The Machine Stops?

The Machine Stops?
It is one of the imponderables of baseball: when teams spend prodigious amounts in the off-season, only to have disappointing results once the bell sounds. The current victims are two teams known for, among other things, changing their city identifications (even if, in one case, they didn’t change their location).

I am speaking of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (certainly a ridiculous and self-diminishing moniker if there ever were one: imagine the New York Yankees of Hackensack…right) and the Miami, nee Florida, Marlins. Now it must be said that at their birth in 1961, the Angels actually WERE the Los Angeles Angels, adopting the long-standing sobriquet of the Pacific Coast League team that preceded them, before becoming the California Angels when they moved to Anaheim and a shiny new ballpark in 1965; in 1997 they adopted the name of their city, and enjoyed their only pennant and World Series championship in 2002. In 2005, however, owner Arte Moreno decided he wanted to market the team more aggressively north of Orange County so he reclaimed the “Los Angeles” part of the name. I understand the impulse even if I don’t approve of the follow-through.

The Angels were an American League power from 2002 through 2009 enjoying six post-season appearances including five AL West crowns, but in 2010 they were eclipsed by the powerful and talented Texas Rangers. This past off-season team ownership decided not to sit still: they pulled a brilliant pre-emptive strike and claimed the biggest fish in the free-agent pond, the great Albert Pujols, for 10 years and $242 million. Then they claimed the top pitching prize from the rival Rangers, lefty C.J. Wilson, for another 5 years and $77.5M.

Wilson has paid off to date, with a 3-2 mark, 2.70 ERA and 1.020 WHIP. But Albert, The Phat One, the King, has been a mystery so far, batting a paltry .202 with 0, that’s right, zero, home runs. It is inexplicable and troubling: no one expected Albert’s production to crater so dramatically. No one expects it to last; in 2011 Pujols got off to a slow start, missing several habitual career watermarks in batting average and RBI (but just barely); while he was mortal early on, for the remainder of the season he was himself, and of course everyone will remember his titanic Game 4 of the 2011 World Series when he joined Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson as the only men to pound three home runs in a World Series game. While some of us anticipated reduced production for Albert in the pitching-strong, big-ballpark, heavy marine air AL West, nobody expected this. Is it the pressure of the huge contract? Is it the unfamiliarity of the new league? Is it an advancing decline noted by some in a diminishing fly-ball rate and an increasing “chase rate” over the last few seasons? Even the rumors about his age, perhaps this being his age 34 season instead of his age 32 season, have resurfaced.

“The Machine Stops” is a great short story by E.M. Forster; it could also be the story, so far, of Albert “The Machine” Pujols’ disappointing 2012 season.

Next week we’ll talk about The Miami Marlins of Little Havana.

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