have steadily declined in the years since, which isn't a surprise considering how consistently great he was and the fact that he is moving deeper into his 30s.
When they signed Pujols, the Angels gambled on his age 32-41 seasons, hoping that they would get at least a few All-Star seasons, possibly a renewed peak since he could DH, win a World Series and then just take whatever they got at the end.
Instead, things look more dire than ever for the 33-year-old. He has the worst rate stats of his career, but despite that bleak outlook there are a few reasons to be optimistic about a return to his 2012 performance in the near-future.
First, despite all his issues, Pujols' strikeout (12.4 percent) and walk rates (9.0 percent) fall in line with what he has done the previous two years (10.1 percent strikeout rate and 8.6 percent walk rate in 1,321 at-bats).
When a player's offensive skills start to decline, there is usually a noticeable shift in walk and strikeout rates. They will start their bat earlier and cheat on fastballs to make up for a loss of bat speed.
Pujols has done that in recent seasons, but there is still enough acceleration in his hands and wrists to get the bat head through the zone and drive the ball.
Second, Pujols' BABIP of .258 is 48 points below his career mark and 24 points less than what it was in 2012 despite him having a better line drive rate (19.8 percent to 18.8 percent) and his lowest groundball rate since 2006.
As a right-handed hitter, Pujols plants his left foot, the one that was causing him problems, before swinging the bat. By getting the issue taken care of now, it is reasonable to expect that he can return to at least one more season of .280/.340/.500.
What kind of player will Albert Pujols be in the future?
However, we don't really know whether to attribute Pujols' decline to issues from his foot injury or a natural erosion in skills that we have seen over the last three years due to age. Especially considering that, as Carroll noted, Pujols has been dealing with some variation of this injury for nearly a decade.
For instance, one huge change in Pujols' approach is the number of pitches he swings at outside the strike zone. Prior to joining the Angels, his highest rate in that category was 31.8 percent in 2011. Last year, that number jumped all the way up to 36.4 percent. It has dropped a bit this year to 34.3%.
What those totals suggest is that Pujols has to cheat a lot more now to hit pitches that he used to let travel deep into the zone before committing one way or the other. That can explain his low BABIP total this year and his career-low home-run-to-fly-ball ratio of 11.8 percent.
If I were to guess—and this is using all of the numbers mentioned as well as the fact that he will turn 34 in January—Pujols can have one or, at most, two seasons as a 3-4 WAR player. After that, we are probably going to see a lot of what we did this year even if his foot isn't a major source of concern.
Pride and an unflinching desire to help the team has kept Pujols on the field much longer than his body would allow. His foot finally snapped, almost literally, and told him now was the time to take a step back.
That may seem bleak considering the Angels still have eight years and a truck load of money still invested in Pujols, not to mention the player he used to be at the height of his powers, but that is the danger of handing out that kind of contract to a player over the age of 30.
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