Pujols is one the greatest players baseball has ever known, and will easily sail into the Hall of Fame five years after he retires. But he doesn’t want to do that just yet. In fact, the 41-year-old Pujols has even larger aspirations.
“The guy wanted to play, he wants to be on the field; he does not want to be a bench player of any kind,” manager Joe Maddon told reporters Thursday, per Mark Feinsand of MLB.com.
There lies the problem.
Pujols has been declining for several years. He’s hitting .240/.289/.405 since the start of 2017, an 85 OPS+, and this year he’s hitting just .198/.250/.372. Some of his expected numbers at Statcast based on batted-ball data — a .273 xBA and .543 xSLG — are undermined by the fact that Pujols, through injuries and age, is one of the slowest players in the majors. Infielders can play deep against him, often in the outfield grass, and still have time to throw him out. So what might be routine singles for most are more readily turned into outs against Pujols.
He had negative Wins Above Replacement this season by both Baseball-Reference (bWAR) and FanGraphs (fWAR). It’s been that way three of the last five years by bWAR, totaling -1.9 bWAR since the start of 2017. Using FanGraphs, Pujols has been below replacement level for five years running, totaling -3.3 fWAR in the same span.
On a pure baseball level, releasing Pujols has been an easy call for some time, though it’s never that simple. Pujols is still incredibly popular, and not just with fans but with his teammates. Mike Trout told reporters Friday that he broke down when he heard the news of Pujols’ departure. From Jim Alexander at the Orange County Register:
“Everything you can accomplish on a baseball field, he had done,” Trout said. “I could go up to him and talk about anything. And he was really good about – he knew, for instance, if I’m struggling at the plate or if I’m struggling anywhere, he knows the perfect time to come up and throw something out. He just has that feel.”
The suddenness of the move is what seemed to rankle people, and rightfully so. Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez said the Angels’ treatment of Pujols was “shameful”:
Albert @PujolsFive I know the glory is of God, not of man; that’s why I’m not surprised about the shameful way @Angels treated you and your legacy today.— Pedro Martinez (@45PedroMartinez) May 6, 2021
Everyone in baseball feels proud of you and the way you handled yourself. Thank you for being one of the best in the game pic.twitter.com/zqeiFKzAo9
But the abruptness seemed to stem from an escalating conflict this week. Pujols actually started 18 of the Angels’ previous 20 games through Tuesday, though he didn’t start on Wednesday.
One one hand, the Angels’ choice to clear first base for Jared Walsh, a superior hitter to Pujols who had been playing right field, is the right call. Then again, on Wednesday, they had Phil Gosselin start at designated hitter, and that’s no way to live.
Bob Nightengale at USA Today detailed the growing discord between Pujols and the Angels:
He woke up Wednesday morning, having already been told he’d be in the starting lineup that night for the Los Angeles Angels against the Tampa Bay Rays.
By the time the day was over, Pujols was yelling at manager Joe Maddon, telling president John Carpino and GM Perry Minasian that he wasn’t going to retire, insisting he did not want to spend the rest of the season on the bench and blasting Maddon’s managerial skills, according to two people with direct knowledge of the day’s events who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature the details.
Maddon on Sunday disputed aspects of the USA Today report:
Joe Maddon refuted a portion of the USA Today report on Albert Pujols' final day with the Angels. Maddon said they never had a "confrontational" interaction; the report claimed Pujols was yelling at Maddon "and blasting Maddon's managerial skills."— J.P. Hoornstra (@jphoornstra) May 9, 2021
Maddon also clarified the decision to not play Pujols on Wednesday was related to the fact the #Angels were going to inform him of the release postgame— Jack Harris (@Jack_A_Harris) May 9, 2021
Maddon originally told Pujols he would play, "but then things shifted and I had to do what I was asked to do in that moment."
Pujols wants to keep playing regularly, and wasn’t ready to accept a reduced role in Anaheim. So the Angels cut him loose, abruptly ripping off the band aid and are now feeling the sting.
There was no chance for fans to give Pujols a proper farewell. Teammates were stunned. And even though the move has been expected and warranted for years, it was still shocking to see.