As of game time on April 18, 2012, Daric Barton, one of the three Oakland Athletics’ on again, off again first basemen, had more home runs – 1 – than the man who is perhaps the greatest ballplayer of his era – Albert Pujols. That’s right, a guy who spent much of last year as a Sacramento Rivercat is on pace to outpace a guy who was, during that same year, an integral part of a championship season. Now, let’s be honest, no one expects that come October Barton will have managed to best Prince Albert in long balls. While I wish Barton nothing but the best over the course of the year, and it would certainly be one of the incredible stories of the 2012 season if he managed it, it’s not going to happen.
That being said, you’ve got to ask, “So, when is Pujols going to start hitting for power?” We keep hearing that he’s adjusting to a new team, to new teammates, and, most importantly, to a new league. We keep hearing that he’s facing a crop of pitchers on a daily basis that he’s never faced before and that under those circumstances the pitcher always has the advantage, or so the wisdom goes.
Well, on all of the above points I have two words of advice for Albert Pujols – Frank Robinson. That’s right, Frank Robinson.
As those of you old enough to remember, or interested enough in baseball to know, Robinson was traded from the Cincinnati Reds to the Baltimore Orioles after the 1965 season. Robinson was the National League’s MVP in 1961, but apparently by December of 1965 when the trade was completed, Cincinnati’s GM thought Robinson was too old at 30 to have much left in him. So the Reds inexplicably did what was rarely done in the days before free agency – they traded a star who was far from washed up, a star who was in reality in his prime. Trading an aging star well past his prime was routine before free agency. It took years for Giants fans to get over the 1972 trade of Willie Mays to the Mets, but such moves were fairly standard practice by then. Robinson was clearly different, and he went on to prove it. In Baltimore, during the next 6 seasons of his Hall of Fame career, he hit over .300 four times, was a five-time All Star, and was named MVP of the American League in his first year in the league.
Let’s not forget that in 1965, the year Robinson was traded, the two leagues, unlike today, were indeed significantly different. The only regular season interleague play was the World Series; each league had its own set of umpires; and the leagues were characterized by different styles of pitching, different styles of hitting, and different styles of play. The National League had been faster to integrate, and in many ways the American League was stuck in the 1950s. The contrast between the two leagues mid- 1960s is nicely outlined in David Halberstam’s excellent book, October 1964. This is the world in which Frank Robinson succeeded brilliantly – the first year he was thrust into it. So let’s put aside the idea that moving to a different league is so daunting that players really need some ill-defined adjustment period, especially in this new era of Bud Selig’s version of MLB: Mono-League Baseball. But we’ve still got to ask, “Why isn’t Pujols hitting for power?” By now we’re down to the “burdens” of the ginormous contract, or maybe Pujols just isn’t the same guy he used to be. Let’s take the second one first.
Is he the same guy he used to be? Pujols is the only major league ball player to hit over 30 home runs in each of his first 11 years in the bigs. He hit 37 last year at the age of 31, better by 5 than the total he hit at age 27 when he played 11 more games. He has played at least 143 games a season since breaking in, and while his wins above replacement, batting average, on-base percentage, and walks all dropped last year, he still managed to put a year together that placed him 5th in voting for the league’s MVP. In short, there is little evidence to indicate that the early returns from 2012 signify the next step in a gradual decline of skills that started in 2011. Albert Pujols is not Barry Zito. When Zito signed with the Giants after 2006, he was only 9 games over .500 combined for the 4 years after 2002, his Cy Young year. By contrast, the 4 years preceding Pujols’ signing with the Angels include years that his on base percentage was .443 (2009), a different year that his batting average was .357 (2008), and 3 years that his OPS was greater than 1.000 (2008 – 2010). Except for the wear and tear of a single year, I’m guessing that Pujols is essentially the same guy he used to be. I mean for Pete’s sake, he’s only 32 years old!
That leaves the pressure of the big contract. Nothing I can do for him there. Either he can take it, or he can’t. Some have managed to soldier on in spite being paid so much that it takes a wheelbarrow to deliver their paychecks – C.C. Sabathia comes to mind – and others haven’t, but why pick on Chone Figgins in an article about Albert Pujols? Look, it’s honestly hard to imagine anyone who plays a game for a living being able to perform at a level that is “worth” $25 million dollars a year. And I’m guessing that at times Pujols has some trouble wrapping his mind around that idea. And just maybe it’s affecting his performance. He seems like a solid, squared-away guy, and it has to take an ego the size of Rhode Island to think you can perform at a level that is worth $25 million dollars a year. Well, here’s my other piece of advice – Get over it. Someone who has way more than $25 million dollars has agreed to give you that amount to play baseball. No one held a gun to Artie Moreno’s head. By all accounts Moreno’s a smart, successful guy who can take care of himself, so quit worrying about the contract.
Frank Robinson has already proven that the great players of the game can successfully make the transition from one league to the other with what looked like graceful ease. Now it’s Prince Albert’s turn.
Jonathan Dyer teaches History and Government at a small high school in Northern California. He practiced law for 10 years before switching to teaching, and spent 5 years in Army intelligence before going to law school. He worked for 3 of those 5 years as a Russian linguist at Field Station Berlin during the Cold War. Mr. Dyer and Kerry, his wife of 27 years, are certified baseball junkies. You may email Jonathan directly at [email protected].