Angels designated hitter Albert Pujols’ on-base percentage ranked in the fifth percentile among qualified major league hitters last year. Billy Eppler, the Angels’ general manager, has said improving his club’s offense is his offseason priority. Within that, on-base percentage is his specified focus.
Eppler also said he believes it is no more important for Pujols to be better next season than it is for any other player on his roster.
“In a macro sense, you want everybody to go up,” Eppler said Wednesday, before he departed from the Waldorf Astoria, where Major League Baseball’s annual general managers’ meetings were held. “From my standpoint, Albert having productive at-bats, Albert having a presence in the middle of the order, is an important piece of our team.”
Eppler and the Angels are believers in advanced metrics and even develop their own, but they deny the accuracy of such metrics like Fangraphs.com’s Wins Above Replacement that peg Pujols as baseball’s worst player over the last two seasons.
The Angels say there is value within Pujols’ steady ability to drive in runs. Last season, Pujols drove in a better-than-average percentage of runners. Scouts attribute that to an adjustment in his approach when runners are in scoring position.
With a man on second, a Pujols single usually brings in a run. When the bases are empty, a Pujols single or walk is not as valuable. His lack of speed renders it difficult to move him the necessary 270 feet from first base to home plate. Pujols hit 23 home runs last season, but so did more than half of all players who had at least 500 at-bats. Excluding home runs, only 30 of his 159 trips on base in 2017 ended in a run.
Yet, there is hope within the organization that Pujols will regain some speed this offseason, as he is already weeks into workouts. Past foot surgeries have forced him to spend the winter sedentary. This offseason should be different. Pujols is expected to soon receive a visit from Bernard Li, the Angels’ director of sports science and performance. That checkup could inform the club about the player’s progress.
Eppler said this week that he strives to evaluate all performers “relative to the average.” From that scope, he was pleased with the Angels’ defense and pitching in 2017. He believes neither was the culprit for the team’s 80-win campaign.
“If those things remain constant and we see some improvement consistently offensively,” Eppler said, “then we’ll be in pretty good shape.”
Eppler said it was not only a matter of adding talent into the Angels’ lineup. He said improvement would require more connectivity between the team’s incumbent hitters, a stronger sense of one goal from player to player.
“A reliability and consistent team approach would be a big step for us,” Eppler said. “A lineup committed to putting together quality at-bats, professional at-bats, whatever term you want to throw out there on it. Guys that collectively take an approach of, ‘If I don’t get a pitch to drive, then I’ll just get on base and the next guy will.’ ”
Asked about the challenge in recognizing and quantifying the value of such streaks to a team’s success, Eppler cited reasoning made famous by Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart a half-century ago, as part of an opinion on the definition of obscenity.
“You know it when you see it,” Eppler said.
The Angels hope to know it in spring training. A faster-moving, better-hitting Pujols would help.
Follow Pedro Moura on Twitter @pedromoura