Saturday, May 26, 2012

Pujols & Fielder Have Much in Common

The two biggest winners in MLB's free agent sweepstakes - Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder - have much in common, aside from all the money.  Both are power-hitting first basemen who once played for rival NL Central teams - the St Louis Cardinals and the Milwaukee Brewers.  Both were widely revered - even idolized - by their legion of fans.  Both chose to leave.  Both signed massive long-term contracts with American League teams - the LA Angels of Anaheim and the Detroit Tigers.  Both are under the employ of very generous owners who are trying very hard to put together a winning team for their fans.  Both will finish their careers as Designated Hitters.

One was expected to help his new team reach the postseason for the first time since 2009.  The other was expected to help his new team easily win a second straight division title.  The fans in both cities - LA and Detroit - were deliriously happy; their new teammates were absolutely giddy when the news of their signings broke.

Both teams already had capable first basemen - Mark Trumbo and Miguel Cabrera - that have been forced to play other, less capable defensive positions.  Cabrera willingly made the move to third base where he has performed significantly worse, as expected, than incumbent Brandon Inge, who was subsequently released, as the odd-man out.  Ironically, Inge's career has since been revitalized as the new third baseman for the Oakland A's; hitting home runs and driving in runs like Lou Gehrig in his prime, until recently sidelined by a trip to the DL.

Trumbo has been the Angels' most productive hitter since breaking in with the team last season.  No longer considered a viable option at first base, Trumbo has proven to be a defensive liability at third base, while a log-jam in the outfield has kept him out of the Halos' anemic lineup far too often.  To help give him more playing time, the team released veteran Bobby Abreu, who subsequently hooked on with the Dodgers, and is playing quite well; naturally.

Meanwhile, as the season reaches the Memorial Day milestone, both teams are playing significantly below their expectation level - losing more often than not - and have more than just a few disgruntled fans wondering if the price of admission for future games is going to be worth it.

Both teams have a myriad of problems that need to be resolved for the remaining 70-75% of the regular season, if they hope to make it into the expanded postseason mix.  For the kind of money these guys are making, there are more than just a few casual observers who think neither one is earning their keep.  Pujols got off to the worst start of his career - one of the most well-publicized slumps in MLB history - but has slowly begun to dig himself out of the abyss; especially after Friday night's three-run bomb in Seattle, which helped rally the Angels to a come-from-behind victory.  He then added a solo shot in Saturday's win over the Mariners, so perhaps he's on the way to producing more "Pujols-like" numbers this season, although his 0 for 4 Sunday knocked his career batting average down to .325; three points lower than he began the season.

Fielder has maintained a very respectable batting average all season long, but hasn't quite produced the overwhelming power numbers the Tigers organization was hoping to see.  With Albert's recent power surge, he's very close to matching the run production which Prince has quietly accounted for so far this season.  The batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage is another story.  Through Sunday, here are their latest stats:

              G      HR   RBI   BA   OBP   SLG   OPS+
Pujols     48       7      26   .227   .271    .387     85
Fielder    47       7      28   .317   .379    .489    138

162 Game Projections:  Pujols - 24 HR - 88 RBI; Fielder - 24 HR - 97 RBI.

How does this compare to the typical offensive production each player has generated during their careers?  Well, if Albert goes on to only hit 24 home runs this year, he will establish a new career low (so far, 32 home runs has been his lowest total).  Fielder has slugged as many as 51 home runs in a season, so his current pace would yield about half that total.

Here's what Arte Moreno and Mike Ilich were probably hoping for when they made those large commitments to both sluggers:

162 Game Career Averages (Through 2011):

Pujols - 42 HR - 125 RBI - .328 BA/.420 OBP/.617 SLG - 170 OPS+

Fielder - 37 HR - 106 RBI - .282 BA/.390 OBP/.540 SLG - 143 OPS+

Fielder has been hitting for a slightly higher average since joining the Tigers, but is drawing fewer bases on balls, so his OBP is off a bit from his career average.  The big concern, which should be no big surprise, is this year's diminished slugging percentage.  Quite simply, Fielder's power numbers were inflated by playing half his games at hitter-friendly Miller Park; at least compared to pitcher-friendly Comerica Park where he now plays half his games.  That's understandable.  Pujols is another story.

Not only has Albert never hit less than 32 home runs in a single season, last year was the first time in his career he failed to drive in 100 runs, although he came close with 99.  While he may be able to muster up enough power and enough playing time to avoid new career lows in those categories - he is almost certain to fall well short of these previous "career worst" totals, set just last year:  .299 BA/.366 OBP/.541 SLG.

Despite his recent heroics, the thirty-two year-old Pujols is clearly experiencing a rapid decline in his batting skills.  If this continues for another nine years, it's likely his career batting average will fall below .300, his on base percentage below .400, and his slugging percentage well below .600; perhaps closer to a mere mortal .500 SLG.

If that sounds blasphemous, consider that his career batting average since joining the Angels has already dropped from .328 to .325; his career on base percentage is down from .420 to .416; and even more alarming, his career slugging percentage has dropped seven points, from .617 to .610.  As it stands, Pujols is one of only seven players in MLB history with a career slugging percentage over .600.  He still ranks fourth all-time, behind Ruth (.690), Williams (.634) and Gehrig (.632), but now he's just one point higher than Foxx (.609).  Bonds (.607) and Greenberg (.605) also figure to go up a notch as Albert slides further down the ladder, under that magical .600 plateau; probably before the end of the season.

When he fades from that elite slugging status, his reputation as one of game's all-time greatest players will surely be tarnished.  Of course, no matter what happens for the remainder of his career, Albert Pujols will still be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, when the time comes.  Somehow, it's hard to picture him being enshrined at Cooperstown wearing anything but a Cardinals jersey.

Fielder, who is four years younger than Pujols, may have already reached his peak, although he should continue to be a fairly productive hitter for the bulk of his nine-year stint with Detroit.  Whether or not that body will have enough batting skill left inside to warrant another contract somewhere remains to be seen.  If not, perhaps he'll begin a new chapter in his life as a batting instructor somewhere; maybe the Angels will need another one by that time; someone who could possibly help a 41-year old Albert Pujols get out of another season-long slump.

In the meantime, it appears the Cardinals found a significantly better replacement for their departed slugger than the Brewers were able to scrounge up for their lost power source.  Here's their comparison:

                            G     HR   RBI   BA   OBP   SLG    OPS+
Carlos Beltran      46     15     41    .290   .388   .605      169
Aramis Ramirez   43      3      25    .238   .310   .402       91

With the Cardinals as banged-up as they are at the present time, they can ill-afford to lose the services of the amazing Beltran - who currently leads the NL in home runs and runs batted in - for any extended period of time.  He has a history of knee trouble which has already held him out of the lineup for a few games; Cardinal Nation is hoping the baseball gods will manage to keep him healthy for the duration of what they hope will be a very long postseason run.

In the meantime, both Pujols and Fielder have avoided injury this season, keeping them in the lineup day in and day out.  At least they've proven to be highly durable athletes in 2012; another common denominator.

The Cardinals could have used a little of that quality for their growing list of walking wounded this year; proving that good hitting ability without good health is good for nothing.

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