The St. Louis Cardinals are a good baseball team this year. As I write this, they lead the NL Central by 6.5 games over the Milwaukee Brewers. They’re led by two National League MVP candidates in Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado who are in the prime of their careers. They’ve also got young talent all over the roster with players like Brendan Donovan, Nolan Gorman and Andre Pallante who’ve come up from the minors and contributed at the big-league level.
But that’s not why I’m writing about them. I’m writing about the Cardinals because I want to talk about the old guys, specifically the oldest guy: Albert Pujols.
Pujols is 42 and he’s in the middle of a hunt for baseball history. Sitting at 695 home runs, he needs just two more home runs to pass Alex Rodriguez for fourth all-time. He’s also just five long balls from the 700 club. Baseball has been played professionally for over 150 years and only three players have ever reached that mark: Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds. And Albert Pujols fits in perfectly on that list of all-time great power hitters.
If you are someone who prefers other sports, you can think about as the equivalent of averaging 30 PPG for your career in the NBA (only MJ and Wilt) or having 80,000 passing yards in an NFL career (only Brady and Brees). That’s the kind of history we’re talking about here. It is an almost unfathomable level of consistent greatness.
If you break it down, to reach 700 career home runs you’d have to hit 35 home runs a year for 20 years. Only 19 players in MLB hit 35 home runs or more in the 2021 season. Those 19 players were the top 4.8% of the 400 or so position players in MLB at any given time. That means that to hit 700 home runs you’d have to be in the top 5% of power hitters for two straight decades, at which point you’d be at 700 on the dot.
Pujols is now just five home runs away from having completed that incredible feat. As such, I think it’s time to look back at how he got here. It all started on April 2, 2001 (over a year before I was born, by the way) when he made his debut at Coors Field against the Rockies. Batting sixth in the lineup, Pujols notched his first career hit in the 7th inning, a single up the middle against Mike Hampton.
His first career home run came just four days later against the Diamondbacks when he hit a no-doubt 2-run home run to left field. The announcer’s call on MLB’s YouTube video of the homer proved prophetic: “First career big-league home run and after watching this kid in batting practice and that swing right there, it will not be nearly the last.”
At the time, Pujols was the #42 prospect in baseball and the youngest player in MLB. By the end of the year, he was the cleanup hitter for the Cardinals. In his rookie year, he led his team in batting average, hits, doubles, home runs and RBI. He was an All-Star, won the NL Rookie of the Year Award and finished fourth in NL MVP voting.
That was pretty much the story of his first stint with the Cardinals: absolute domination at the plate. For the next 11 years in St. Louis, Albert racked up historically great offensive numbers. Over that period, he had a .328 BA, 1.037 OPS and hit 445 home runs and had over 2,000 hits. Maybe the most impressive fact about this period is that he had 10 straight seasons where he walked more than he struck out, an astounding achievement that speaks to how hard it was to get him out when he was in St. Louis. He even earned the nickname “The Machine” for his disciplined and methodical approach to the game of baseball.
Early on, his greatness was overshadowed by Barry Bonds who from 2001-2004 put together the best four-year stretch of baseball anyone has in the history of the sport. However, with Bonds hurt in 2005, Pujols firmly took hold of the title of best player in baseball. He also started racking up accolades, winning 3 NL MVPs from 2005-2009 and finishing as the runner up in 2006 and 2010.
He also won two World Series with the Cardinals, putting together some legendary postseason performances along the way. Maybe the most iconic of all was his towering home run off Astros closer Brad Lidge in Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS. With the Astros one out away from moving on to the World Series, Pujols hit a game-winning home run to the train tracks at Minute Maid Park to extend the series and keep the Cardinals alive. For his career, he has a 1.007 OPS with 19 home runs in the postseason.
Following their 2011 World Series championship, Pujols entered free agency and signed a 10-year, $254 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels. Unfortunately, his time in Anaheim wasn’t even close to his first stint in St. Louis. His decline began almost immediately and by 2017 he was a below-league average hitter, posting an 80 OPS+ (100 OPS+ is league-average).
His time with the Angels ended unspectacularly when the team released him in May 2021 in the final year of his contract. Altogether, he did have some solid seasons with the Angels, including three 30-homer seasons, including 40 dingers in 2015 to make his only All-Star team with the Angels. On May 4, 2018, he picked up his 3,000th hit against the Mariners becoming just the fourth player ever with 3,000 hits and 600 home runs. During his time in Anaheim, the Angels only made the postseason once while he was there, getting swept out of the 2014 ALDS by the eventual pennant-winning Royals.
Last year, he was picked up by the Dodgers as he moved across town to a World Series contender. He put up good numbers for the Dodgers, finding a lot of success as a bat off the bench against left-handed pitchers. Their season ended in the NLCS with a loss to the eventual World Champion Atlanta Braves.
This offseason, he announced 2022 would be his last year and signed a 1-year, $2.5 million deal with the St. Louis Cardinals, returning to the place where it all began. To wear once again the cap he’ll have on his Cooperstown plaque.
Entering the year, he was at 679 home runs, making 700 very unlikely. By the All-Star break, he had only hit 6 home runs this year. Then Albert got hot. In 30 games since the break, Pujols has hit 10 home runs and has an OPS just under 1.200. Simply put, he has been one of the best hitters in baseball during the second half. The stretch has reignited the chase for 700 and with 29 games to go, he’s got a real opportunity to make history.
Albert Pujols is 42 years old and he’s still contributing to the St. Louis Cardinals and lately he has been reminding everyone just how incredible he was in his prime. Yes, he’s not the perennial MVP candidate he used to be, but he’s a legend of the game. One day you’ll enter Busch Stadium and see his number 5 next to Musial’s 6 and Gibson’s 45. So, appreciate Albert Pujols while he’s here because there’s not long to go now.