MLB Star Power Index: Let's not forget the player Albert Pujols once was; a look at Javier Baez's evolving approach
Albert Pujols' first decade in MLB was something to behold, plus a look at who's been buzzing
Welcome to the MLB Star Power Index -- a weekly temperature reading that tells us which players are owning the baseball conversation right now. While one's presence on this list is often a positive, it's not necessarily a good thing. It simply means that you're capturing the baseball world's attention for one reason or another. The players listed are in no particular order. Thanks to Brad Botkin and our NBA compadres for letting us borrow the concept.
Javier Baez enjoyed a bust-out season in 2018, in which he made his first All-Star team, won his first Silver Slugger, and finished second in the NL MVP balloting. In part because there's so much swing and miss in his game and he doesn't draw walks at a high clip, many observers expected El Mago to take a step back this season. Well, the opposite has happened thus far.
At this writing, Baez has a 2019 slash line of .319/.353/.646, and at thelevel he's added 27 points to his 2018 figure of 128. In other words, there's no sign of that expected regression thus far. To boot, Baez has done all of this at the plate while pinning down shortstop and looking very strong at the position in the early going. In 2017 and 2018, Baez was a primary second baseman who saw occasional time at other infield positions.
As for Baez's bat, he's still a free swinger, and knowing this, pitchers don't often directly challenge him (this season, Baez is seeing pitches in the zone 34.8 percent of the time versus a league-average mark of 42.8 percent). It takes a special hitter to do consistent damage under those conditions. This season, Baez is going the other way much more often than he has in the past, which is a sign of his evolving approach. Take, for instance, this clutch blast against John Brebbia of the Cardinals during the Cubs' recent home sweep of their blood rivals:
That's mid-90s on the outer third and just above the topmost edge of the zone. It's also a two-strike pitch that Baez early in his career probably whiffs on in an effort to pull it. Other hitters probably spit on it and run the count full. Baez, though, knows he can do damage even in such extreme pitch locations, and he wisely went oppo with it for a game-changing home run. Suffice it to say, pitches in that spot don't often get hit out of the park, but Baez is not your average bear.
Add to all this that Baez is one of the most exciting and exuberant players in the game today -- a player who takes almost palpable joy in his craft -- and you can consider him to be appointment viewing whether at the plate or in the field.
In most determined yet most chill conclusion ...
After undergoing Tommy John surgery, Shohei Ohtani, the Angels' two-way phenom recently made his 2019 debut. Ohtani won't pitch this season, but he will serve as the Angels' regular DH for the rest of the way. Last season, Ohtani put up excellent numbers at the plate despite inconsistent reps and divided attention: .285/.361/.564 (150 OPS+) with 22 home runs in 326 at-bats.
Ohtani has oodles of left-handed pop, and the Angels need that if they're going to climb back into contention. Presumably the Angels haven't rushed back their second-most valuable long-term piece, so the question becomes two-fold. One, can Ohtani replicate what he achieved in his rookie season? Two, will a singular focus on hitting lead to gains at the plate in 2019?
On that vital front, the SportsLine Projection Model (@SportsLine on Twitter) tabs Ohtani for a 2019 line of .271/.355/.526 with 22 home runs and 20 doubles in 361 at-bats. That projects a slight power decline for his age-24 campaign. Given that hitting the ball is Ohtani's lone focus this season and given that he's still at a prime or perhaps even pre-prime age, I'll take the over on those bestowals. Whatever the case, how Ohtani's sophomore campaign at the plate unfolds will be one of the more compelling subplots of the 2019 season moving forward.
Albert Pujols recently joined the terribly exclusive ranks of those who have tallied at least 2,000 RBI in their careers. He's already reached 3,000 hits and 600 home runs, and at age 39 he's squarely in the "pad the totals without actually being very good" stage of things. It's something that happens to almost all the greats. In truth, Pujols hasn't been a productive hitter by positional standards since 2016, and it's been longer than that since he's been better than average in terms of total value.
The thing about the greats in their latter days, when they provide glimpses of what they used to do every day, is that you have to be genuinely great to have reached the point of deep, sustained decline. Teams wouldn't tolerate it from a lesser player. So as Pujols creaks and drags his way toward the remaining reachable milestones, let's not forget what he once was. He once was a player whose ruthless excellence was like nothing we'd ever seen before.
The first signs of Pujols' decline came in 2011, his last season with the Cardinals. Take a look at the unrelenting beauty of the back of his 2011 Topps card (available for purchase on Ebay):
Would you get a load of that. Over the first 10 years of his big-league career, he never hit fewer than 32 home runs or 33 doubles. Every year he batted no worse than .312. Just twice did he dip below a 1.000 OPS. He always drove in at least 100 runs, and only once did he fail to score at least 100 runs. Only as a rookie did he fail to walk more times than he struck out in a season (an astounding feat for a power hitter in the modern era). It's one thing to rack up more than 80 WAR through your first decade, which Pujols did; it's quite another to achieve such cumulative worth while never straying very far from his lofty baseline.
Not many can compare when it comes to such a perfectly authored first decade. Maybe Mike Trout will come close, but his back 'o the card is sullied a bit by his mostly unsuccessful pre-rookie stint as a 19-year-old in 2011. As for Pujols, no matter the depths of his decline phase -- he's signed through the 2021 season -- he'll always have that Immaculate Decade to look back upon.
Josh Bell cracks this list not only because he's shin-deep into a breakout campaign (his 2019 OPS is north of 1.000), but also because he's wielding the crankshaft to such jaw-dropping effect. This season, his average exit velocity of 94.5 ranks in the top 3.0 percent of the league. His hard-hit rate of 53.3 percent ranks in the top 5.0 percent of the league. His expected slugging percentage checks in at a sky-scraping .616, which says there's nothing cheap about the big numbers he's put up to date.
Or, to sum it up in moving pictures, there's this recent whammy:
That damn thing splashed in the Allegheny River, and it didn't need to bound off any concrete to reach those waters. The shame of it is that, based on the current location of PNC Park, it's not humanly possible to hit a ball into the Monongahela River. As Pittsburgh rivers go, that's a much better name. Anyhow, Bell, provided he keeps this up, should possibly be nicknamed God Slamgod.
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