Photo by Jose Francisco Morales on Unsplash
The machine did it.
It took him some time, but Albert Pujols reached the elusive 700 home run milestone. On Friday night, Pujols drove in a three-run bomb against the LA Dodgers in the top of the fourth inning to join Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron as the fourth player to ever reach that mark.
Pujols had gotten to 699HR just an inning earlier, taking Dodgers pitcher Andrew Heaney to deep left field for a two-run home run. Pujols’ St. Louis Cardinals would go on to rout the Dodgers 11-0.
The road to 700 was not exactly a linear one for Pujols, however. At 42, Pujols had been showing signs of his age for several years.
When he was at the top of his game, Pujols was one of the best sluggers in MLB history, averaging 40HR per season in the first 10 years of his career, in addition to 1.037 OPS. For reference, that average would be good for third in the league in home runs, and second in the league in OPS, behind only Aaron Judge, who’s having a historic season in his own right.
At age 32, Pujols would leave the Cardinals after 10 years of service to join the LA Angels. Though he had a few good – or even great – years with the Angels, including his first year in LA where he had a 4.8 WAR or his age 35 season where he hit 40 homers, Pujols started to falter as he approached 40. Though hampered by fewer appearances, Pujols only hit over 20 homers twice after his 37th birthday.
As a slugger, this fall-off significantly hurt his efficacy on the field. In this period, Pujols was considered a replacement or sub-replacement level player by WAR.
By 2022, many considered Pujols a thing of the past. He was slow and, though always a poor fielder, his hitting was no longer enough to compensate or to allow him to serve very effectively as a Designated Hitter. Greats get a lot of benefit of the doubt in the twilight of their careers but, in 2021, Pujols was washed.
2022 was widely expected to be Pujols’ final season in the MLB. A reunion with the St. Louis Cardinals seemed like a great situation for him to end his career. A farewell tour could be a chance for fans and players alike to pay their respects to the legend as he quietly moved on from pro baseball. Maybe he could even pad his home run total a little.
But Pujols’ farewell has been anything but quiet.
Starting 2022 with 679 home runs, Pujols got off to a fine start, putting up 6 homers and a .676 OPS over 173 plate appearances. In the second half, Pujols was a different animal.
In 159 plate appearances, Pujols has 15 home runs with a sparkling 1.061 OPS. In August, Pujols was downright dominant. In 69 plate appearances, he hit 8 home runs and had an absurd 1.224 OPS.
As the calendar turned to September, Pujols reaching the ultimate hitter’s milestone of 700 home runs began to seem like a realistic possibility.
On Sept. 10 and 11, Pujols hit homers in back-to-back games against the Pirates, bringing him to 666 and then 667. 5 days later, he hit another against Cincinnati, leaving him only two away. Number 668 brought the anticipation around Pujols, who has been one of (if not the) best story of the season, to a fever pitch.
The two bombs on Friday secured Pujols as one of the greatest ever and gave his incredible career the send-off it deserved.
What perhaps is almost as impressive as the total itself is the way that Pujols went about it. Pujols reached 700 having never hit 60 home runs in a single season, let alone the 70 that Barry Bonds once hit.
Hitting the mark at 42 years old is a testament not only to Pujols’ skill as a batter, but also his incredible longevity.
It is also a feat we are unlikely to see again for a very long time. Pujols sits almost 200 homers ahead of second-place Miguel Cabrera on the active home runs leaders list. He’s 241 ahead of third-place Nelson Cruz. Cabrera and Cruz are 39 and 41 and do not have any shot at the achievement. Fourth and fifth place, Giancarlo Stanton and Mike Trout, though still 32 and 30 respectively, both sit shy of 400 home runs.
So, as you’re watching the Cardinals down the stretch, who have a great squad this season, featuring two MVP candidates in Nolan Arrenado and Paul Goldschmidt, you should sit back and appreciate just how great Pujols and his story are, because you’re not likely to see anything like him for a while.