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Albert Pujols as a Leader Can Help Angels' World Series Run

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Albert Pujols as a Leader Can Help Angels' World Series Run
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The numbers are now celebrated only in relevant context, and the comparisons to himself as a productive superstar are less frequent, replaced by comparisons to himself as an injured shell of one of the greatest hitters the sport has ever seen.

Albert Pujols is again a meaningful piece of a contending lineup, albeit not as an elite bat or the driving force. The Los Angeles Angels, partly because of his steady health and above-average production, are a World Series threat three seasons into Pujols’ highly priced era with the Orange County franchise.

At what seems like an old 34, mostly because he hit like few others ever have for so long, Pujols is the elder statesman in a veteran clubhouse. But it is his winning pedigree, the October experience and any kind of leadership qualities that should get better with agethose are things that make Albert Pujols as valuable as anyone else on the Angels roster.

Never one to be overly candid or to overtly display leadership qualities, Pujols keeps things simple, at least publicly.

"I’m just one of those 25 guys that want to accomplish the dream," Pujols told the Los Angeles Times’ Helene Elliott last week, "and that’s to win a championship."

With a steady Pujols, on the field and in the clubhouse, the Angels are as good a bet as any team in the majors right now.

The team’s four-game weekend sweep of their American League West rival, the Oakland A’s, goes a ways in realizing that dream.

Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

Pujols’ output in that seriesfour hits in 15 at-bats and two RBIwas not eye-popping, but his numbers since the Fourth of July are as productive as any significant stretch he’s had with the Angels since signing his 10-year, $240 million contract before the 2012 season.

In his last 52 games, Pujols is hitting .311/.371/.485 with an .857 OPS, seven home runs and 33 RBI. These aren’t superstar kind of numbers, but when you consider that Pujols, with the help of injuries, has been in extreme decline since leaving St. Louis, they are steady. And a steady Pujols, one who shockingly leads the team in games played (134), is a big deal.

He is 10th in the AL in home runs (24) and RBI (83) and has a realistic shot to hit the 30-100 plateaus, numbers that would be more meaningful this year as opposed to 2012 (30 and 105) when they were mostly empty calories.

"I think you’re seeing Albert closer to where he was in his heyday," Angels manager Mike Scioscia told the Times’ Elliott. "He’s anchored the middle of our lineup."

Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Depending on Pujols to do that entering this season would have led to eye rolls and headshakes. His last two seasons have been riddled with injuries and limited him to 253 games. Last season, plantar fasciitis cut his season down to 99 games and led to career lows in average (.258), home runs (17), RBI (64), on-base percentage (.330), slugging (.437), OPS (.767) and OPS-plus (116).

He was down across the board, and even though his contract seemed like a bad investment when it was initially made, it looked absolutely wretched after last summer. Wondering if Pujols would ever be healthy or productive enough to give the Angels acceptable value for even one season of the deal seemed iffy at best. 

Maybe as shocking as any of those slides is Pujols’ decline in walks. It is understandable that his walk rates would be down the previous two seasonshe had a career-low 7.8 percent in 2012, according to FanGraphsbut this season he is at 7.4 percent despite being productive and hitting in front of a healthy Josh Hamilton most of the year.

Pujols is swinging at fewer pitches outside the strike zone, but pitchers are simply challenging him more than they ever have before, as FanGraphs' numbers show.

That is telling because the fear he once struck into pitchers has faded.

There is also evidence that Pujols, probably because of knee and foot injuries, has driven the ball to the opposite field at a lower clip since becoming an Angel, according to ESPN’s Peter Keating. When Pujols does go the other way, though, he is productive, Baseball-Reference.com says. He is just doing it less frequently, again showing that pitchers are more willing to challenge him these days.

Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Pujols has had his share of critics, even during his St. Louis days. 

Some, including Yahoo Sports' Jeff Passan, questioned his role as leader as recently as the Cardinals’ last World Series run. And lately, there was a repeat of what has always been classic Pujols, telling the Times’ Elliott that reporters should not be so quick to criticize him since they’ve never played the game and don’t understand its difficulties.

Any reporter who has ever had dealings with Pujols and attempted to discuss anything other than his positive on-field exploits knows the player can be quick to cut off interviews. Criticism of any kind is dismissed with a gruff demeanor, unlike, say, teammate Josh Hamilton, who fields all questions with grace and poise even if some don’t like his answers.

Finding Pujols in the clubhouse to answer questions after a bad game is a crapshoot, and he, the house, pretty much always wins.

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Pujols has always been thin-skinned in this way. And according to Bleacher Report colleague Scott Miller, when Miller was with CBSSports.com, Pujols can also be this way with teammates. Miller cited sources in recounting a near-fistfight in 2012 between Pujols and then-teammate Torii Hunter, recognized as a good teammate and mentor to young players, after Hunter criticized Pujols for pouting when he played poorly even if the team won.

As Pujols loves to remind, the past is the past. The Angels don’t need him to be the rah-rah cheerleader type. But Pujols won two World Series with the Cardinals, and it is that experience that can help the Angels now.

Whatever advice or tutelage Pujols has in him, or however he can lead by example, as the magnifying glass gets closer to this club, this is the stretch where it can become invaluable to a franchise that hasn’t seen playoff baseball since 2009.

Here is Pujols’ chance to add to his resume and reputation off the field.

 

Anthony Witrado covers Major League Baseball for Bleacher Report. He spent the previous three seasons as the national baseball columnist at Sporting News and four years before that as the Brewers' beat writer for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Follow Anthony on Twitter @awitrado and talk baseball here.

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