Sunday, April 29, 2012

Cardinals Breathing a Sigh of Relief?

With all due respect to Albert Pujols and his Hall of Fame credentials, the Cardinals must be breathing a sigh of relief that the King left St Louis in a huff, taking his act to Southern California - and quite an act it is.  After another 0 for 4 (.216 BA - 0 HR) performance on Sunday in Cleveland, the newest member of the LA Angels of Anaheim - the LAAoA - has played in all 22 of its games, of which the Halos have won a grand total of seven; that's only ten games or so behind the Texas Rangers.  No problem.

Somehow, I don't think that's what Arte Moreno had in mind when he schmoozed the former Cardinal icon over the phone last fall so convincingly, he got Albert to leave the only organization he's ever known, along with its adoring fans, to practice his craft in the AL West.  Thus began the newest chapter in the life of Albert Pujols:  The Declining Years.

Although Albert has had his struggles at the plate over the past couple of seasons; especially in 2011, when he came close, but failed to hit .300 or drive in 100 runs in a season for the first time in his career; he was still regarded as one of the most dangerous hitters in MLB.  That's the guy Arte was expecting to see dressed up like an Angel for the next ten years; not the guy who has done nothing for his new team except manage to get thrown out running the bases on four different occasions; which isn't easy, since he hasn't been on base much more than four times to begin with.

Of course, there's a great deal of baseball yet to be played this year; quite possibly, God will once again allow Albert to hit like he used to when he was a Cardinal.  There's also the possibility that won't happen; that at age-32, his skills have simply eroded to the point where he can no longer hit for power, with a high average; like he used to do in the good old days.  If thirty-two sounds too young to be washed-up, consider what happened to Dale Murphy.

From 1982 through 1987, Atlanta Braves slugging outfielder Dale Murphy was one of baseball's most outstanding players.  The model of consistency, the two-time National League Most Valuable Player ('83 and '84) averaged 36 home runs, 110 runs scored, and 105 runs batted in over that remarkable six-year span.  Murphy was truly the ideal player.  He played the game hard; he never complained; and he was always cordial to fans and media.

Dale Murphy was a perfect role model; that's for sure.

Just imagine what kind of contract Dale Murphy would have landed if he had played nowadays - become eligible for free agency - then decided to test the market (forsaking his Braves' legacy) with these numbers on his resume:

AGE    G                R        HR    RBI    BA    OBP    SLG
26       162             113       36      109    .281   .378    .507
27       162             131       36      121    .302   .393    .540
28       162              94        36      100    .290   .372    .547
29       162            118        37      111    .300   .388    .539
30       160              89        29       83     .265   .347    .477
31       159            115        44      105    .295   .417    .580

What we have here is the National League's Most Valuable Player at the age of 26, who actually improved his performance the following year in every measurable category (aside from the identical home run total). That was good enough for another well-deserved MVP Award.

Over the next couple of seasons, Murphy maintained this high level of production while never missing a single game.  By the time he had completed his stellar age-29 season, he had finally broken out of his three-season-36 home run rut with a new high-water mark:  37!  The Atlanta slugger was getting better with age, but then again, he had not yet even celebrated his 30th birthday.

Well, Murphy celebrated his 30th birthday by posting career lows in every statistical category across the board.  Was this an aberration or a reflection of a player who was now slightly past his prime?  I think we know the answer to that now; back then, we weren't sure.

When Murphy rebounded at the age of 31 to produce career highs in home runs, on base percentage, and slugging percentage, what happened the previous season did indeed seem like an aberration.  Dale Murphy really seemed invincible.  There was no apparent reason to think he couldn't perform at a similarly high level for another five to ten years; maybe longer.  Sure; why not?

While many organizations in the market for a free agent would never take a (long-term) chance on anyone over thirty - regardless of their past accomplishments - there are others with money to burn; they don't hesitate to invest in these prized commodities, especially ones that have hit 40 or more home runs recently.  The assumption is that will go on forever, or at least another five or ten years; depending on the length of the contract.  They never learn; but we do.

In Dale Murphy's case, fresh off that sensational forty-four dinger - .580 SLG campaign, came this rude awakening:

AGE     G           R        HR     RBI     BA   OBP   SLG
32        156         77        24       77     .226   .313    .421
33        154         60        20       84     .228   .306    .361
34        154         60        24       83     .245   .318    .417
35        153         66        18       81     .252   .309    .415
36         18           5          2         7     .161   .175    .274
37         26           1          0         7     .143   .224    .167

Is the thirty-two year-old Albert Pujols well on his way to a similar offensive catastrophe?  Probably not; but it's interesting to note, Dale Murphy's age-31 season was significantly better than the King's, who has been steadily declining for the past three years, to begin with.  For Albert to even come close to the production of 2011 - his worst season - would be no easy task, after this unprecedented slower than slowest of starts, featuring just 4 RBIs in 22 games; and of course, no home runs, either.

By the way, with Albert's latest 0 for 4 effort on Sunday, he broke a thirty-eight year-old record for home run futility to start a new season with a new team, previously held by former-Giants-turned-Padres slugger, Willie McCovey.  Both Willie and Albert were among players who had amassed at least 400 career home runs with only one team, then changed teams.  In McCovey's case, his 1974 move from San Francisco to San Diego came at the age of 36; which partly explains why it took him 87 ABs to hit his first home run as a member of the Padres.  On Sunday, April 29, 2012, the 32-year old Pujols now stands at 88 ABs without a dinger, and counting.  Also, counting a few homer-less games towards the end of last season, Pujols has safely avoided hitting a home run in a new personal record for futility:  28 consecutive games.  For those trying to find something that might indicate Pujols is coming out of his terrible hitting funk, this is of little consolation.  Sorry.

If Pujols is indeed mired in an inescapable career downward spiral, it should really come as no surprise; after all, it gradually began right around the time he turned thirty, and he's not getting any younger.

Meanwhile, Cardinal Nation is grateful for the eleven years of peak performance Albert delivered; they're also breathing a sigh of relief for sidestepping those next ten years.


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