With Dodgers, Albert Pujols Finds A Role by Bashing Lefties

When the Angels designated Albert Pujols for assignment in early May, it seemed as if the decorated slugger had reached the end of the line, especially given the rumors that circulated in February that the 2021 season could be his last. And at the time of the announcement, he was slashing just .198/.250/.372 in 92 plate appearances and amid his fifth-consecutive below-replacement level season. But after clearing waivers, Pujols drew interest from three to four different teams, with the Dodgers coming out of nowhere to sign him to a major league deal at the minimum salary for the rest of the season.

Jay Jaffe wrote about the Dodgers’ acquisition of Pujols at the time and how he could be most effectively used: as a starter at first base, specifically against left-handed pitching. Still, Jay didn’t think the Pujols experiment would endure, especially as Los Angeles’ lineup regained its health, and predicted that the future Hall of Famer would end up taking his final cuts with the Cardinals in September. And though that might still be the case, Pujols has actually produced reasonably well for the Dodgers, providing a good-enough bat to warrant penciling him in the lineup, especially against southpaws.

The Tale of Two Pujolses
Team PA LHP% AVG OBP SLG HR wOBA wRC+ WAR
Angels 92 30.4% .198 .250 .372 5 .267 68 -0.5
Dodgers 131 55.7% .266 .298 .476 8 .327 108 0.3
LHP% = percentage of PA against left-handed pitching.

A .266/.298/.476 slash line isn’t world-beating by any means, but even putting up above-average production is a huge success given where Pujols’ offensive numbers have resided in recent seasons. In fact, he just completed a 30-game stretch from May 29 to July 16 in which he posted a 147 wRC+ on the back of a .313/.341/.588 slash line. It was the best output Pujols has seen in years, even in a sample as small as 30 games:

What fueled that surge was that, in that period, Pujols posted an absurd .372/.413/.814 slash line in his 46 trips to the plate against lefties. His overall numbers were depressed by a 56 wRC+ against right-handers in that time, but an .814 slugging percentage against any handedness of pitching feels like a blast from the past. Overall, Pujols has demolished southpaws this season, particularly following his change in uniform, though his numbers even with the Angels were plenty useful:

Pujols Is Crushing Lefties
Team PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
Angels 28 .259 .286 .593 .369 136
Dodgers 73 .333 .370 .623 .416 166

None of this is to suggest that the Angels should have kept Pujols; at a certain point, he no longer fit into their plans. The only bit of remorse they may have at this point is the fact that they’re not platooning him with Jared Walsh, given the latter’s 47 wRC+ against lefties. But with Pujols almost certainly gone after this year anyway and the subsequent move to Walsh playing first base full-time beginning in 2022 as a result, the transaction is still plenty justifiable.

This does raise the question, though: How and why did such significant platoon splits develop for Pujols? Those are notoriously fickle, not stabilizing until around 1,000 plate appearances against each hand and with nearly 2,000 plate appearances needed for right-handed hitters (like Pujols) to draw conclusions. So while it’s fun to think that he could last a few more years in the big leagues by only serving as a lefty-masher, we must use caution. His most recent season with a better wRC+ against righties than lefties was quite literally last year:

Even if we look at Pujols’ last five seasons, going back to Opening Day 2017, there’s a meaningful split (a 97 wRC+ versus lefties and 80 wRC+ against righties) over a much larger — though still arguably insufficient — sample. It’s still nothing like what he’s doing this season, which brings up the question of luck. His Statcast statistics do suggest his performance has been warranted by his batted ball quality; Pujols has a .397 xwOBA against left-handers this year, ranking 22nd out of the 181 batters with at least 75 plate appearances against southpaws through July 21. In almost every way, he is making better contact versus lefties, particularly posting more ideal launch angles on balls hit in the air and avoiding popups, with 13 off of righties but just three against lefties. And on all batted balls hit in the air, Pujols has a .667 xwOBA against lefties compared to a .336 xwOBA against righties.

All of this has yielded one of the largest platoon differences in baseball irrespective of handedness. In a similar exercise to what I did when analyzing Jesse Winker, I calculated the absolute differences in wRC+ for players by pitcher handedness. Pujols is near the top of the leaderboard in this split, and funny enough, so is Walsh. I used the recommended plate appearance thresholds by our splits tool: at least 90 against righties, and at least 40 against lefties. In total, 281 batters qualified here:

Largest Platoon Differences, 2021
Name LHP wRC+ RHP wRC+ Absolute Difference Favors
Charlie Culberson 175 6 169 LHP
Ryan Jeffers 187 22 165 LHP
Mike Zunino 223 70 152 LHP
Eric Haase 210 67 143 LHP
Akil Baddoo 15 153 138 RHP
Brett Phillips -3 129 132 RHP
Jared Walsh 47 172 125 RHP
Carson Kelly 212 90 122 LHP
Albert Pujols 158 37 121 LHP
Evan Longoria 228 107 121 LHP

There is one important outstanding question: Can Pujols keep this up, and will he have a defined role with the Dodgers for the rest of the season? Those two questions are interrelated, but he seems to have built in some cushion with his good play so far. Including the newly-acquired Billy McKinney, here is how Pujols’ overall stats (from his time with the Dodgers) compare to the rest of Los Angeles’ bench pieces:

Non-Starting Dodgers
Name PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ WAR
Matt Beaty 169 .259 .355 .374 .328 109 0.4
Albert Pujols 131 .266 .298 .476 .327 108 0.3
Billy McKinney 202 .213 .282 .415 .299 88 0.6
Austin Barnes 157 .209 .321 .328 .293 86 0.6
Sheldon Neuse 59 .172 .186 .345 .226 43 -0.5
Non-starters defined by the RosterResource depth chart.

So it seems as if Pujols may have staying power, almost certainly for the remainder of the season and quite possibly into the playoffs. While all of that depends on his ability to continue producing, he’s put up good enough numbers so far to warrant further playing time, especially when a left-handed pitcher is on the hill.





Devan Fink is a Contributor at FanGraphs. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.

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SucramRenrut
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SucramRenrut

For older guys I wonder if it has to do with feeling like they have to cheat bit to pull a good RHP fastball, but are able to stay in on LHP longer, to the point where they are much more likely to take good swings against the LHPs.

Smiling Politely
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Smiling Politely

I also wonder if a guy knows he’s facing lefties 99% of the time wouldn’t improve simply from focusing more specifically on one role/approach?

carter
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carter

Well, that isn’t true. Plenty of pitching changes, etc. But it is basically what Sucram wrote. You can cheat and get to certain pitches, you can fly open faster. So when your bat speed leaves you and you need to try and yank everything down the line to get any value it is much easier vs lhp