This isn’t an article about the deficiencies of Albert Pujols. This isn’t an article about the career of Albert Pujols. There are plenty of those. This is an article about the player he is now, and what that means to the Los Angeles Angels.
Tuesday night, I watched an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s Rosmersholm. Throughout the play, I repeatedly saw the connection to the Angels. The White Horse, a symbol frequently mentioned. Traces of death. Confusion, not knowing where to turn or what to believe. Most important, no conviction.
Conviction is a word that largely has positive connotations, even though it essentially means the same thing as stubbornness. “A strong persuasion or belief,” defines Merriam-Webster. A lack of conviction is seen as a bad thing, and rarely is a stubbornly held belief of something that is blatantly wrong seen as conviction.
The Angels have had no conviction. We often joke about the lack of retaliation during the Mike Scioscia days. This isn’t to say that beaning players is good. It’s not. But largely the Angels of the last few years have been wandering aimlessly. Are we nice? Are we mean? Do we turn the other cheek? What is our identity?
The front office hasn’t helped much either. Much of Billy Eppler’s tenure has been spent doing the whole “retooling on the fly” thing, which once again walks a fine line between convictions. Do we go all in? Do we sell?
Before, it was hard to condense the Angels down into a single statement. One couldn’t say, “I root for the Angels because they play hard,” because Josh Hamilton and Yunel Escobar graced the field. One couldn’t say, “I root for the Angels because they play small ball,” because that really stopped happening over the last few years. The most someone could say was “I root for the Angels because Mike Trout,” and that isn’t really a team identity, a conviction around which to rally. John Rosmer, the main character in Rosmersholm, was frequently described as not having the “fire in the belly” anymore. I felt that.
No one but Jake Marisnick knows what Jake Marisnick intended with the slide. No one but Noe Ramirez knows what Noe Ramirez intended with the high and tight pitch. Fans have good ideas. But we don’t know. All we have is a conviction, to strive to support and defend teammates, to work together to win ballgames, to honor the memory of Tyler Skaggs.
Albert Pujols is the longest tenured permanent Angel. He has the “fire in the belly,” if not the numbers. He steps it up, elevates his game at the crucial moments. He’s who he’s always been, and he’s actually doing it quietly this year. From 2013-2016, Pujols’s OPS remained very consistent.
Albert Pujols Yearly OPS
Then came 2017-2018, when the numbers dropped due to injury. The legs weren’t working. Maybe they couldn’t hold up the fire. The slump carried over into 2019. It was easy to forget about Pujols. After finally being separated from Mike Trout in the lineup due to Justin Upton, Pujols was dropped as low as sixth by new skipper Brad Ausmus. He could’ve pouted. He could’ve sulked.
Yet something started happening, something sort of obvious but overlooked by so many. Albert Pujols is, once again, who he’s always been as a Los Angeles Angel. Since May 9, the OPS is .798. He’s 2013-2016 Pujols, which is all we’ve asked for him to be for a very long time. Put another way, check out these strikeout and walk rates. In 2017 and 2018, the strikeouts went up and the walks went down. People speculated that he was guessing at pitches because the bat speed was slower, a theory that seems supported by the numbers. In 2019, he’s back to normal. He’s healthy. He’s contributing. He’s going the other way.
With RISP? His OPS is .846. With RISP and 2 outs? His OPS is .968. In a tie game? His OPS is .866.
When Lance McCullers, Houston Astros pitcher who hasn’t pitched this year, started chirping away at Noe Ramirez for hitting Marisnick, Pujols showed he still has that fire in his belly. The same one that caused him to shoot the arrow when Fernando Rodney showed up the Angels.
Both teams’ fanbases are going to have opposite reactions. One will claim that Marisnick didn’t intend to run over Lucroy in the head but that Ramirez definitely intended to hit Marisnick high. The other will claim that Marisnick definitely wanted to hit Lucroy but that Ramirez didn’t intend to hit Marisnick. There’s a certain...hypocrisy, in forming one’s opinion, and forming it somewhat wrong. That’s sports. You can’t see straight. You can never be unbiased. That’s why I shied away from making any conclusions, from trying to argue a point or a side or an intention.
But what had finally happened was the Angels weren’t acting as the Astros had always seen them. The team from Anaheim was winning, and they were showing conviction. Obviously this isn’t the entire reason, but it’s at least part. The unwritten rules said Marisnick had to get hit. Like it or not, you knew it. He knew it. Everyone knew it. Houston didn’t like it. Albert Pujols stepped up.
Finger-waggin' Albert Pujols was about to take on the Astros dugout by himself. pic.twitter.com/IeLCQ7ZKqt— Fabian Ardaya (@FabianArdaya) July 17, 2019
My esteemed colleague Rick Souddress says the Angels shouldn’t get into the catfight with the Astros. That someone might get caught in the crossfire. I say to hell with that. The Angels are the ones chasing the Astros, and if they’re at the end of the tunnel, then why shouldn’t we have beef with them? That every time we play we have a burning desire to destroy them. That every win against Houston slowly erases the years of head-to-head misery. The Astros are the ones that don’t want distractions.
Yet they held a team meeting last night, and manager AJ Hinch was very upset. A more assertive team would’ve shaken it off. They’re 4.5 games up in the division, 9 ahead of us. But they didn’t. They talked it out. They’re rattled.
For the first time in years, partly due to Albert Pujols, partly due to unforeseen tragedy, and partly due to the other players, equally as important, the Angels have a team identity. A conviction. I look forward to seeing where this team goes.
You know what it is.