The Angels Are Kind of Right About Albert Pujols

About a month ago, the Angels lost Mike Trout to injury. He’s still a few weeks away from returning. Trout’s absence was supposed to be crippling, and indeed, it probably should’ve been crippling. But one of the best active fun facts around is that, since Trout was sidelined, the Angels have played better. Now, that isn’t something I suggest you over-interpret. It doesn’t mean anything much. It doesn’t mean Trout isn’t the most valuable player in the world. It’s just a random curiosity. And, good for the Angels! What they’ve pulled off has been deeply impressive.

At this point, the Angels are very much a wild-card contender. Trout’s coming back soon. So there’s reason to look up and down the roster in an attempt to identify areas for improvement. There are still various areas of concern, but one’s eyes are drawn to Albert Pujols. Pujols, right now, has a 2017 WAR of -1.0. That’s tied for the second-lowest mark in the game. Pujols, through that lens, has been a major problem, and few of his regular numbers are any good. However, the Angels themselves have pushed back. They’ve publicly disagreed with the idea that Pujols hasn’t been useful.

I’m going to borrow from Bill Shaikin, writing on Monday. Here are three excerpts:

But there are days when analytics make you shake your head, and Monday was one of those days for the Angels. According to Fangraphs, Albert Pujols entered play Monday as the least valuable position player in the American League, at least among the 87 qualifiers for the batting title.

“We don’t attach that statement to Albert Pujols,” general manager Billy Eppler said. “That is definitely not something we believe.”

More from the GM:

“Our analysis, our viewpoint is that in Albert’s case, we’re seeing a guy that still has a lot of presence in the middle of the order,” Eppler said. “He impacts the baseball, and he has big at-bats.”

And from the manager:

Fangraphs rated Pujols at -1.0 WAR (wins above replacement), essentially arguing a generic minor league callup would be more valuable to the Angels.

“Than Albert?” manager Mike Scioscia said. “The guy is, what, fourth or fifth in our league in RBIs? Those guys don’t fall off of trees. This guy has done a good job for us.”

Now, the Angels have every reason to come to Pujols’ defense. It would do them zero good to criticize his performance around the media, especially given that Pujols is under contract with the team through 2066. Teams support their own players, because teams need their own players, and Pujols isn’t going anywhere. Why upset him? The numbers do speak for themselves — Pujols’ average is under .250. His OBP is under .300. His SLG is under .400. He’s also, it turns out, baseball’s slowest sprinter. There’s not a whole lot of good.

But this is where this gets fun. It’s true that Pujols is an underachieving, slow-footed DH. It makes sense that his WAR is what it is. But the Angels also aren’t just being blindly defensive. They have a real argument. This comes down to how you try to assign value, and Pujols has been a lot more productive when situations have mattered the most.

What the numbers say: Pujols has not been good. What the Angels say: Pujols has mostly concentrated his good moments in important situations. WAR gives no credit for the latter, but of course, the latter can make a massive difference. Just because it’s not particularly predictive doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant. So why don’t we just fast-forward here? I present to you Albert Pujols’ 2017 batting splits:

2017 Albert Pujols
Split wRC+ Percentile
Overall 76 10%
Low Leverage 41 3%
Medium Leverage 80 20%
High Leverage 210 95%

Pujols, overall, has swung a below-average bat. Part of that is declining speed, and part of that is declining other things. In low-leverage situations — situations that haven’t mattered very much — Pujols has been terrible. One of the very worst hitters in the game. In medium-leverage situations, Pujols has been mediocre. But when the stakes have been raised, Pujols has generated an elite batting line. He’s there among the game’s top five percent. Pujols has had by far the fewest opportunities in the high-leverage split, but that’s where many games are won and lost. Pujols has felt like a contributor, because his contributions have been conspicuous.

In this table, I’ve isolated Pujols’ 25 plate appearances this year with the highest leverage indices. This basically just supports the data above, but there’s no harm in a breakdown:

Top 25 Leverage PA
LI Play WPA
9.10 Out -0.263
6.76 Single, RBI 0.465
5.82 Single, RBI 0.171
5.63 Out -0.117
4.92 Single, RBI 0.424
4.75 Out -0.122
4.32 Out -0.069
4.28 Single, RBI 0.257
3.74 Home run 0.348
3.59 Double, RBI 0.321
3.33 Single, RBI 0.196
3.32 Double play -0.142
3.22 Single 0.232
3.13 Out -0.095
3.05 Out -0.076
2.99 Double, RBI 0.360
2.96 Out -0.084
2.91 Walk 0.023
2.86 Out -0.078
2.84 Out -0.071
2.74 Out -0.075
2.60 Single, RBI 0.102
2.44 Home run 0.299
2.44 Out -0.055
2.35 Out -0.061

Out of those 25 plate appearances, you see one walk. Outside of that, Pujols has gone 11-for-24 with two doubles and two home runs. In one sense, it’s a mirage, but in another, it’s very much not, since all of those events have already happened. They’re in the books, and this is why Pujols looks an awful lot better when you fold in his timing. Here’s one more small and simple table, which shows you where the differences in opinion are:

2017 Albert Pujols
Stat Performance Percentile
WPA 1.25 74%
WPA/LI -1.10 4%
Clutch 2.27 99%

Win Probability Added is offensive-minded. It doesn’t really consider Pujols’ baserunning or position. By WPA/LI, which strips away the timing component, Pujols has been a below-average bat. One of the worst bats around, in fact. By WPA/LI, you find him on the leaderboards around names like Jose Iglesias and Maikel Franco. However, WPA is more reflective of how teams would feel about a contributor. WPA does care about timing, because timing is critical, and there, Pujols has been well above-average. You find him on the leaderboards around names like Daniel Murphy and Travis Shaw. It’s all explained by that last row — according to our Clutch statistic, Pujols has been baseball’s most clutch offensive player, by a large margin. That’s exactly why WAR doesn’t like him, but the Angels still have positive feelings.

According to regular WAR, Pujols has been a win below replacement. But good timing, to this point, has made Pujols a little more than two wins more valuable than you’d think. So he’s been more like a win above replacement, give or take a little bit. And no one would complain about that, roughly halfway through the year. That would put Pujols on pace to be an average player. And you can throw the soft factors into the mix — Pujols is a role model and a leader in the clubhouse, they say. He is still *Albert Pujols.*

So the Angels are technically correct, here. Albert Pujols has been more valuable to them than his WAR. Saying that doesn’t require them to stretch the truth. Of course, if you pressed Eppler, in an off-the-record setting, he’d probably acknowledge the rest of the picture. Pujols can’t keep doing this. Pujols can’t keep being helpful with a 76 wRC+. For the most part, it’s been a statistical fluke. But every single other year he’s been in the majors, Pujols has had an above-average bat. The Angels could be counting on an offensive improvement, to offset the clutch-related decline. It could just be that Pujols has weathered this three-month storm. There’s been a lot of weathering going on over there.

We hoped you liked reading The Angels Are Kind of Right About Albert Pujols by Jeff Sullivan!

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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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Baron Samedi
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Baron Samedi

rofl

Joshua Miller
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Joshua Miller

Great insight.

Jason B
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Jason B

I’m starting to think you’re not even a real baron…

Baron Samedi
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Baron Samedi

I’m sorry if the Angels being hilarious to me is offensive to you.

Roger McDowell Hot Foot
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Roger McDowell Hot Foot

This definitely sounds like an entirely genuine apology!

Baron Samedi
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Baron Samedi

Your right to be offended is never in doubt.

Roger McDowell Hot Foot
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Roger McDowell Hot Foot

Snowflake’s Law is validated once again!

Olson Johnson
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Olson Johnson

Now who can argue with that? I think we’re all indebted to Baron Samedi for clearly stating what needed to be said. Not only was it authentic frontier gibberish, it expressed a courage little seen in this day and age.