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In Baseball on October 19, 2011 at 8:27 pm

“The only two certainties in life are death and taxes,” Benjamin Franklin said (maybe). Had he stuck around through the first decade of the 21st century, Franklin could have added “and Albert Pujols hitting .300/30/100” to Poor Richard’s Almanack.

Baseball is a game of streaks. Whether it’s Joe DiMaggio hitting in 56-straight games, or the Atlanta Braves’s run of 14 consecutive playoff appearances, sustained excellence in a sport that can, at times, be unpredictable — even fickle — and captivate even the most casual of fans. In fact, the only things we love more than streaks of success are arbitrary numbers: A 100-win team, a 20-win pitcher, a .300 hitter — each has a certain aura that suggests baseball excellence without much credence, like a gut feeling using numerals. It’s understandable, then, why fans and media alike have pointed out that one of the greatest streaks in baseball history — Albert Pujols’s run of 10 straight seasons with a batting average over .300, at least 30 home runs and at least 100 runs batted in — came to an end this season.

Reactions have varied from indifference (How long could you expect that kind of brilliance to last?) to criticism (Clearly, he let his contract situation go to his head) to utter panic (He’s mortal after all [sobs]) for the Cardinal faithful. True, Pujols’s Triple Crown numbers for 2011 were lower than his 162 game averages, and his OPS+, was at its lowest point since his sophomore season in 2002. He also set a career low in WAR. And walks. And had a marked rise in double plays and outs made. According to most armchair GMs, 2011 was the worst season of Pujols’s career.

But was it really that bad? As sabermetric statistics continue to gain acceptance as accurate indicators of a player’s performance, batting average and RBI are becoming that much more trivial. They’re still part of the record books — and really, RBI looks nicer than VORP as an acronym — but we’re getting back to gut feelings. Pujols’s numbers should speak for themselves.

Let’s start with batting average. Pujols failed to crack the .300 mark for the first time in his career, finishing the regular season with a miniscule… .299 average. The central issue that comes to mind is, “Is there any practical difference between a .299 hitter and a .300 hitter?” The answer is obviously no. Over the course of a season, the one hit that separates the .299 player from the .300 player shouldn’t matter. And as anyone who hasn’t lived under a Joe Morgan-shaped rock for the last decade knows, batting average is a flawed statistic. It literally only factors in one manner of reaching base — hits. What is more telling is Pujols’s batting average on balls in play, also known as BABIP. In any game, a player can get a fluke hit, or be denied one when a fielder makes a circus catch. BABIP tries to account for the flukes and the flops. An average BABIP hovers around .300. Anything higher suggests good luck, and anything lower suggests bad luck. Pujols’s career BABIP is .311. His 2010 average was .297, while his 2011 total was 20 points lower at .277. Meanwhile, his standard batting average dropped only 13 points during 2011. Pujols’s numbers were down, but it seems that at least part of this decrease can be attributed to bad luck.

Pujols did manage to hit 37 home runs in 2011, good enough for third in the National League. It was the third time he hit 37 in a season, but it was also less than his 162 game average of 42. He also had the second lowest Isolated Power average of his career. ISO refines slugging percentage to factor in how many extra bases a hitter averages per at bat. In 2011, Pujols’s ISO was .242, significantly lower than his career average of .288. Only his 2007 season, during which he hit 32 home runs, produced a lower ISO, and only by a point, at .241. At 150, Pujols’s OPS+ was also the lowest of his career. But it just edged out his 2002 OPS+ of 151, which occurred during a season in which he went .314/34/127. Yes, he had the fewest hits of his career in 2011 — 173 — but they managed to be almost equally as valuable as the 185 he hit in 2002.

He also missed the century mark in RBI, driving in only 99 runs for 2011. It was still the seventh best mark in the NL, but it was 27 off from his 162 game average. But, like batting average, RBI has little relevance. RBI relies, at least in part, on the performance of the batters earlier in the line up; it is impossible to bat players in if they are not on base when you step up to the plate. A better statistic is the so-called “Runs Created.” It factors many of an individual player’s statistics, including hits, walks, at bats and extra base hits, in a formula that would make Pythagoras blush. Essentially, the formula tries to account for how many runs scored by a team were attributable to a single player. Pujols’s RC for 2011 was 107, suggesting that RBI alone short-sells #5. Even with his RC off of his career average of 150, the Cardinals managed the highest scoring offense in the National League.

This season-long talk of Pujols’s imminent decline must have gone to his head. The Cardinals rallied from 10.5 games behind the Braves in the NL wild card standings to jump into the playoffs, largely fueled by Pujols’s hot bat in September. Pujols had seven hits in 20 at bats in the division series to take down the powerful Philadelphia Phillies and reach the NLCS for the first time since 2006. And Monday night, Pujols had a home run and three doubles in the Cardinals’ blowout 12-3 win over the Milwaukee Brewers. Going into game one, even his most elementary line of .419/2/10 is enough to strengthen the gut of almost any Cards fan.

Pujols didn’t give St. Louis fans an 11th year of that pretty .300/30/100 line, but he might just deliver them a World Series.

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