In the end, it turns out Albert Pujols would not have to find a new home—just a new place to go to work for the next five or six months.
Pujols’s decision to reportedly sign with the Dodgers for the remainder of the season likely had less to do with his new team’s proximity to his old one than other baseball-related factors, but the similarities between the Dodgers and Angels end with their Southern California roots. The move was not one many predicted when the Angels decided to release Pujols in the final year of his 10-year contract, and now Pujols will go from a team mired in last place to join the defending champions on their quest for a repeat.
Pujols’s split from the Angels reportedly centered on his lack of playing time, as the future Hall of Famer was not ready to move to a bench role and still views himself as an everyday player. That’s what makes this decision somewhat puzzling from the 41-year-old’s perspective. The Dodgers are currently banged up, but there don’t appear to be many at-bats available for Pujols at first base, and obviously none from the designated hitter spot (maybe next year, National League).
For the Dodgers, though, this move makes a lot of sense. Though injuries have presented a sizable roadblock, the foundation of this team is as strong as any other contender. Where the front office can make the biggest impact on the acquisition front—short of swinging a blockbuster trade closer toward the deadline—is on the margins, and that’s exactly where Pujols can contribute most.
On the field, one area Pujols appears to be able to help the Dodgers is against left-handed pitchers. As a team, the Dodgers are hitting .217/.315/.352 against lefties with a 25.8% strikeout rate and rank 25th in isolated power (.135). Since 2019, Pujols has fared well against southpaws, batting .253/.295/.490 in 275 plate appearances, with a strikeout rate nearly half as high (13.1%).
It’s no sure thing that Pujols would form a platoon with current first baseman Max Muncy, but he can help provide support against lefties occasionally. Muncy had been excellent facing left-handed pitchers throughout his career but has somewhat struggled so far in 2021, posting a hilarious .176/.417/.265 slash line with an absurd 27.1% walk rate in 48 plate appearances.
Pujols has also fared well of late when it matters most. In high- and medium-leverage situations (as defined by FanGraphs), Pujols is hitting .255/.324/.456 with a 105 wRC+ across 438 plate appearances. The Dodgers have plenty of hitters who have delivered in clutch situations throughout their roster, but having one more in tow come October is certainly something manager Dave Roberts would welcome.
Though his results this year with the Angels were tough to watch, Pujols still managed to make hard contact. His average exit velocity (90.5 miles per hour) was his highest since 2016, while his expected batting average (.265) and expected slugging percentage (.513) dwarfed his actual outcomes. Dodgers fans should not bank on those expected outcomes to come to fruition, though it’s at least an encouraging sign that he hasn’t been overpowered by opposing pitchers.
And then there’s the intangible piece of the puzzle. The Dodgers have been among the most analytically inclined front offices in the game for years, but they fully understand the importance of having a player of Pujols’s stature—of which there have been sparingly few throughout the game’s history—as part of the clubhouse.
Mike Trout, the greatest player of his generation, acknowledged the tremendous impact Pujols has had on him during their 10 years as teammates when speaking about his release by the Angels. Players hold a special reverence for Pujols throughout the league, and the Dodgers have had success bringing in accomplished elder statesmen who still had a little bit left in the tank in years past—think Chase Utley and David Freese in recent years.
In his 20th season, Pujols has been described as driven, hard-working and incredibly proud, which means the Dodgers are getting a player that has something to prove who’s been through it all and accomplished everything possible during a storied career. That’s a valuable person to have in the fold in the postseason, where Pujols has delivered his most signature moments.
Hall of Fame careers are tricky to land. Last week, there existed the real possibility that Pujols’s career would end not with a standing ovation or retirement tour, but with a DFA announcement and an unceremonious press release. Pujols’s legacy is unimpeachable, but that’s no way for a legend to call it a career.
By landing in Dodger blue, Pujols has given himself—and us—one last shot at a dignified exit. May we be so lucky for it to be one suitable for a player with a career as accomplished and iconic as the one forged by The Machine.
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