Albert Pujols is playing in his 82nd game as an Angel tonight against the Baltimore Orioles, and its safe to say the first half of the 1st year of the rest of his career has been a bumpy one. Pujols had the worst April of his career, taking 31 games to hit his first long ball as a member of the Angels. The team predictably struggled as well, going 8-15 in the month of April before dominating throughout May (18-11) and June (17-9). Admittedly, the MVP-level of play from Mike Trout has probably been the biggest driving factor behind the Angels success, but when your slugging 1st baseman starts doing just that it doesn’t hurt either. On the other side of the coin, is the St. Louis Cardinals, who objected to matching the lofty $240 million/10-year deal Pujols was able to net and spent their money elsewhere while hoping big 2nd halfs from David Freese, Rafael Furcal, and Allen Craig would carry over to 2012. So far each team is solidly entrenched in the playoff chase, and both sides should have reason to feel happy about the transition of the future-Hall-of-Fame 1st baseman from the Midwest out to LA.
Los Angeles Angels
The Angels have gotten very excellent production out of Albert Pujols following the career-worst slump he was locked into at the beginning of the season. Pujols was hitting .217 entering play on May 1st with 0 homers and just 4 RBI in his first 23 games. He looked uncomfortable at the plate, lacking his traditional patience, swinging at pitches much earlier in the count than he ever had at any point in his career. Pujols started heating up in May (.269 with 8 homers and 24 RBI in 28 games) and turned it on in June, bashing the baseball to the tune of a .326/.409/.568 line with 11 doubles, 4 homers, and 23 RBI.
A big reason Pujols has turned his luck around is because the big slugger has started to hit the ball the other way again. Take a look at his spray chart from the month of May:
Pujols was pulling about 68% of his batted balls to the left third of the field, which was making him easy to defend, allowing managers to pull an effective 3-men-left-of-2nd base shift. As you can see from his shift chart from May 1st onward, Pujols has started hitting the ball the other way and has been a much more effective hitter.
The 6’3″, 230 pound 1st baseman has always been a well-balanced hitter with the ability to drive the ball to all fields, and his return to that approach has paid dividends over the last 2 months and should continue to do so.
Despite the slow start Pujols season long line is now .273/.335/.463 (OPS+ of 123) with 13 homers, 43 RBI, and 21 doubles. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see him finish with a season-long line of .300/.370/.530 with 30 homers and 110 RBI, which would be a very fine season to say the least. His health has also been good, only missing 1 game when he was given a day off by Mike Scioscia, and he’s been one of the 10 best defensive 1st basemen in baseball as well. For $12 million this season with the Angels on pace for a playoff spot, that’s money well spent. It doesn’t look so good going forward however, because I wouldn’t want to owe him escalating payments, which are going to be brutal $27 million in 2018 for Albert’s age-38 season going up to $30 million for his age-41 season in 2021.
St. Louis Cardinals
Their are 2 distinct and different ways to analyze the way the Cardinals replaced Albert Pujols and I intend to look at both of them. First things first, the Cardinals have to be happy with the production they’ve gotten at his old position. Pujols put up a .299/.366/.541 line with 37 homers and 99 RBI for an OPS+ of 147. This was by far the worst season of the prodigious sluggers career, and the Cardinals still won the World Series, meaning they need similar production to replicate 2011’s success.
So far so good for St. Louis because they once again have the highest scoring offense in the National League, scoring an average of 5 runs a game. Plan A, moving Lance Berkman to 1st from the outfield, thus upgrading the defense from a year ago while still maintaining above average offense, was moving along nicely(.333 with 7 extra base hits in 13 games) until the Big Puma hit the DL.
The Cardinals have since relied on a nice mix of players including, Matt Carpenter, Matt Adams, Steven Hill, and Allen Craig, at the position. Craig, Carpenter and Adams have split a majority of the time, and both have proven to be useful major league players. Craig has continued to swing a red-hot stick, hitting .306/.377/.619 with 13 homers in just 183 plate appearances while splitting time at first and in the outfield. Carpenter also appears to be a keeper, possessing solid hitting instincts and good gap-to-gap power. He’s batting .286/.356/.500 (OPS+ of 131) with 10 doubles and 2 homers on the season in 146 plate appearances. Adams, who is 23, is the younger of the two players and has struggled a little more, hitting .244/.286/.384 (OPS+ of 81) in 91 plate appearances, which is typical for a young hitter.
Financially, the Cardinals have also been a big winner in avoiding a large commitment to Albert Pujols, and instead landing Carlos Beltran for 2 years and just $26 million. All Beltran has done is put himself in MVP discussion by hitting .304/.393/.561 with 20 homers and a NL-best 63 RBI. He’s been the driving force in the Cardinal lineup and is making GM John Mozeliak look like one of the smartest men at his position once again. He consistently finds under-the-radar talent and his biggest contract, Matt Holliday, is looking like money well spent once again.
The Cardinals are currently 44-39 and 2.5 games back in the NL Central despite having the best run differential in the National League at +69. This can be attributed to the fact that St. Louis is just 8-13 in one-run games due mostly to the fact that they have a terrible bullpen. The Cards rank just 24th in baseball in bullpen ERA at 4.45 ,and I expect Mozeliak to once again scour the market to see what mid-season upgrade he can make, which could greatly improve the team’s chances. With ace Adam Wainwright struggling, Chris Carpenter done for the year (and maybe more), and Lance Lynn hitting his career-high in innings already, a pitching upgrade is once again in order. It will be interesting to see if the Cards on in on any of the big names (Hammels, Greinke, etc.) or if they can pry away someone useful from a team who’s chances this year are sinking.