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Albert Pujols: A Bittersweet Twilight

With every swing of the bat, every trip to the plate, Albert Pujols ventures deeper into history, and further away from the superstar he once was.

Albert was the greatest offensive force of his generation. It wasn’t even especially close. As Barry Bonds aged, and before Mike Trout arrived, Pujols had the most potent bat in baseball. Derek Jeter and Ichiro Suzuki were sensational pure hitters, and a host of chemically-enhanced monsters were arguably just as powerful, but nobody possessed the mix of raw slugging and fine discipline that Albert had in his prime.

Between 2001, when he debuted with the Cardinals, and 2011, when he departed for Anaheim after winning a second World Series ring, Pujols hit .328 with 445 home runs, 1,329 RBI and a .420 on-base percentage. In that span, he led baseball in batting average, homers, doubles and RBI. If advanced metrics are your preferred measuring stick, Albert was second only to Bonds in wRC+, and his offensive fWAR of 629.3 was unparalleled. I’m not a huge fan of using Wins Above Replacement as an omnipotent barcode for player value, but Pujols’ overall score of 81.4 in the given time period was by far the best, with Alex Rodriguez second at 73.9.

Quite simply, Albert was without equal among contemporaries who didn’t cheat. The slugger famously sued Jack Clark regarding baseless allegations of steroid use, and has never failed a test. Pujols’ name was whispered in relation to the Mitchell Report prior to its publication, but didn’t appear in the document. Many people harbour suspicions, mainly due to the era in which Pujols played, but there is no evidence to support the inference and innuendo. Therefore, to judge Albert in his rightful context, a journey back in time is required, for this Dominican first baseman can only be compared with the Gods of our game.

Right now, Pujols sits in twelfth place on the all-time home run list, with 571. This season, he has already passed Reggie Jackson and Rafael Palmeiro, bringing Harmon Killebrew (573), Mark McGwire (583) and Frank Robinson (586) within immediate range. Albert is also just 289 hits short of 3,000 and 266 RBI away from the rare mark of 2,000.

In recent years, it has been a treat to watch him pass hallowed names and chisel his name in baseball history. Pujols was the defining star of my generation, the hitting savant who inspired awe in me as a child. Perhaps I’m overly na├»ve, but every time he moves up a legendary list, happy memories come flooding back and I feel like Albert is a clean representative of that addled, steroid-besmirched time. He’s pure. He’s natural. He’s believable.

Unfortunately, he’s also at the lowest ebb of a phenomenal career right now. At the age of 36, his average is down at .230, his on-base percentage has sagged to .306, and his power stroke lacks the consistency of yore. Albert has eleven bombs on the season, through fifty-one games, but his homers tend to come in trickles nowadays, as opposed to the relentless fountain of yesteryear.

Since the beginning of 2012, when he signed a ludicrous 10-year, $254 million contract with the Angels, no less than 72 big leaguers have a greater offensive fWAR than Pujols. That list includes unheralded names, such as AJ Pollock, Brett Gardner, and John Jaso; fallen stars like Josh Hamilton, Hanley Ramirez and Carlos Beltran; and youngsters with minimal experience, such as Mookie Betts, George Springer and Christian Yelich. Fangraphs ranks Pujols as the 98th most valuable offensive player in baseball since 2012, which is a mighty fall from grace.

To a certain extent, this proves my point about placing too much trust in WAR. Feel free to call me ignorant to Sabermetrics, but, eliminating financial considerations, I would still generally want Albert Pujols at first base over John Jaso. There is just more upside with Albert, and I will maintain that he’s the better player, no matter how much it offends the sensibilities of number-crunchers around the blogosphere. Yet to totally ignore the numbers would be folly. Right now, they show that, since moving to Anaheim, Albert has been an ordinary player. Moreover, in 2016, that ordinary player has slipped further into the abyss.

While the numbers paint an unflattering picture, I’m always more concerned with the sight and feel of a player, season, or moment. The bad news for Albert is that he no longer even passes the eye test. There’s an inherent sadness to watching him play these days that sticks with me long after I turn off the television. He appears stiff at the plate, hobbled in the field, and impossibly slow on the bases. The three-time MVP is a shadow of his former self, and opposing teams simply don’t fear him like they once did.

Therefore, I’m troubled by the context in which Albert Pujols is achieving greatness. It’s disconcerting to watch a hero struggle in the present tense while simultaneously succeeding in the historical realm. Albert can be regarded as one of the greatest all-round hitters ever to grace a Major League diamond, but, in the present day, right here in 2016, there are 153 players deemed more valuable at the plate by Fangraphs.

If that is perplexing for loyal fans like me, it must be unbearable for the man himself. As skills erode and stardom becomes just a memory, Albert Pujols, so accustomed to dominance, will soon face a dilemma: whether to retire while we can still recall his pomp, or whether to further damage his real-time standing in strained pursuit of baseball’s greatest records.

Until that decision is made, we’re left to watch, wince and occasionally cheer, as one of the game’s finest exponents approaches a bittersweet twilight.

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