Baseball in Los Angeles was expected to have a royal renaissance of sorts this year, with its two baseball clubs sporting two of the games major stars: Matt Kemp of the Dodgers and Albert Pujols of the Angels.
Matt Kemp is a home grown talent from the L.A. Dodgers traditionally strong farm system, who is poised to lead the Dodgers back from the doldrums of the past couple of seasons. Albert Pujols comes to the L.A. Angels from the St. Louis Cardinals and the National League with the hopes of leading the Angels back to the playoffs after missing them the past two seasons.
Both players are indeed two of MLB’s bonafide stars. Matt Kemp is the complete package, a five tool outfielder in the mold of Hall of Famers Willie Mays and former Dodgers star Duke Snider. Albert Pujols is the traditional baseball slugging right handed power hitter in the mold of Hall of Famers Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial. Both men were expected to lead their teams to big fortunes in the 2012 baseball season, but so far only Kemp and the Dodgers are keeping up that end of the bargain.
To put Pujols’ signing into perspective, Angels owner Arte Moreno paid only $184 million for the Angels franchise in 2003. He will pay Albert Pujols, perhaps the best offensive player in all of Major League Baseball over the past decade, much more than that over the next 10 years. Pujols won the rookie of the year award in 2001 and has been on fire since. He sports a .328 lifetime batting average and has hit 445 home runs. While the signing of Pujols was certainly celebrated it is also viewed as questionable to some. Last season Pujols batted .299 with 37 homers and 99 RBIs in 2011, the only season in his 11-year career that he didn't have 100 RBIs or hit better than .300. To some that was a sign of his impending decline, but he did battle an arm injury.
Many analysts believe a baseball player’s prime years are between the ages of 26-32. It may be no surprise then that Pujols, 32, is in the midst of the most extended struggle of his future Hall of Fame career. After signing a monstrous 10-year, $254 million contract, he's looking more like a quarter of a million-dollar mistake. His .316 slugging percentage is 11 points lower than his career batting average. He has yet to hit a home run, showing his first signs of aging and of not being the machine ESPN famously immortalized him as. Pujols is in a deep funk and he's shown little signs of breaking out of it. Not only has Pujols not homered in 84 at-bats this season, he hasn't driven in a run in 12 games and is batting .226 with a paltry four RBIs. Although it’s early on, the Angels have must have concerns if Pujols’ struggles are a minor hurdle or a sign that Pujols is no more prone to aging than any other star.
While Pujols, a three-time NL MVP, a two-time MLB champion first baseman and a slugger who has smacked 445 career homers, has filled the L.A. Angels and their fans with worry, Kemp, 27, has filled L.A. Dodgers with new hope. This past winter, Kemp signed an eight-year, $160 million contract extension. 21 games into the season, the deal is a bargain. Kemp has started this season on a different level than any other player. He leads the majors in home runs (11), average (.442), on-base percentage (.506) and slugging (.922). Those are numbers that Albert Pujols is accustomed to putting up each April.
This season has been all smiles so far for Kemp and the Dodgers. His ascension began last season, when he finished second in the National League MVP race. This season, Kemp’s dynamic play has surged the Dodgers into first place in the National League West. After hitting 39 home runs and stealing 40 bases in 2011, he has made it clear he wants to be the first member of the 50-50 club this season. When asked about going 50-50, “I know what I’m capable of doing,” Kemp said. “I’ve shown it.” Before this year, Kemp predicted a 50-50 season for himself and though he only has two stolen base to date, anything else seem possible.
Kemp’s fast start has recently sparked a debate as to whether Kemp has a legitimate chance to win baseball’s Triple Crown. It’s been 45 years since a player has been able to claim the honor. Carl Yastrzemski of Boston Red Sox, was the last player to do it when he hit .326 with 44 home runs and 121 RBI in 1967. The last player from the National League to perform the feat was Joe Medwick of the St. Louis Cardinals, who batted .374 with 31 home runs and 154 RBI in 1937. Albert Pujols was perennially a threat for the Triple Crown while in the National League. Now with him and Prince Fielder in the American League, a reasonable argument could be made that Kemp has a real shot at the NL Triple Crown. With two of Kemp’s chief competitors in the National League now gone, the home run and RBI categories have become less competitive.
Kemp's play has helped the Dodgers into first place in the National League West, and their fans. Pujols brought his talent and professionalism to the Angles, but that has not produced the expected results, as the Angels have surprisingly fallen into last place in the American League West. Pujols’ struggles are not uncommon for a player who has moved from one league after spending so much time in the other. But his professional approach will likely be enough for him to turn it around and he maintains the support of his teammates and management.
It’s a long season and the buzz created by both Kemp’s emergence and Pujols’ signing, have generated the fan excitement that both clubs desired so the renaissance is still in full effect. And while, there is an excitement about baseball in the City of Angels not seen in the past few seasons, it’s still a bit premature to start talking about an Interstate 5 World Series.