You might have seen it — I just wrote a piece about Albert Pujols that was mostly intended to celebrate the player that Pujols was not so long ago. It seems amazing to me that Pujols is coming to the end of his fifth season with the Angels, which means that there are is a whole new generation of baseball fans who have never seen anything other than THIS Pujols — aging, one-dimensional, a DH, beat up, limited as a hitter. They should hear about the real Albert Pujols.
In doing so, however, I did want to ask the obvious question: Why do we keep believing that baseball players age better than they do?
I’ve gotten quite a bit of response — with much of the response insisting that Pujols has aged just fine and is obviously having a SUPERB year because he has a lot of ribbies. I don’t believe this to be true at all, and included why in the piece. Pujols’ 101 RBIs look great to the naked eye, but they are in large part an illusion. Pujols is now a roughly league average hitter who gets to hit in the middle of the Angels lineup, meaning he comes to the plate with many more men on base than anyone else in baseball.
The fact people still want to believe so deeply in the power of RBIs — “Runs win games, not your stupid statistics,” as a brilliant reader so eloquently put it — tells you the power of conditioning. We of a certain age grew up being told that only three hitting statistics last forever — batting average, home runs and RBIs — and the greatest of these is RBIs. The gospel was hammered in out heads, again and again, by newspapers, by television, by radio, by magazines, by conversations, by math teachers.
In 2005, the Kansas City Royals gave the everyday left field job to a minor-league journeyman named Emil Brown. He had kicked around baseball for a decade or so. He was drafted by Oakland, taken by Pittsburgh in Rule 5 draft, traded to San Diego, at which point he signed free agency deals with Tampa Bay, with Cincinnati, with St. Louis and with Houston. He had played ball in Modesto, in Nashville, in Grand Rapids and Durham and Louisville and Memphis, in Campeche of the Mexican League, in New Orleans and Portland, not to mention San Diego and Pittsburgh. He was 30 years old when he came to Kansas City.
Royals general manager Allard Baird loved giving guys like Emil Brown a chance. There were a couple of reasons for this. One, Baird loved (and loves) the process of discovery, of seeing something more in a player. He helped save the career of Raul Ibanez by giving him an everyday job when Raul was on the brink of being washed out of the game.
Two, the Royals didn’t really have anyone else to play left field.
So the Royals gave Brown the full-time left fielder’s job — and he was terrible. In early May he was hitting .194 with five extra-base hits. It was exactly as you would have expected — up to that point, Brown had been given 450 career plate appearances and his lifetime average was .200. Brown, as Denny Green might say, was who we thought he was.
Only, he wasn’t. The Royals stuck with him. And something funny happened. Thirty-year-old minor league journeyman Emil Brown started hitting. Over the next two months, he hit .319/.384/.484, hit a bunch of doubles, brought his season average to .286. He kept his average there for the rest of the year, hit with a bit more power as September came along, and finished with surprisingly decent looking counting numbers: .286, 17, 86.
He led the Kansas City Royals in RBIs.
A year later he had almost EXACTLY the same year — .287, 15, 81 — only with a few more doubles and walks. He again led the Royals in RBIs, this time by a lot.
Now, it should be said that when you took everything into consideration, Emil Brown’s flaws countered his hitting. He was, by the numbers and the eyesight, a subpar defender. In his first year, his 2.4 offensive WAR was wiped out by his -2.8 defensive WAR.
But that’s not the point here. The point is that the single most valuable thing for an everyday player in baseball is opportunity. It is plate appearances. It is the chance to hit with runners on base. When Emil Brown got those plate appearances — and kept getting them even after he struggled — he put up numbers. When there were runners on base, he drove in runs.
Albert Pujols will keep getting plate appearances — and keep getting them in the middle of the Angels lineup — because he’s Albert Pujols. But, based on pure performance, should he?
He’s hitting .259/.321/.446.
League average is: .258/.321/.424.
Even giving Pujols a few points because he does hit in a tough home ballpark, league average hitting is usually not good enough to get someone the No. 3 or No. 4 spot in a lineup behind Mike Trout. Plus, it’s important to mention that Pujols’ only value is as a hitter; when you look at league average you are including all the positions that are demanding defensively. Here is the American League average for players who play DH, 1B, RF and 3B:
Pujols has come to the plate with 431 runners on base, that’s 51 more than any other player in the American League. He has done a nice job of hitting with runners on base — he is Albert Pujols, after all — but not significantly better than Emil Brown did in 2005. If Brown came to the plate with as many people on as Pujols has, you would expect based on his numbers to drive in 100 runs this year. True, Pujols will drive in 120, mostly because he hits more home runs. But, again, we are comparing Albert Pujols and EMIL BROWN.
I wrote in my piece that there are a half dozen sluggers in Triple A who, given Pujols’ spot every day in the middle of the Angels lineup, would thrive and knock in a bunch of runs. Some took offense to that, and I can understand that it doesn’t sound all that polite, but I feel sure it’s true. Emil Brown convinced me of that. There are a handful — not a lot, but a handful — of minor league players who will never get the opportunity to play every day in the big leagues because of defensive liabilities or age issues or something else that’s lacking. But if given 600 plate appearances in the Angels lineup, they probably could hit about as well as Albert Pujols is hitting this year. I don’t say that to insult Pujols — he is one of the greatest players in baseball history and it has been an honor watching him.
But he is 36, and he is aging because even the greatest players do. Ben Lindbergh reported on Twitter that in the Detroit broadcasting booth they were actually arguing whether Pujols or Trout is having the better year, and someone apparently said: “Pujols has better numbers–24 and 100 — Trout at 24 and 82.” Nonsense like that doesn’t do anybody any good, and it insults the memory of Albert Pujols when he really was the best player in the the game.