Albert Pujols Grounded Into History

History was made on August 4. Technically, history was made again on August 13, and it was made again last night. It could be made again today, and it could be made further in any and every game hence. This is new history — expanding and developing history. It’s history without any limit. God only knows where the tally will stop. There is ever so much baseball to play.

Yet the moment of greatest significance occurred on August 4. Nearly two weeks ago, the Angels played a game against the A’s, with Troy Scribner starting opposite Jharel Cotton. It was a game I doubt that you watched, and it was an 8.5-inning game that somehow lasted more than three and a half hours. As the Angels batted in the bottom of the first, Mike Trout came up with one down and picked up an infield single on a grounder to short. That brought to the plate Albert Pujols, and Cotton gave Pujols a first pitch that he liked. Pujols saw the pitch, and he swung at it. His swing still basically looks the same as it ever has. Pujols swung, and he even made contact. Another grounder to short. The result of this one was different.

One pitch, two outs. Trout was eliminated easily, and somehow Pujols was eliminated even more easily still. This is the major leagues, and even the most talented defenders can look rushed. Double plays tend to have to happen in a hurry, and it’s not like the Pujols grounder was particularly well-struck. But watch as Jed Lowrie makes the turn. It’s smooth, but almost…hesitant. Lowrie takes his time. He calmly steps off second base, and practically lobs the ball to first. It’s the calmest double play you might see in a month. The A’s acted with little urgency because there was little reason for them to be urgent.

The inning so ended. On the A’s television broadcast, they noted the event and moved on. On the Angels television broadcast, it was all much the same. Perfectly ordinary, nothing out of the routine. The broadcasts went to commercial. There was no acknowledgment of the greater significance. Maybe there was later in the game, I don’t know. But as history happened, no one seemed to notice.

Here’s a miniaturized screenshot from Albert Pujols’ Baseball Reference page. You’ll notice, near the bottom, a tiny splash of gold. Gold denotes an all-time leader in a given statistic.

I shrunk the image on purpose, so as not to immediately give it away. But then, you’re smart, and I kind of telegraphed it. You know what the gold there is marking. You’re a step or two ahead of me. So let’s abolish any remaining mystery and get right to the point:

Albert Pujols has hit into 353 career double plays. The double play against Oakland on August 4 was career double play number 351. That’s when Pujols broke a first-place tie. That’s when he assumed sole possession. He’s hit into more double plays since, and that’s only inflated his record. Albert Pujols has become the all-time double-play leader.

If you just think about it quickly, it makes sense why Pujols now might be a double-play machine. He’s possibly baseball’s very slowest runner, and he’s a right-handed batter who pulls the overwhelming majority of his grounders. Pujols has also aged to the point where his body routinely betrays him, and he just can’t give what he used to. It’s not an accident that Pujols hasn’t posted a BABIP of .280 in five years. That’s not bad luck. That’s an indication that Pujols has been easy to throw out. Sometimes he’s been easy to throw out on the back end of a DP.

If you examine Pujols’ career, you can see that he’s always been somewhat double-play prone. However, unsurprisingly, the issue has become more pronounced as the years have rolled by.

Over Pujols’ career, the league-average double-play rate has been just under 11%. Pujols’ overall average has been just over 14%. That’s not a fluke, and so that tells you something real about what Pujols has been. But really, this post isn’t being written as an excuse to be critical. Because there’s more to this, as you might’ve already deduced. It seems like a bad thing to be the all-time leader in double plays. Indeed, I’m sure Pujols wishes it weren’t so. But it’s a bad fact implying good facts. Quietly, Pujols’ record is further evidence of how great his career has been.

Just to knock out one idea — Pujols’ double-play rate, per opportunity, has been 14.1%. That’s high, but it’s far from the highest. Here are the highest rates on record, given a minimum of 1,000 opportunities.

Highest Career DP Rates
Player GDP%
Billy Butler 19.0%
Yunel Escobar 18.7%
Yadier Molina 17.2%
George Scott 17.1%
Tony Pena 17.0%
Julio Franco 16.5%
Lou Piniella 16.3%
Ray Knight 16.1%
Howie Kendrick 16.0%
Paul Konerko 15.9%
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Minimum 1,000 career double play opportunities.

Pujols is short of Butler by almost five percentage points. He’s short of teammate Escobar by almost the same. Those guys have been the real double-play kings, and one shouldn’t ignore the meaning of rate statistics. Pujols is the leader in a counting statistic. You have to do a lot right to manage to do so much wrong.

Pujols made his major-league debut in 2001, and, since 2001, no other player has made more plate appearances. Ichiro’s behind by almost 400. And in 22.8% of those plate appearances, Pujols has come up in a double-play opportunity. Only Ryan Klesko has posted a higher rate since 2001, at 22.9%. It’s a difference of a tenth of a percentage point. Pujols is in second, and it’s not a difficult number to understand. Why has Pujols inherited so many double-play opportunities? Because his managers have wanted him to bat with runners on base. For the most part, it’s worked out wonderfully — Pujols has been one of the very greatest run producers of all time. There’s been this one negative side effect to his brilliance.

Of course, Pujols isn’t so good now. It’s a reality that’s unlikely to go away, and it’s going to make the situation challenging. You should never let the end of a career change your perception of the peak. It’ll be easier to remember Albert Pujols for *Albert Pujols* when he’s no longer making so many outs, but maybe the strongest note here considers the players Pujols has recently passed on the list of double-play leaders. In fifth place is Carl Yastrzemski. In fourth is Hank Aaron. In third is Ivan Rodriguez, and in second is Cal Ripken. It was Ripken’s record that Pujols surpassed a week and a half ago. All those players are in the Hall of Fame, and Pujols will eventually join them.

There’s nothing complicated about this. You probably didn’t even need me to lay things out as I did. You all probably already understood what it takes to amass so many career double plays. It seems obvious, now, to talk about it. But, I guess, what’s the harm? Might as well make two things perfectly clear. One, Albert Pujols has hit into more double plays than anyone, ever. And two, that’s a compliment disguised as a criticism.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Doug Lampertmember
6 years ago

There’s a saying that it takes a really good pitcher to lose 20 games in a year. Yep, bad counting stats, either per year or in a career, means that the rest of what you did was so good they let you accumulate that counting stat.

Cy Young is the all time record holder in losses, hits allowed, and earned runs allowed (and also in a lot of good things).

6 years ago
Reply to  Doug Lampert

And Babe Ruth is the most overrated pitcher ever.

With a career K-BB% of 0.6.
He was an average pitcher, at best. His regular season FIP- backs that up (100).

Everyone looks at his 0.87 postseason ERA (and scoreless streak) and crowns him.
His postseason FIP- was 120! His K-BB% was -1.7. Negative 1.7. This is during the dead-ball era. He struck out 8! batters of the 116 he faced. He walked 10 of em’.

Not even the greatest contact manager ever, could dominate like his ERA suggest, with 98/116 TBF, putting the ball in play. Over 93% of his success (ERA) was reliant on his teammates (including the +10 free baserunners).

Da Bum
6 years ago
Reply to  YKnotDisco

He had a career era+ of 122 and FIP of 2.81.

Why the heck are going on about 3 games in the postseason? Sounds like a vendetta.

6 years ago
Reply to  Da Bum

Are you presenting the ERA+ of 122 as a counterpoint?

I’m going on about his postseason “success”, as a question about why his WS stats (as a pitcher) are always presented during an WS game.

Counting stats meant you were healthy, more than they meant productive. (who were they going to replace you with, Kit?)

Should there be a qualifying limit? Yes. Being available is an ability.

We have come a long way since pitching meant pitching the whole game, though. Who knew pitchers are more effective the less a batter see’s them?

EDIT: +11 free baserunners (93.9%)

6 years ago
Reply to  YKnotDisco

Last I checked, ERA+ wasn’t a counting stat.

6 years ago
Reply to  YKnotDisco

I’d love to hear why/how Babe Ruth struck fear into opposing batters.

I acknowledge that this isn’t the specific platform to do so, but Jeff’s chat isn’t till’ Friday (hence why I couldn’t wait till’ then).

Mike NMN
6 years ago
Reply to  YKnotDisco

I wasn’t aware Ruth was in the Hall of Fame for his pitching. But if your point is Ruth was a terrible pitcher…

Max Power
6 years ago
Reply to  YKnotDisco

I don’t look at the 0.87 postseason ERA, I mostly look at all the dingers.