It’s painful to see sports titans fall.
Some are fortunate to go out on top (Peyton Manning), while others vanish without a trace and then two years later you realize they’re out of the league (Terrell Owens).
Slugger Albert Pujols is clearly on the downside of his career, and he’s currently suffering from a shameful distinction rarely ever seen by a former top player.
According to advanced statistics, Pujols is the worst player in baseball.
Albert Pujols of the Los Angeles Angels is the most feared hitter of his generation — one of the greatest ever to step into a batter’s box. He ranks eighth all-time in home runs, seventh in extra-base hits and 10th in total bases. At his peak, he won three MVP awards and was also the best position player in baseball — according to wins above replacement (WAR) — three times (in 2006, 2008 and 2009). Pujols’s resume makes him a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer.
But this season, a new title can be assigned to Pujols: He’s the worst player in baseball.
Pujols has flat-out stunk up Angel Stadium. He’s hitting .230 (79 points below his previous career average) with an on-base plus slugging 26 percent worse than league average. Even in an age of ineffective designated hitters, Pujols has easily been the worst hitter at the position that provides the least defensive value (i.e., zero value). As a result, no player has been less valuable than Pujols this year: His -1.99 WAR ranks dead last among all players (including pitchers).
If he finishes the season in last place — which seems quite possible, as L.A. continues to pencil him into its starting lineup, day after day, despite his poor numbers — Pujols will become the first modern position player ever to be both baseball’s best and worst player at various points in his career. The worst finish by a former No. 1 player previously belonged to the delightfully named New York Yankees second baseman Snuffy Stirnweiss. Snuffy was baseball’s top position player in 1945, when many of the league’s best (such as Ted Williams, Stan Musial and Joe DiMaggio) were serving in the military. But he was also the league’s second-worst player in 1950, a miserable season that saw him hit .216 and get traded from the 98-win Yankees to the 58-win St. Louis Browns.
The bottom of the WAR leaderboard provides a good lesson in the difference between “ability” and “value”. Ability-wise, Pujols isn’t actually MLB’s worst baseball player — that distinction would probably go to a fringe player who was called up at midseason and rarely plays — but he has been its least valuable, in no small part because of the ample opportunities he’s received. Simply being bad isn’t enough; in order to even get the chance to finish last in WAR, a player needs to have earned the confidence from management to let him play through a prolonged slump.
Most notably, the worst player in 1983 was the all-time hit king, Pete Rose, who — unlike Pujols — was eventually benched by the Phillies because of his poor play.
Since signing a massive contract with the Angels before the 2012 season, Pujols has had a few solid renaissance seasons, and he was an above-average hitter as recently as last season. So it wasn’t unreasonable for the Angels to expect him to eventually snap out of his funk at some point this season. And he may well end up with 100 runs batted in despite the poor sabermetric numbers — though it would be one of the least valuable 100-RBI seasons ever. Either way, he’s just the most glaring example of a phenomenon that probably won’t go away anytime soon. As long as there are managers dreaming of a turnaround — and ones who lack any better options4 — once-great players like Pujols will always get the chance to play themselves to the bottom of the WAR charts.
The unfortunate news for the Angels is that Pujols is still owed $112 million over the next four years, guaranteed.
Unless Pujols finds the fountain of youth, his paltry output and wildly mismatched contract will be an albatross on the franchise.