Even after yet another 30-homer, 100 RBI season in 2012, the Los Angeles Angels had pretty good reasons to be concerned about Albert Pujols, their $254 million man whom they’ll be paying through the majority the next decade.
His OPS had declined for a third straight season to .859. Ditto his walk rate, which ended at a career-low 7.8 percent, and he was just an above-average 3.6 fWAR player instead of being the perennial MVP candidate the baseball world had been used to seeing.
This is not even mentioning that he didn’t even hit his first homer in 2012 until May 6, when he sat at a uncharacteristically-poor .505 OPS heading into play.
Was age finally catching up to him? Was it the adjustment to the AL? Will it happen this way again in 2013 — or will he continue to decline?
No, no, and no. Those were the answers Pujols wanted to say entering this season, even as he was fighting a balky knee and a foot injury. Not exactly the most reassuring signs, yes?
He knew, as the Angels knew, that those early questions could only truly be answered at the plate — and Pujols did just that on Saturday, breaking out in a big way with a pair of homers against the Texas Rangers, leading his team to an 8-4 victory as the driving force in the lineup.
In other words, he did just what was expected of the 33-year old slugger.
Pujols’ homers off Matt Harrison and Jason Frasor meant more than just numbers on the scoreboard, of course. It spiked what had been a worrisome .365 though his first four games to a more Pujolsian 1.016 and more importantly, it put the specter of the 2012 version of Albert Pujols away, and returned the fear of the slugger who could hurt you at any time into the minds of his opposing pitchers … at least for one game.
One game is important, though, simply because it was a performance that hadn’t been seen for some time. Pujols had just a pair of multi-homer games in 2012, and to get this one out of the way now as opposed to the middle of the summer is a big shot to the team’s confidence.
The Angels’ No. 3 hitter entered Saturday’s game as arguably just another good hitter. By the end of it, he’d been intentionally walked three times — something that hasn’t happened for him since 2010, when he was pushing for a NL triple-crown title as a 7.0 fWAR player.
Even if he never ends up getting back to that level over a full season, just having the idea of that player being able to surface every now and then will go a long way for the Angels in 2013.