ANAHEIM, Calif. — Albert Pujols’ legacy ultimately lies beyond the statistics, awards and achievements, including the 3,000th career hit he collected on May 4 at Safeco Field in Seattle against the Mariners.
Even after his retirement, Pujols’ influence will endure in many of his teammates and in some of today’s best young players.
One of them, Mike Trout, was 20 when he met the future Hall of Famer after joining the Angels to stay in 2012, Pujols’ first season with the club.
“I introduced myself but I really didn’t know him at first,” Trout said. “He’s a very likable guy. He wants to teach you and to help you out as much as possible, on and off the field.”
Pujols, who hit behind Trout, soon became his mentor.
“He’s helped me out a lot,” Trout said. “He can analyze a swing. He knows my swing, obviously, because I’ve been here for a while. He knows when I’m feeling good and he knows when I’m feeling bad without even asking me. It’s pretty impressive.”
Pujols also impressed Trout with “the midgame adjustments that he can pick up, just analyzing the swing, staying up the middle, not trying to do too much, just little stuff that people don’t recognize,” the American League’s two-time Most Valuable Player said. “To make that midgame or that mid-at-bat adjustment with just a little tip that he’ll tell you is pretty impressive.”
Andrelton Simmons specified some of the little stuff that boosted his production: “Just talking to him about how to approach each at-bat, to know what pitchers are trying to do or what they’ve been doing throughout a game, and being able to be ready for that — little things that maybe you don’t think too much about but give you an edge.”
When Simmons joined the Angels in a trade from the Braves in November 2015, he owned a .256 career average. As Pujols’ teammate, the shortstop is batting .284 and began Friday night’s play with a .327 average.
“He’s a big influence,” Simmons said. “Up until I came here, I could swing the bat but didn’t have much of a plan going up there. That was one of the biggest things I’ve learned.
“For my first two years, I really learned a lot from him by doing the same stuff he did in the cage and trying to mimic some stuff in his swing path. I talk to him about swing paths sometimes and how to hit certain pitches. As we went on, we would have more conversations about how to approach certain at-bats. To me, it makes a big difference. I can’t deny that he’s been a great help for me.”
Before joining his new team for spring training this year, Shohei Ohtani practiced hitting with Pujols at the latter’s home roughly 15 miles from Angel Stadium.
“He’s been giving me a lot of advice, not just on hitting but on getting adjusted to a new country, a new culture,” Ohtani said through an interpreter. “I have a really good view of his at-bats; I’m on the on-deck circle so I like to try to learn a lot from his at-bats.”
Not only Pujols’ teammates benefit. Before the Angels’ series opener against the Orioles on Tuesday, Pujols was talking with fellow Dominican Manny Machado, the major leagues’ leading hitter at the time. As the Orioles were taking batting practice, Machado was silently listening while Pujols was speaking in an animated manner.
“He’s a guy we always watched growing up,” Machado said. “I always watched him, especially being a Dominican. I always watched how he took his approach, what type of things he did as a hitter. Every time he stepped to the plate, he already knew what he need to do with his at-bat.
“Then I got to meet him and I asked him a lot of questions about his approach on hitting, what he did to get ready for games, how he approached different situations. Ever since I came up, he always treated me with open arms. Anything I ever needed, he was there, always.”
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That guidance extends to matters beyond the batting cage. In Ohtani, Pujols finds a younger version of himself; Pujols was 16 when he left the Dominican Republic with his father and settled in Missouri to pursue a baseball career.
“He told me he knows that it’s a new culture, a new country, but baseball is baseball,” the 23-year-old Ohtani said through his interpreter, “so just try to keep doing what you’ve been doing in Japan, and you should be successful. That’s one of the best pieces of advice I’ve gotten from him.”
Sometimes, Pujols can make a point by saying nothing.
“He knows what he’s trying to achieve each day when he goes into the cage,” said Angels outfielder Justin Upton, a four-time All-Star. “If you see a guy who’s a future Hall of Famer preparing for the game the way he does, you know you need to prepare just as well as he does.”
Second baseman Ian Kinsler, another four-time All-Star and in his first year as Pujols’ teammate, amplified Upton’s opinion.
“He’s works hard,” Kinsler said. “He has incredible focus every day on what he’s trying to accomplish and he doesn’t cut any corners.”
Orioles relief pitcher Darren O’Day, who faced Pujols’ Cardinals in the 2011 World Series while with the Rangers, speaks like a hitting coach when describing his rival.
“Mechanically, what makes him so good is his balance,” said O’Day. “He’s figured out how to hit a ball hard without having to swing so hard that his balance gets off. He’s able to keep the barrel in the zone for a long time.”
During that 2011 World Series, Pujols compiled a .640 slugging percentage and 1.064 OPS, and became the third player to hit three home runs in one Series game, joining Hall of Famers Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson.
“He was just on another planet,” O’Day said with a muffled laugh. “I’ve had a chance to see him hit balls to all fields with power. It’s because he’s balanced and he’s strong.”
That balance and strength, combined with his experience and concentration, make Pujols uniquely dangerous.
“He’s very intelligent, there’s no question about that,” O’Day said. “His database of pitches seen is pretty extensive. It’s very unlikely that you’re going to throw him something he’s never seen before. You’re not going to have too much success throwing him three of the same pitches in an at-bat.”
Orioles manager Buck Showalter, who uses defensive shifts against each opposing batter, paid Pujols perhaps the ultimate compliment while describing the difficulty in trying to defuse him.
“The great hitters that I’ve known through the years can take an ego out of an at-bat when that (runner) is out there with two outs on second base, and knowing how they’re going to pitch them,” Showalter said. “He’ll hit according to the situation.
“We talk about that a lot with (Miguel) Cabrera with Detroit. We can talk a lot in advance about playing him this way but if there’s somebody at second with two outs, you change the way you defend him, or try to defend him.
“You can’t defend that ball that lands in the bleachers. They won’t let us shift up there.”