What has made Albert Pujols utterly amazing, of course, is that he has been a machine. This is so true that people call him “The Machine.” Until his sorta-psuedo-semi struggles last year — where he only ended up fifth in the MVP voting and hit less than .300 for the first time in his life — you could not even IMAGINE him struggling.
Yes, of course, if you looked deeper, he had his struggles now and again. No man is a machine. He had his power outages. He had his injuries. He had his months where he stumbled. For instance there was July 2001, when he hit .241 with little power.
*But that little fact might kind of prove the point: If you don’t include last year, I had to go back to his ROOKIE SEASON to find a month when he hit less than .250. Even last year, he only had one month when he did it — he hit .245 in April.
But in large part, Pujols’ career is defined by sheer relentlessness. His best season, great as it is, might not be quite as great as Ruth’s best, Bonds’ best, Mantle’s best, Brett’s best, Yaz’s best, Mays’ best, Ted Williams’ best, Frank Robinson’s best and so on. But with Pujols, it was always difficult to even pick which WAS his best season. Was it the year he hit .327 with 47 homers and led the league in on-base percentage and slugging percentage? Was it the year hit .359 with 51 doubles and 43 homers? Was it the year he hit .331, led the league in slugging, hit 49 homers and won the Gold Glove? Was it the year he hit .357, walked 100 times and led the league in total bases?
Was it … well, you get the point. They were all great. Every single one. It was a career like Aaron’s or Musial’s or Gehrig’s — an annual barrage of greatness.
And that’s why Albert Pujols’ April means something, I think. I’m not sure exactly what it means — I do try to avoid falling for that temptress called Small Sample Size — but it was the worst month of Albert Pujols’ career. He did not hit a single home run. He could not get on base. He is in a new ballpark that is tougher on hitters than his old one. He’s playing in a new league with different pitchers, perhaps a a few better ones. He’s playing in front of new fans who do not love him as much as the old St. Louis fans did — and why should they? He’s playing under the hailstorm of a 10-year, $240 million contract. And, let’s face it, he is 32 years old (while cynics snicker).
It means something, I think. Does it mean that Albert Pujols is done as a great player? Of course not. But baseball can be a cruel game. Cal Ripken never had a great season after age 30. Willie McCovey had his last great season at 32. AL Kaline’s last great season was around 32 too. The years are harsher than people ever want to believe. And they turn in one direction.
I suspect that Pujols will soon have a stretch of hitting awesomeness that will blow the mind and once again remind America that he is Albert Pujols. And everyone will say, ‘OK, Albert’s as great as ever.’ But it might not be that easy. I have this theory about age. Remember the McDonald’s commercials about the McDLT which kept the “hot side hot and the cool side cool?” Jason Alexander was in one of those commercials. Anyway, I think that one thing that happens with age is that the hot side loses some of it’s heat, and the cool side gets a little colder. I’ve been convinced that streaks and slumps are largely illusions of time and chance, but they still happen. The month Albert Pujols just had — with a .265 on-base percentage — was simply not a possibility for a 25-year-old Pujols, not over a 100 plate appearances.
And while he will undoubtedly have big stretches — look at Derek Jeter’s April — how many of them does he have left? And how long will those stretches be? Does he have another 50-game streak in him where he hits .370/.450/650? How about a 40-game stretch? A 30-gamer?
I looked at Pujols’ first 23 games every season of his career. Of course, it doesn’t mean all that much. Six-sevenths of the season remains. But even if you just look at the first 23 games, Albert Pujols was a machine. He struggled a bit in the early going last year and also in 2007. But neither was anything like this year’s start. And the other years are, well, Pujols-like.
Pujols told Jon Paul Morosi that he is not pressing, and that this is just the rhythm of baseball, and that he doesn’t care what anybody says, and that his numbers will be there at the end of the year. These are exactly the things he should be saying. And these are exactly the things he should be believing.
But, he really does look helpless up there at the moment. It could be a passing thing. But I can never remember that happening before.
Albert Pujols through 23 games:
2001: .379/.443/.759 with 8 homers
2002: .286/.419/.571 with 5 homers
2003: .359/.456/.594 with 3 homers
2004: .287/.411/.609 with 7 homers
2005: .330/406/.606 with 6 homers
2006: .351/.495/.909 with 13 homers
2007: .247/.337/.494 with 6 homers
2008: .377/.525/.610 with 4 homers
2009: .337/.457/.675 with 8 homers
2010: .344/.438/.656 with 7 homers
2011: .250/.313/.500 with 7 homers
2012: .217/.265/..304 with 0 homers