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Albert Pujols is filling his role perfectly with the Dodgers

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Saturday is Pujols’ 15th start in 15 games against a left-handed starter since joining the Dodgers

Los Angeles Dodgers v Miami Marlins
“That guy throws left-handed. I’m going to hit him.”
Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

Albert Pujols bats cleanup for the Dodgers on Saturday against Rockies Kyle Freeland, a familiar spot for the 41-year-old Pujols against left-handers since joining the team. Pujols is enjoying his best season in five years, part renaissance and part being put in the right spots to succeed.

When the Dodgers signed Pujols in May, four days after he was released by the Angels, expectations were tempered for someone who has hovered at or near replacement level for a few years running. But there was some method to the madness.

“We think there’s still life to the bat,” said Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said on May 17. “There’s efficiency in his swing. He’s impacting baseballs.”

Dodgers-Rockies lineups

Pos Dodgers Pos Rockies
Pos Dodgers Pos Rockies
RF Betts CF Hampson
3B Turner 2B Rodgers
2B Muncy (L) RF Blackmon (L)
1B Pujols SS Story
SS Taylor 3B McMahon (L)
CF Bellinger (L) 1B Cron
LF Pollock LF Hilliard (L)
C Barnes C Nuñez (L)
P Buehler P Freeland (L)

At the time Pujols was signed, and first baseman/leftfielder Yoshi Tsutsugo was traded for, the Dodgers’ depth was greatly depleted. Cody Bellinger and Zach McKinstry were in the middle of lengthy injured list stints, and Edwin Ríos was out for the year. The weekend those two deals came together, AJ Pollock strained his hamstring and Corey Seager was hit by a pitch on his hand that would end up costing him over two months.

The fill-ins on the Dodgers bench — Luke Raley, Sheldon Neuse, and DJ Peters — weren’t cutting it, so literally anyone who could occasionally punish a fastball down the middle would have been welcome. Tsutsugo didn’t work out, and has since been sent outright off the 40-man roster to Triple-A. But Pujols has thrived.

It’s not just the milestones. Just this month, Pujols reached 6,000 total bases, played in his 3,000th game (counting the postseason), and even passed Willie Mays in hits (or perhaps not, depending on whether Mays’ 10 hits with the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues count toward his total).

Early on, Pujols played quite a bit with so many others injured. He started 10 of his first 15 games with the Dodgers, including six out of 11 games against right-handed pitchers. But once Bellinger, McKinstry, and Pollock returned, Pujols settled into a more specialized role.

Since June 2, Pujols has started all 10 games against southpaws before facing Freeland on Saturday. But against right-handers during that time, Pujols has only started three out of 23 games, usually just a spot start to prevent him from going more than four days or so without starting.

“This organization had a really good game plan for me,” Pujols said back in May. “And the end of the day, that’s what it was all about for me.”

Right-handers have been death on Pujols, holding him to just 10 hits in 50 at-bats, hitting .200/.226/.320. But he’s only had 53 plate appearances against right-handers, compared to 64 against lefties. Pujols has batted more against favorable matchups this year, something that was impossible to do as an everyday player, topping out at only 40 percent of plate appearances against lefties in 2020 with the Angels.

Albert Pujols recent platoon splits

Year PA vs. RHP RHP% RHP wRC+ PA vs. LHP LHP% LHP wRC+
Year PA vs. RHP RHP% RHP wRC+ PA vs. LHP LHP% LHP wRC+
2016 502 77.2% 106 148 22.8% 123
2017 485 76.3% 81 151 23.7% 64
2018 374 75.1% 90 124 24.9% 82
2019 364 66.8% 81 181 33.2% 113
2020 97 59.5% 66 66 40.5% 85
2021 overall 117 56.0% 43 92 44.0% 172
2021 w/LAD 53 45.3% 50 64 54.7% 188
Sources: Baseball-Reference & FanGraphs

By putting Pujols in better positions to succeed more often, his seasonal slugging percentage (.454) is his highest since 2016. Counting just his time with the Dodgers, Pujols’ .518 slugging percentage is his best since 2012.

Using Wins Above Replacement, FanGraphs has Pujols at 0.0 on the season — exactly replacement level, but that’s his highest measurement there since 2016. With the Dodgers he’s at 0.5 fWAR so far. By Baseball Reference, Pujols is at -0.3 WAR on the year, but 0.4 bWAR with the Dodgers, which would be his highest since 2016.

Success against lefties is driving Pujols’ numbers this year, but he’s also mashing against them like he hasn’t done in some time. Pujols on the season has a .655 slugging percentage against southpaws, his highest since 2010, when he finished second in National League MVP voting. It ranks 11th in MLB this year, and is supported by his batted-ball data, with his .635 expected slugging percentage against lefties ranking 13th in the majors.

Since Statcast came around in 2015, Pujols’ top expected slugging percentage in a season was .573, back in 2016. No other season was above .482, until this year.

With the Dodgers, Pujols is hitting .350/.391/.683 against lefties, his six home runs trailing only Justin Turner by one, in 48 more plate appearances. Pujols has a 188 wRC+ with the Dodgers against lefties, matching Max Muncy for the team lead.

Life in the bat, indeed.

Maybe the extra rest is helping drive Pujols. But his role on the team is crystal clear, and he’s excelling in it.