OpinionJune 2, 2006

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Why They Keep Pitching to Albert…

By Brendan Horton

Recently it’s come to the attention of many that Albert Pujols, who hit his 25th homerun on Memorial Day, May 29th, is still seeing many more pitches to hit than should be expected. Comparisons of his number of both intentional and total bases on balls to that of Barry Bonds in his record breaking 73 HR season, and even 2006, where Bonds has drawn more BB than Albert, are leaving many scratching their heads.

So, why are NL managers still having their pitchers pitch to Albert Pujols?

Five words: Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds. Pujols has it much better, in the respect of protection, than his predecessors: Bonds, Sosa, & McGwire.

Let us look at 1998: the epic homerun chase that pulled fans back to baseball after the strike had turned them away. Sammy Sosa belted 66 long balls that season, crushing the former single season mark of 61 by Roger Maris. Protecting him was Henry Rodriguez, who in his 11 year career, bat .259 with 160 HR and 523 RBI. He did hit 31 big flies in ’98 behind Sosa in the Windy City, but still only managed to reach base just over 33% of the time. Sosa’s BB figures: 73 total, 14 intentional.

Not to be outdone, in 1998 McGwire set the then single season homerun record with an unthinkable 70 dingers. Batting behind him was 33 year old Ron Gant, formerly of Atlanta Brave fame. Ray Lankford and Brian Jordan also saw time ‘protecting’ Big Mac. Gant hit .240 with a .331 OBP and 26 HRs. Ray Lankford, 31 at the time, hit .293 with an OBP close to .400, 31 HR and 105 RBI. Brian Jordan, also 31 in 1998, finished with a .316 AVG, 25 HR, 91 RBI, with an .OPS of .902. A huge upgrade from the protection Sammy Sosa saw in the same year; however, none of these three provided superior protection. McGwire’s BB figures: 162 total, 28 intentional.

Just a few short years later, San Francisco Giant Barry Bonds hit his way into the record books with 73 homers; a record that stands today. Barry had protecting him, former MVP Award Winner Jeff Kent. With over 1,300 career RBI, and 330 career HR, Jeff Kent hit .298 with an OBP nearing .370 in 2001. Barry finished the 2001 season with staggering BB figures: 177 total, 35 intentional. Bonds would go on to walk 198 times in 2002, and an eye popping 232 times in 2004, with 120 intentional free passes, after Kent left the Bay for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Pitchers are forced to respect Pujols, with the lethal combination beginning with Scott Rolen, a career .284 hitter with 162-game averages of 30 HR and 111 RBI and an .890 OPS in 10 Major League seasons. After Rolen is veteran centerfielder Jim Edmonds, who has twice hit 42 long balls and has a .291 batting average in 13 MLB seasons, with a .963 OPS. If they could, pitchers would likely issue the free pass to Pujols more frequently than they have to this point. However, as long as Rolen and Edmonds remain in good health, expect Albert to see more strikes than his predecessors did the better part of a decade ago. What does all this mean? Good things, if you happen to own the crowned Prince of St. Louis.

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