Albert Pujols of the Los Angeles Angels is the most feared hitter of his generation — one of the greatest ever to step into a batter’s box. He ranks eighth all-time in home runs, seventh in extra-base hits and 10th in total bases. At his peak, he won three MVP awards and was also the best position player in baseball — according to wins above replacement (WAR)1 — three times (in 2006, 2008 and 2009). Pujols’s resume makes him a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer.
But this season, a new title can be assigned to Pujols: He’s the worst player in baseball.
Pujols has flat-out stunk up Angel Stadium. He’s hitting .230 (79 points below his previous career average) with an on-base plus slugging 26 percent worse than league average. Even in an age of ineffective designated hitters, Pujols has easily been the worst hitter at the position that provides the least defensive value (i.e., zero value). As a result, no player has been less valuable than Pujols this year: His -1.99 WAR ranks dead last among all players (including pitchers).
If he finishes the season in last place — which seems quite possible, as L.A. continues to pencil him into its starting lineup, day after day, despite his poor numbers — Pujols will become the first modern2 position player ever to be both baseball’s best and worst player at various points in his career. The worst finish by a former No. 1 player previously belonged to the delightfully named New York Yankees second baseman Snuffy Stirnweiss. Snuffy was baseball’s top position player in 1945, when many of the league’s best (such as Ted Williams, Stan Musial and Joe DiMaggio) were serving in the military. But he was also the league’s second-worst player in 1950, a miserable season that saw him hit .216 and get traded from the 98-win Yankees to the 58-win St. Louis Browns.
Here are the worst finishes by WAR for position players who were also the best in baseball at some point in their career:
Obviously, it isn’t good to take two wins away from a club’s ledger, relative to what it could’ve gotten from a minimum-salary scrub. That’s especially true for the Angels, who are a single game in back of the Minnesota Twins for the American League’s final wild-card berth and fighting for their postseason lives. But in a funny way, Pujols’ last-place ranking this year is also a kind of testament to how good he’s been over the course of his long, storied career.
The bottom of the WAR leaderboard provides a good lesson in the difference between “ability” and “value”. Ability-wise, Pujols isn’t actually MLB’s worst baseball player — that distinction would probably go to a fringe player who was called up at midseason and rarely plays — but he has been its least valuable, in no small part because of the ample opportunities he’s received.3 Simply being bad isn’t enough; in order to even get the chance to finish last in WAR, a player needs to have earned the confidence from management to let him play through a prolonged slump.
That’s why, even though no former No. 1 player has sunk as low as Pujols this season, the list of league-worst players by WAR includes plenty of guys who were, at one point, extremely good at baseball. Most notably, the worst player in 1983 was the all-time hit king, Pete Rose, who — unlike Pujols — was eventually benched by the Phillies because of his poor play.
In addition to Pujols, there are a few other names on this year’s worst-players list who peaked as stars not too long ago. Carlos Gonzalez of the Rockies, the second-worst player this season, ranked as high as No. 15 in 2010. Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez fell from 10th-best in 2009 all the way to sixth-worst this season. And Jose Bautista of the Blue Jays, who clocks in as baseball’s 26th-worst player by WAR this year, ranked third-best as recently as 2011. It takes a great reputation to be afforded such a bad season.
Since signing a massive contract with the Angels before the 2012 season, Pujols has had a few solid renaissance seasons, and he was an above-average hitter as recently as last season. So it wasn’t unreasonable for the Angels to expect him to eventually snap out of his funk at some point this season. And he may well end up with 100 runs batted in despite the poor sabermetric numbers — though it would be one of the least valuable 100-RBI seasons ever. Either way, he’s just the most glaring example of a phenomenon that probably won’t go away anytime soon. As long as there are managers dreaming of a turnaround — and ones who lack any better options4 — once-great players like Pujols will always get the chance to play themselves to the bottom of the WAR charts.