Albert Pujols’s March to 700 Was a Shocking Swan Song

In Sport

For most of his 22 years in the majors, Albert Pujols has been unsurprising. For the first half of his career, he maintained a metronomic mastery of the sport. Try picking his best season; statistically speaking, you can’t. He won three MVP awards and finished second four other times (twice behind Barry Bonds). He led the National League in WAR in every season from 2005 through 2009, and he led NL position players in 2010 too. He had his highest batting average and most total bases in 2003; hit his most homers in 2006; tied for the major league lead in defensive runs saved in 2007; had his highest OPS+ in 2008; and had his highest WAR in 2009. Only once in his first 10 seasons was he not an All-Star; that year, he was still MVP runner-up. Through 2011, the only time he didn’t finish in the top five in MVP voting was 2007, when he finished ninth—and that was one of the years when he led the league in WAR. Maybe voters got tired of seeing the same name toward the top of their ballots, or maybe they were spoiled; he’d hit .327/.429/.568, which qualified as a down year.

Consistency was his superpower. “He’s so amazingly consistent,” Lance Berkman once said, even before he played with Pujols. “That’s kind of what separates him from the rest of us.” Another teammate, Peter Bourjos, said, “His swing is so consistent. It’s the same swing every time.” Hence his nickname: not Hammerin’ Hank, or the Sultan of Swat, or Slammin’ Sammy, but the Machine. He hammered, swatted, and slammed, certainly, but his signature quality was that he had no holes, no extended slumps, no serious injuries. He simply performed to the same unsurpassed specifications, season after season, constantly tuning himself up in the cage and the gym so that the hardware would hum. Only four players in the modern era, and one after integration, were more valuable than Pujols from ages 21 to 30: Walter Johnson, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, and Mickey Mantle.

Something surprising happened halfway through his career: He stopped walking, weirdly, in the middle of his last season in St. Louis, and in Anaheim he continued to chase pitches far more often than he had in his prime. He never had a hard time making contact—even now, nearing the end, he strikes out far less often than the league average—but more of that contact came on pitches even Pujols couldn’t drive. In most of his Cardinals campaigns, he walked way more often than he struck out, but he never came close to doing so in a season outside of St. Louis.

Not long after his plate discipline slipped, the Machine began to break down: He’d played through plantar fasciitis early in his career, but in his 30s that chronic complaint—along with other lower-body ailments—slowed and sidelined him. After starting his career by topping 5 WAR in 11 straight seasons, he finished it by falling short—often far short—of that figure for 11 straight seasons. Only 14 MLB players outhomered Pujols from 2012 to 2021; you don’t get to 700 unless you keep cranking them out. But his overall offensive value cratered, along with his speed, glove, and durability. Over his final five seasons in Anaheim, he started more because of his contract and his history than his bat, which was below average every year. He was still unsurprising, still consistent, but no longer was it the good kind of consistency.

Now that almost the whole sweep of his career has heaved into view—with only a few regular-season games and a playoff run remaining—it’s apparent that Pujols reserved his greatest surprises for the beginning and the end. Drafted 402nd overall out of what was then known as Maple Woods Community College—just behind Alfredo Amezaga, a distant second-best pick in that round—Pujols was the Midwest League MVP in 2000, which put him on the prospect radar. With only three games of experience above High-A, however, he had only a remote chance to make the Cardinals out of spring training in 2001—until he hit .349 and led the team with 34 total bases in 62 at-bats. After Opening Day, he somehow heated up. “With a .375 average, 7 home runs and 22 RBIs, Albert Pujols is a surprise,” the Associated Press reported on April 26. Yeah, I’d say so. Not everyone wanted to use the s-word, though: “I hate the word ‘surprised,’ but I’m impressed,” Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. Pujols wouldn’t even go that far: “I’m not surprising myself because I know what I can do.” What he did was slash .329/.403/.610 in 161 games, win the Rookie of the Year Award and a Silver Slugger, and finish fourth in NL MVP voting.

No one saw that first season coming, except possibly Pujols himself. The only surprise that surpasses how he started is what he had in store for his swan song.

The Angels released Pujols last May, in spite of his salary, concluding they’d be better off paying him to be a burden on some other offense even though he was well liked in the clubhouse. (Respected across the sport, Pujols is a legend to Latino players and, as Juan Soto said, like a “dad” to Dominicans.) It looked like that might be the end, but Pujols didn’t even have to leave L.A. to find work; after a few days, a somewhat desperate Dodgers club picked him up. He did better with the Dodgers, who used him more selectively than the Angels had, but he was still a replacement-level player with no better than a league-average bat, and last winter he was hardly in demand. Even the Cardinals didn’t come calling until March 28, when they brought back Pujols as a pinch hitter and platoon DH. (Speaking of which: The potential for last laps like Pujols’s isn’t the only or even the best argument for the universal designated hitter, but it’s a solid perk.)

Like everyone else, I was charmed by his homecoming, but also apprehensive; at the time, I wondered what would happen if Pujols didn’t hit and fans’ warm, fuzzy feelings curdled. Would the Cardinals consider dumping him as the Angels had, seeing as St. Louis, unlike Los Angeles, figured to be fighting for a playoff spot? Or would Albert, like Mike Schmidt and Ken Griffey Jr. before him, play until May and then walk away from the team he broke in with when it became clear he couldn’t hack it?

Pujols started stronger than Schmidt and Griffey, but midway through the season, the scenario I’d envisioned was still in play. At the end of July 4, the Cardinals trailed the Brewers by three games in the NL Central and were one game up on the Phillies in the race for the final wild card spot. Pujols had hit .189/.282/.320 with only four homers in 142 plate appearances (a 76 wRC+), and if left-handed DH options Corey Dickerson and Lars Nootbaar hadn’t hit even worse to that point, Pujols and the Cardinals might have had an uncomfortable conversation.

Since then, of course, he’s hit .318/.377/.671 with a 189 wRC+, which has made him the best hitter in baseball, other than Aaron Judge, on a per-plate-appearance basis. Over the same span, the Cardinals, not by complete coincidence, have boasted the fifth-best winning percentage of any team. On the season, he’s hitting .264/.336/.524, and his 141 wRC+ is easily his highest since his first stint in St. Louis. What Pujols has done in his dotage is even more improbable than how quickly he acclimated to, and dominated, the majors. Thanks to his long decline and the games he lost to injuries and the pandemic, it seemed extremely unlikely that he would displace Alex Rodriguez to take over fourth place on the all-time home run list, let alone launch the few additional round-trippers he’d need to reach 700. And then, all of a sudden, it seemed certain that he would. Pujols’s march to 700, like Judge’s to 60 (and beyond), added intrigue to a season that lacked suspense in the standings.

You don’t have to parse Pujols’s past comments about his age, or subscribe to persistent rumors that he might be older than he’s listed, to be blown away by how he’s hit lately. Only Bonds hit more homers in a season after age 41 than Pujols’s 21 this year; Pujols has the most multi-homer games of anyone 42 and up. Just 20 players, in 29 seasons, have had 300 or more plate appearances in a season at 42 or older. Pujols’s home-run rate is more than 60 percent higher than any of the others save for Bonds’s in 2007. Despite his slow start, he ranks eighth in PA per homer and at-bats per homer among all players with at least 200 plate appearances this season. During his heater, he’s posted wRC+ figures over certain spans of games that have rivaled the highest of his career.

Granted, he’s done much of his damage against lefties, but it’s not as if even that was predictable. Through the end of his time with the Angels, Pujols had no great career platoon split to speak of: a 139 wRC+ against righties, and a 147 wRC+ against lefties. That’s why he seemed like a lousy candidate for a bounceback in part-time play; from 2017 through his release last year, he had an 81 wRC+ against righties and only an 87 wRC+ against lefties, which didn’t scream “southpaw-mashing bench bat.” Yet since joining the Dodgers, he’s hit .329/.377/.680 against lefties (a 183 wRC+, second in the majors to teammate Paul Goldschmidt) compared to .201/.276/.344 (a 77 wRC+) against righties. His 2021 and 2022 seasons have featured two of the 200 most lopsided splits ever, with as many trips to the plate against southpaws as he’s made this year.

Pujols’s rejuvenation in the second half of the season culminated in his heroics last Friday in L.A., with his family looking on, when he went deep against Dodgers lefty Andrew Heaney in the third for no. 699 and then, in the next inning, hit his 700th off of Phil Bickford, the righty reliever who’d been brought in to face him. (Bickford was the record 455th pitcher Pujols has taken deep.) Both pitches were mistakes, but crushing cookies is a skill, and Pujols has it: The two blasts, his 200th and 500th career homers against lefties and righties, respectively, averaged roughly 412 feet, just a few feet longer than his average dinger distance on the year. Pujols hit his best-known tater off a hurler who hasn’t pitched in a decade, but the old man still hits moonshots. More than half of Pujols’s homers this year would have been out of every park, and Statcast says he should have two more dingers than he does.

“He really believes—and if he believes, then I believe—that he’s got game left,” La Russa said after speaking to Pujols last May. Any team that signed him, his former manager declared, would acquire “a very determined Albert.” Maybe Pujols has mashed this year because he’s in St. Louis, reunited with the fans who saw him at his best, as well as Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright. Maybe he’s found a way to optimize his swing for the platoon role he’s excelled in. Maybe he got his umpteenth wind because he could see the finish line, and because he had accomplishments to claim and victory laps to take; last month, on another two-dinger day, he passed Stan Musial to claim second place on the all-time total bases leaderboard. (It’s been a season of milestones in St. Louis, not all of them Albert’s.)

Whatever the reason for the resurgence, it’s provided one of the most precious sights in sports—that of the old guy going out on top. Pujols hit his 700th the same day Roger Federer played professionally for the final time. Federer, like Serena Williams earlier this month, lost his last match. Most of the greats go out losers. Pujols hasn’t; instead, he’s authored one of the finest offensive final seasons ever, made more special by the struggles that preceded it.

That’s what makes this expectation-defying farewell tour so singular: Unlike other old hitters who finished strong (such as David Ortiz), Pujols played for so long after his prime that a generation of baseball fans knew him only as a husk of himself. If his career had ended after 2011, fans who saw him could’ve showed those who missed him his highlights and said, “You should’ve seen him play.” But Pujols was still playing; he just didn’t look like the same star. Once as well-rounded as a first baseman could be, he couldn’t do anything except slug. It was painful at times to watch him run; he was so slow that infielders played him almost insultingly deep. In 2020, Bill James observed that Pujols’s “second-half decline is historically unique. No other superstar has ever had a second-half decline like that, and kept playing.” James later noted that Pujols, who has a .296 career batting average, was once 180 hits over .300; no other hitter has ever been half that far above .300 and finished below. Until he turned his 2022 around, he had also dropped out of the 100 WAR club at Baseball-Reference. (His place is secure now, barring a revision to the formula that retroactively debits him.)

If not for this season, it would’ve been 15 years since his last star season by the time he was eligible for the Hall of Fame. He still would have gotten in on the first ballot, but those votes would have been based solely on old, faded memories and visits to his Baseball-Reference page. Now they can also be based on what he’s done this season. He’s thicker than he once was and only of use in the batter’s box; even his streak of sneaky stolen bases was snapped. But for a few months, that big bat has returned to life, like a long-deteriorating patient who, when approaching the end, rallies in a burst of terminal lucidity.

Pujols isn’t just a nostalgia act: He’s a key contributor to a division winner, a weapon the Cardinals are counting on in October, a month when he’s hit 19 postseason homers that don’t even count toward those 700. Although he’s not playing like a relic, Pujols is the last active link to a bygone baseball era. The oldest man in the majors entered the league the same season as QuesTec; he debuted before Moneyball, before PED testing, before the earliest public pitch-tracking data. He got two hits off of Mike Morgan, who made the majors in 1978. He’s lasted so long that he played in games with half the current managers in the majors; he’s his own (much younger) manager’s landlord. On the day Pujols hit his 700th, Rockies prospect Ezequiel Tovar played in his first big league game. Tovar was born after Pujols made his MLB debut, when Pujols—the first MLB player born in the 1980s—was just a tad older than Tovar is now. That’s the circle of major league life. It’s also the circle of Pujols’s career. He’s going out the way he came in: both better than anyone could have hoped, and just about better than anyone.

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