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On thought experiments, Schrödinger's cat, and how Albert Pujols pinch-hitting makes a lot of sense

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It won’t happen anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean it’s not interesting to think about.

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Texas Rangers Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines a thought experiment as “devices of the imagination used to investigate the nature of things” in a variety of fields, which are most often performed to aid in conceptual understanding, to illustrate/clarify highly convoluted situations, or to fulfill a specific function of a theory.

In layman’s terms, that means considering a concept, notion, or premise to evaluate the consequences of an action, though it may not be feasible or prudent to carry it out in the first place.

Schrödinger's cat might be the most famous example of a thought experiment, in which a cat, poisonous flask, and radioactive material are placed in a sealed box. If the Geiger counter (a measurement device) detects even a single atom of radioactive material decaying, the flask is shattered and the cat is killed. After the expected 1-hour period, the atom is in a state of partial decay, meaning the vial is both broken and not broken, and the cat is alive and dead at the same time.

This experiment is a direct response to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, which firmly states that until the wave function collapses into one joint state, the two quantum states — alive and dead — will persist in superposition, a conjoint version of the two quantum states. There are many interpretations that exist, though the vast majority believe that in this theoretical scenario, the cat is either dead or alive and not in a superposition regardless if the observer opens the box or not.

So why exactly did I spend 170 words on explaining Schrödinger's cat?

Because some things may not be feasible, such as killing a cat in the name of science or pinch-hitting Albert Pujols in the name of winning. Why?

In the case of the cat, it’s a matter of ethically impermissible animal cruelty. In the case of Pujols, it’s a matter of alienating a multimillion dollar baseball icon, causing a nationwide public relations crisis, and creating an in-season distraction. But that doesn’t mean it’s a premise that can’t be contemplated.

For starters, Albert Pujols is a designated hitter, which means his sole job is to hit. And whether you put your faith in adjusted OPS or wRC+, Pujols has not hit well this season. His first-half wRC+ (78) doesn’t exactly paint a rosy picture, and his second-half wRC+ (81) frames the unsightliness in the entrance, generously providing touchy, inquisitive visitors with indelible splinters from all the unfinished wood.

For the first time in Pujols’ seventeen year career, he is below league average in slugging percentage. For the second time in Pujols’ seventeen year career, he is below league average in on-base percentage, but instead of 10 points below average, it’s 48.

Fangraphs

To those that have been watching games this season, Albert Pujols not being as good as he once was isn’t new information. He simply lacks the elite bat speed he once had in the past, starting his swing earlier and being unable to hold up, resulting in slow grounders to the left side. Annual plantar fascia surgeries have rendered him the slowest runner in the league. At a sprint speed of 23.0 feet per second, Pujols can neither run effectively nor utilize his lower half to push off in the batter’s box.

Pujols is the dot outlined in red.
Statcast

As an independent observer, I would venture to guess that “The Machine” has used just his upper body this entire season. And unlike most sluggers who sacrifice contact for plate discipline as they age, he is walking less than he ever has.

That’s not to say that Pujols is completely useless, per se. His context-neutral offensive contributions (-1.74 WPA/LI) are seventh-worst in the league, but when context is added in, he has an average win probability added (-0.01 WPA). In high leverage situations, Pujols owns a 131 wRC+ (31% better than league average). With runners in scoring position, Pujols has a 107 wRC+. Not too shabby.

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Texas Rangers Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The flip side of that coin is that Pujols has a 54 wRC+ (46% worse than league average) in low leverage situations, the equivalent of Matt Joyce’s Angels tenure. His 75 wRC+ with the bases empty is not good, to put it kindly. Given that most at-bats come in low and medium leverage situations, that’s a real problem to have, especially considering it’s coming from the cleanup hitter of a major-league lineup.

While Mike Scioscia looks at Albert Pujols and asks himself how he can maximize the number of plate appearances Albert gets, the more apt question is how to maximize the percentage of plate appearances he gets in high-leverage situations. Frankly, the most effective way of doing this is simple: converting Pujols to a pinch hitter.

Pinch hitting would allow Pujols to be used to be used solely in high leverage situations, allowing for a new designated hitter that can provide more consistent production throughout the game. Ben Revere, for example, has hit .327 with a .379 on-base percentage since June 18. That’s a twelve percent above league average line, and Revere carries the added skillsets of being able to lead off a lineup, getting on base, putting pressure on the opposition, and stealing bases. He’s feeling the difference in both process and results, per Jeff Fletcher of the Orange County Register.

“I have enough juice to hit a line drive the other way. Last year I couldn’t do that. I’d pop everything up to left field. “I have the confidence back...I feel like I have my swing back.”

In this scenario, whether Ben Revere (or someone else, for that matter) becomes designated hitter is irrelevant: as long as the DH can do better than Pujols’ 80 wRC+ on the season, making this decision permissible. If the Angels are serious about improving their on-field product, they should consider having Albert Pujols pinch-hit in high leverage situations. Clearly, he will not be moved down in the order and thereby his volume of plate appearances remains intact. Increasing his percentage of plate appearances in high leverage, however, offers a viable alternative to this*.

It wouldn’t look pretty on the surface, but it would improve the team**. Isn’t that what counts?

*Now, I know what you’re thinking. If Mike Scioscia refused to move Pujols down in the lineup, what makes you think Sosh will take him out completely? Well, congrats! You just figured out why this is a thought experiment.

**barring a magic visit from the foot fairies