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Friday, April 24, 2009

A Boy Who Loves Baseball

by Michael Riehn
Last night my son wanted me to tell him a story. We were in our car, driving home from dinner, so I didn’t have the benefit of a book to read him. I had to make up something on the spot, and this is not one of my strong suits. He is 5 years old though, and is at a great age for being interested in my limited story telling ability. Kids at that age haven’t had much experience in the world and are interested in learning and/or anything you find exciting.

After quickly going through my standards (Boy Who Cried Wolf, David and Goliath), I was running out of ideas. Yesterday’s Cardinal game was fresh in my mind, so I told him the story about a little boy from the Dominican Republic who loved baseball. The boy’s name was Albert and he went from a player that nobody wanted (barely being drafted) and the last man picked out of Spring Training his rookie year, to one of the best players to ever play the game. My son loved this story, and wanted me to tell it again and again. It made me realize what a remarkable journey this player has had and how lucky we are to watch it.

Albert Pujols crushed 2 home runs yesterday for his 25th career multi-homer game, and is now on pace for 60 Home Runs, 212 RBI, 182 R, 130 BB, 20 SB with only 40 strikeouts on the season. The man puts up sick statistics that you only see from the game’s all time greats, and he does it every year. He has already accumulated a .344/.458/.719 slash line (BA, OBP, SLG) on the young season and is coming off a week long SLUMP where he hit under .200 for 7 days. For the 9th season in a row, we can sit back and enjoy the ride. Can a player that puts up these type of Hall of Fame statistics year in and year out be underrated?

With Albert, it is the little things that go unnoticed. When your superstar works the hardest on the team and is probably the team’s best hitting coach you have something even more special than the numbers can illuminate.

How do players constantly have better seasons when they join the Cardinals? Khalil Greene was terrible last year, but seems to be taking a new approach to hitting (more walks, not chasing bad pitches). Is it a coincidence that he followed Pujols around during hitting drills in Spring Training? There is no secret that Pujols has helped Yadier Molina’s game, who at age 27 may be turning the corner as one of the best defensive AND offensive catchers in baseball. Pujols sets a great example for everyone and gives up his time in order to bring out the best in his teammates.

Pujols has no speed, yet stole a base the last two games and is one of the smartest baserunners in baseball. How many times does he take the extra base on a bad throw or score a run when a speedier runner would have stopped? When was the last time he was thrown out? On Wednesday, Duncan hit a line drive at Delgado a couple of feet from the bag with Pujols on 1st base. He is probably the only player in the majors that doesn’t get doubled off in this situation. Albert has this uncanny sixth sense that you can’t teach. His mind is always in the moment and he rarely makes a mental mistake. Contrast this to Manny Ramirez, who is in my opinion the second greatest right handed hitter in the game today. They may hit alike and have affable personalities, but that is where the similarities end.

Pujols is one of the best fielding 1st basemen year in and year out. He currently leads the National league in UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) and is on pace for a 14.3 UZR/150. This measures the amount of runs a player saves above an average player over 150 games (thus Pujols would save over 14 runs on the season… this is a lot). This doesn’t even take into count his throwing ability. How many times has he cut a ball off from the outfield and throws out a runner trying to stretch a base? Remember, this is the man that has needed arm surgery for 5 years, but plays through the pain.

He’s the most competitive player on the team, yet he’s the guy picking up his teammates after they make a mistake. Most great players have a difficult time having patience for their lesser teammates’ mistakes. Some of the best players in sports are also the most competitive. Legends like Michael Jordan, Ted Williams and Ray Lewis are famous for constantly putting pressure on their teammates. Players with competitive fire, have trouble turning it off and can sometimes go too far. This is not the case for one of the nicest players in the game. Players love Pujols, pitchers fear him.

You know what is scary about the 2009 Pujols start? As good as he’s been, he has actually been unlucky. He only has a .292 Batting Average on Balls in Play. This is a measure of the number of batted balls that safely fall in for a hit (not including home runs). Over Pujols’ career he averages a .322 mark (which is 30 points higher than he is currently averaging).

How good can this man be? Adding in his community work, family involvement and faith, he is the total package. With all due respect to Stan Musial, are we watching the greatest Cardinal ever?

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