Unless Dodgers manager Dave Roberts wants to troll Cardinal fans and ruin a special occasion, Albert Pujols will be in the lineup for Tuesday’s game. The home team can win the game or lose it, but the result won’t matter except for the mathematical impact on the NL wild-card race.
Busch Stadium will become The House of Pujols again.
Pardon the esoteric reference and my tip of the cap to an old Little Feat song, but it’s Old Folks Boogie night at the ballpark.
We do nostalgia exceptionally well in St. Louis. Especially when there’s the opportunity to celebrate one of the greatest players in franchise history, who will be playing at Busch for only the second regular-season series since the 2011 World Series.
Good luck to Cardinals starting pitcher J.A. Happ. He’s a lefty. And when Pujols glares at lefties, he’s a lion stalking a warthog.
In 131 plate appearances against lefthanded pitchers this season, Pujols carries a .301 batting average, .618 slugging percentage and .954 OPS. He’s walloped a homer every 10.2 at-bats.
Good luck to Happ. He’s been clobbered by righthanded hitters for 24 homers, 27 doubles and a .557 slugging percentage this season.
The deepening desire for a sentimental return to St. Louis and the Cardinals for Pujols in 2022 will approach a fever-pitch stage over the next three games.
Just imagine …
Pujols and his baseball soulmate Yadier Molina having a farewell season together in ‘22. Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright joining them for the last hurrah. What a lovely coda for three brilliant careers, three special Cardinals, three gentlemen who were teammates and performers during one of the greatest stretches of winning baseball in franchise history.
Katie Woo of The Athletic asked Wainwright about the possibility of a Last Waltz in 2022. Wainwright — who is at least thinking about retiring after this season — sounded like a guy who isn’t ready to go. If anything, he seems ready to roll again with his mates Yadier and Albert.
“I would probably do that,” Wainwright told Woo. “Just because why not? I don’t want to say it’d be a fun way to go out, because with these guys, they might play until they’re 50. But it would be a fun way to put a bowtie on it.”
The idea of a last tour is beguiling. The fans would love it. The memories would last for eternity. This would also set up an incredible year of business for chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. and partners — with packed houses at Busch Stadium, a bonanza in merchandise sales, and massive crowds at Ballpark Village. What a windfall. And let’s face it: this stagnant organization needs a boost, a jump-start to reenergize the fan base.
But let’s put the emotions aside for a while, to ask a question: Pujols-Cardinals in 2022 undoubtedly would be good for baseball business. But would it be good for the baseball team? Would Pujols make the Cardinals better as a competitive product?
I’m not trying to spoil the mood here. But at some point — if the Pujols stirrings continue — Cardinals management will study the pros and the cons of making a pitch to Pujols.
And for now, I want to just limit this discussion to Pujols — after acknowledging that a reunion tour that also includes Wainwright would only add to the appeal. But Wainwright and Molina still have work to do, and many of us would wager on the likelihood of the Waino-Yadi connection lasting through 2022. That’s true without Pujols, or with Pujols.
The baseball part of this matters as much as team management wants it to matter. Pragmatism could be reduced for baseball romance and some “Field of Dreams” vision. If the opportunity to bring Pujols back to St. Louis for a passionate and poignant au revoir season is simply irresistible to DeWitt, then go ahead and try to make a deal after the season.
DeWitt treasures Cardinals history as much as anyone. But Bill should know this: if the chairman is on board with completing the circle and bringing Pujols back to his MLB birthplace, he’ll have to get it done. It would be an enormous public-relations blunder for the Cardinals to enter into negotiations with Pujols and get the team’s fans excited — only to have the talks stall or fail and result in Albert signing elsewhere.
Pujols brings intangibles to his team: Hard-wired competitiveness, leadership, the willingness to guide younger players, and the Hall of Fame aura that inspires his mates. The Dodgers are thrilled to have him for multiple reasons. He generates energy, exudes confidence, and enhances the joy of playing baseball. The Cardinals should consider those attributes. They could use some of them for sure.
If the hardcore baseball aspect to this matters more than the strong sentimental pull and booming-business potential, the Cardinals will have to confront their concerns.
Let’s walk through them, shall we?
1) Albert turns 42 in January. Injuries have been an issue for him in recent years. I don’t have to remind any of you that his running speed has slowed to a tortoise pace. Can he hold up physically, and finish strong? Pujols has enjoyed an injury-free 2021. And because of that, he’s having a solid 2021 season with the bat — but in a narrow way, which we’ll get to shortly.
2) The universal DH must be in place for 2022. No designated hitter in the National League? Then no Pujols on the St. Louis roster. The Cardinals have a very good first baseman in Paul Goldschmidt. Pujols can play first base – but not nearly as well as he used to. According to the Fielding Bible, Pujols is a minus 4 fielder at first base this season in 499 innings for the Angels and Dodgers. That means he’s cost his pitchers four runs. He ranks 31st defensively at the position in 2021.
2a) Does Pujols rate as a full-time DH? It depends how you look at it. If he’s used the correct way — hardly a given under manager Mike Shildt — the Cardinals could prioritize matchups to maximize his statistical potential. This season the MLB-wide OPS for designated hitters is .759, and as an entity they are six percent above league average offensively in park-and-league adjusted runs created (wRC+.) That isn’t a high bar. Pujols had terrible numbers for the Angels early this season but the Halos didn’t utilize him as intelligently as the Dodgers have. In 92 plate appearances Albert had a .622 OPS as an Angel. Pujols has a .782 OPS in his 178 plate appearances for the Dodgers. And with the Dodgers he’s eight percent above the league average offensively in wRC+.
3) Pujols has an extreme platoon split that cannot be dismissed as a no-big-deal kind of thing. Pujols didn’t start Monday’s game against Cardinals’ righthander Miles Mikolas. No surprise there. The reason: in 139 plate appearances vs. RH pitchers this season, Pujols is batting .180 with a .237 onbase percentage, .273 slug and and .511 OPS. In park-and-league adjusted runs created (wRC+) Pujols is 59 percent below league average offensively against righthanded pitching.
3a) And Pujols’ problems with RH pitching are nothing new. Over the last five seasons he’s batting .239 against righthanders with a .678 OPS. Using wRC+, he’s been 20 percent below league average offensively vs. RHP since 2017. His last season with a (slightly) above-average showing against righthanders came in 2016.
4) Let’s put the difficulties with righthanders into perspective. There are the rankings for 2021: This season 320 MLB hitters had at least 139 plate appearances against RH pitching this season through Monday. (I’m using 139 PA because that’s how many Albert has vs. RH.)
Among the 320 hitters Pujols ranks:
308th in batting average
No. 312 in OBP
No. 312 in slugging
No. 312 in OPS
No. 311 in wRC+
5) The Pujols plus is an imposing performance against lefthanded pitching. We mentioned his 2021 numbers against them earlier in this piece, but just to put a capper on it: he’s 51 percent above league average offensively against lefties. In MLB’s last full season (2019), Pujols had a .515 slug and .830 OPS vs. LHP. And was 13 percent above league average against them.
6) No problem; just use Pujols to DH against lefthanded starting pitchers. Right? Actually, there is a problem: This season the Cardinals have the fewest plate appearances vs. LH pitching than any team in the majors — and have the second-highest number of PAs vs. RH pitching. The ratio is lopsided, with 78.5% of the Cards’ plate appearances in 2021 coming against righhanders. As for all of MLB, 70 percent of all PA this season have been taken against righthanders. Over the last five seasons 72.2% of all PA have come against RHP.
6a) This is important: the Dodgers are in position to give Pujols more at-bats in 2022. Why? Because first baseman Max Muncy can play multiple positions which means a good number of starts at first base for Pujols. That isn’t the case in STL. It would be a DH role for Albert.
7) There will be significant matchup challenges. If Pujols is the full-time DH in 2022, and the Cardinals decline to go with a platoon system, he’d probably see LH pitching around 25 percent of the time. (Or less.) And the overwhelming percentage of his at-bats would put him in his weakest and most vulnerable position — trying to muster production against RHP. And that would require a preposterous reversal of a five-season trend.
8) If the Cardinals go with a platoon system, is there enough work? Pujols wouldn’t be in the startling lineup in a heavy-duty role. He’d have to do a lot of sitting (and pinch-hitting) until an opponent starts a LH pitcher.
9) Would Albert be happy in St. Louis if assigned such a role? Well, Pujols did accept a similar role in advance of signing with the Dodgers. Since making his Dodger debut on May 17, Pujols ranks 9th on the team with 178 plate appearances. But his plate-appearance distribution is telling: Pujols ranks 14th among Los Angeles hitters since May 17 with 75 PA vs. righthanders. But over the same time he’s third among Dodgers with 103 PA vs. lefties. As for the likelihood of Pujols being willing to agree to a similar DH platoon arrangement as a Cardinal — well, only Albert can determine that. And it depends on other offers that could come his way.
10) Pujols is approaching an important milestone in 2022. Going into Tuesday’s game, Pujols needs 22 home runs to reach 700 for his career. If he can muscle another four home runs this month, it would put him at 681 as he heads into 2022. To enter the 700 club he’d have to crank 19 homers in 2022, and that’s doable. I say that because Pujols has 16 homers in 251 at-bats this season for the Angels and Dodgers. And he’ll probably connect for a few more between now and the end of the regular season. Unless injuries disrupt him, a 20-homer season is hardly a long shot.
If healthy, Pujols will set up in 2022 with a reasonable shot to strike his 700th homer. Just think of the unrestrained happiness among fans and world-wide members of the Cardinal family if Pujols gets to No. 700 in the place where he’s always been No. 1.
Thanks for reading …
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* All stats used here are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball Net unless otherwise noted.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.