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Albert Pujols, in His Own Dingers

On the occasion of his 600th career home run, we look back at how the greatest hitter of his generation reached each milestone tater

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Home Run No. 1: April 6, 2001, off Armando Reynoso of the Arizona Diamondbacks

All gods and superheroes need a creation myth. For Albert Pujols, that myth is brief and straightforward: At every step of his career, he’d appear out of nowhere and start hitting. No fuss, no preamble, just a string of line drives, walks, and home runs.

Pujols grew up in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and moved to Independence, Missouri, as a teenager, speaking little English when he arrived. According to a 2009 Sports Illustrated story by Joe Posnanski, Pujols batted 88 times as a senior in high school, in which time he hit eight home runs and was walked intentionally 55 times. In one year at Maple Woods Community College, then the premier junior college baseball program in Greater Kansas City, Pujols hit .461 with 22 home runs, which enticed the St. Louis Cardinals to spend a 13th-round pick on the 19-year-old.

Whenever a player like Pujols lasts that long in the draft, there’s a retroactive nationwide hand-wringing about how so many teams missed on him. With tens of thousands of prospects to track, it’s easy to overlook a low-profile Missouri juco guy, and many teams did. Pujols’s hometown Royals knew about him but passed, because in the words of then-GM Allard Baird, “We weren’t sure he had a position. He didn’t have a great baseball body.”

Baird wasn’t wrong. Pujols doesn’t look like someone who was born in the 1980s; he looks like an ancient ceramic figurine brought to life by Hephaestus as part of an elaborate revenge plot against pitchers. Even the young Pujols had a thick body. Although he started out as a third baseman with St. Louis, he moved to left field after a year to accommodate Scott Rolen, then moved again to first base full time in 2004, this time to accommodate his own lack of foot speed.

Not that it mattered — hitters like Pujols don’t have to play a premium position. Tampa Bay Devil Rays area scout Fernando Arango recognized that potential, calling him a future 40-home-run guy. He worked Pujols out all over the diamond, then stumped for him throughout the draft process, but could not persuade his bosses to draft the obscure juco slugger.

When Pujols made his minor league debut at age 20, he showed up out of nowhere and started hitting. In 109 games at low-A Peoria, Pujols hit .324/.389/.565. That was good enough for an invitation to big league camp the following spring, where he played his way not only onto the team but into the lineup when Bobby Bonilla, a 38-year-old six-time All-Star slated to be the Cardinals’ left fielder, pulled his hamstring.

It’s not that unusual for a team to start a 21-year-old on Opening Day, but a 21-year-old 13th-round pick, less than two years removed from junior college, and with only 104 career plate appearances above low-A? That was the first indication that Pujols was special.

It took the rookie about a week to figure out the big leagues. Pujols singled in his debut, then went hitless in his next two games before homering off Reynoso as part of a 3-for-5 performance in his fourth major league appearance. Heading into April 6, Pujols was hitting .111/.111/.111. Two games later, he was hitting .333/.368/.611.

Pujols’s in-season slugging percentage didn’t drop below .500 again until April 5, 2002. His in-season OBP didn’t drop below .350 again until April 6, 2005.

That home run kicked off a run of 12 consecutive above-average seasons, according to Baseball-Reference. In the video, look at Arizona’s purple caps, and Reynoso’s mustache and ankle-length pants. When Pujols hit that home run, Mark McGwire was not only still playing, he was the single-season home run record holder. J.D. Drew, Plácido Polanco, and Edgar Rentería were all 25 years old or younger. When Pujols debuted, Mike Trout was 9 years old. When Pujols had his first below-average season, Trout was hitting one spot ahead of Pujols in the Angels’ batting order.

Home Run No. 100: July 20, 2003, off Odalis Pérez of the Los Angeles Dodgers

Just because Pujols was an All-Star-quality player from the moment he put on a Cardinals uniform, it doesn’t mean he didn’t develop throughout his early 20s. Pujols’s Baseball-Reference page is littered with the boldface type that denotes a league leader, and those distinctive marks first appeared in 2003, when he led the National League in runs, hits, doubles, batting average, and total bases, and crossed the 40-homer threshold for the first time.

Pujols also raised his career high in OPS+ from 157 to 187, placing himself in even more rarefied air. Topping an OPS+ of 150 is really good, but not all that out of the ordinary. Nelson Cruz did it in 2015, and almost repeated the achievement last year; while we all love Nelson Cruz, nobody thinks he’s a Hall of Famer. From 2000 to 2016, there were 169 individual seasons in which a qualified hitter posted an OPS+ of 150 or better. Only 19 times in that span did a hitter post an OPS+ of 180 or better, and the only players to do it more than twice were Pujols and Barry Bonds.

In 2003, Pujols recorded the first of seven consecutive eight-win seasons. A two-win player is about average; five wins is All-Star-level production, and that’s about where Pujols was in his first two seasons. Eight wins all but guarantees a high finish in MVP voting, if not the MVP award itself. Vladimir Guerrero is going to cakewalk into the Hall of Fame next year and he never had an eight-win season. Derek Jeter got there once, hitting 8.0 on the nose in 1999. For Pujols to get there at all was remarkable. To do it at age 23 was astonishing. To do it seven years running is almost unfathomable.

The opposite-field shot off Pérez also made Pujols just the fourth player ever to hit 100 or more home runs in his first three seasons, after Ralph Kiner, Eddie Mathews, and Joe DiMaggio. (Mark Teixeira and Ryan Braun would also hit that mark in the years that followed.) Pujols was a marvel by the time he hit his first home run in the majors, but only if you were the kind of person who studied prospect reports and minor league numbers — and those kinds of fans and writers simply weren’t as common then as they are now. Pujols was an indie sleeper with a hot demo track when he hit his first home run. By no. 100, he’d gone mainstream.

Home Run No. 200: September 30, 2005, off Matt Belisle of the Cincinnati Reds

This home run was not only the 200th of Pujols’s career, it was the 40th of what would be his first MVP season. While he’d been producing at an MVP level for three years running, and finished in the top four in MVP voting every year — including two second-place finishes — he’d never won the big prize. That’s thanks to Bonds, who won the NL MVP in each of Pujols’s first four big league seasons.

In 2004, Bonds posted perhaps the best offensive season of all time — he demolished his own all-time single-season record for walks, with 232, and posted a .609 OBP, also a record. His 263 OPS+ was the second-highest mark of all time, surpassed only by his own 268 in 2002. But in 2005, Bonds missed all but 14 games of his age-40 season and was never the same player again.

Bonds’s decline turned over the National League to Pujols immediately. The Cardinals first baseman won his first MVP in 2005, at age 25. In the five seasons that followed, Pujols led the league in home runs twice and OPS+ four times and took home two more MVP awards.

Pujols hit his 200th career home run in the Cardinals’ 160th game of the season. After getting to another round number just under the wire, Pujols became just the second player in major league history, after Kiner, to hit 200 home runs in his first five seasons.

Home Run No. 300: July 4, 2008, off Bob Howry of the Chicago Cubs

There’s a fun little parallel between this home run and the sinking liner that Mark McGwire hit into the corner at the old Busch Stadium — also against the Cubs — for his record-breaking 62nd home run 10 years earlier. But this home run isn’t that interesting.

If you want interesting, get a load of this.

Pujols’s home run off Brad Lidge in the 2005 NLCS is the most famous of his career. It came with two outs in the top of the ninth, with the Cardinals down 4–2 in the game and 3–1 in the series. At the time, Lidge was one of the premier closers in the game: He saved 42 games in 2005 and was just one year removed from posting the third-best single-season K/9 mark for a reliever. But after recording two quick outs that evening, Lidge allowed a single to David Eckstein, walked Jim Edmonds, and hung an 0–1 slider to Pujols, and the future NL MVP banked the pitch over the train tracks at Minute Maid Park to put St. Louis up, 5–4.

Although the Astros came back to win Game 6 and the series, this home run was so prodigious — it was baseball’s version of Vince Carter dunking on Frédéric Weis in the Olympics — that it’s hard to remember the Cardinals lost the next game and went home. Since the blast was so memorable and powerful, it almost feels like this home run came during the previous NLCS, also against Houston, which the Cardinals won in seven games, and in which Pujols homered four times, including an eighth-inning bomb off Dan Miceli to win Game 2. Pujols was named the MVP of that series.

In his first postseason action, Pujols went 2-for-18 in a five-game loss in the 2001 NLDS to the selfsame Diamondbacks he tagged for his first big league homer. In that series, Curt Schilling went the distance in Games 1 and 5 and allowed only one run, providing a preview of what was to come in the World Series against the Yankees. The next year, Pujols’s Cardinals fell to Bonds’s Giants in a five-game NLCS, and then in 2004, Pujols hit .414/.493/.793 in 15 postseason games, though the 105-win Cardinals lost the World Series to Boston in four straight. Perhaps you’ve heard of that series.

In 2005, with that ultimately futile home run off Lidge, Pujols finally got his signature playoff moment, and in 2006, he finally got his ring. That year’s Cardinals weren’t very good. Edmonds and Eckstein were slowing down, Larry Walker had just retired, and the young Yadier Molina posted a 53 OPS+. Mark Mulder, Jason Marquis, and Jeff Weaver combined to allow a 6.11 ERA in 371 innings. The Cardinals’ 83–78 record is still the second worst the franchise has recorded since 2000, but they won a bad division, and Carlos Beltrán got caught looking in Game 7 of the NLCS. Come the World Series, the Detroit Tigers forgot how to play defense, and at the end of it, the Cardinals were crowned world champions.

How much does this ring, and the one that followed in 2011, matter to Pujols’s legacy? Bonds never won a title, nor did Ted Williams (or Ty Cobb), but the other 12 players with 100 career WAR and a 150 career OPS+ have, including Pujols. Certainly a lack of a championship doesn’t mean that, relative to their respective eras, Bonds and Williams aren’t two of the three best hitters of all time; it’s not like the Red Sox not winning a World Series in Williams’s career was his fault. But the absence of a title feels strange for them, as it would have for Pujols if he hadn’t checked that box during his age-26 season.

Pujols hit his 300th career home run before his eighth season in the big leagues was out. Kiner is the only other player who can say the same.

Home Run No. 400: August 26, 2010, off Jordan Zimmermann of the Washington Nationals

Pujols hit his 400th home run against a team that didn’t exist when he hit his first. In the nine years and change between his first and 400th home runs, the Red Sox and White Sox both broke eight-decade title droughts. LeBron James graduated high school, took the Cleveland Cavaliers to an NBA Finals, and announced that he was taking his talents to South Beach. The World Trade Center fell, and a new One World Trade was four years into its construction. Barack Obama won election to the Illinois State Senate, the United States Senate, and the White House.

A large part of Pujols’s legacy lies in how entirely he consumed the careers of his contemporaries. During the first decade of Pujols’s career, Jeff Bagwell, Derrek Lee, Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Delgado, Lance Berkman, Ryan Howard, Prince Fielder, and Joey Votto all played first base in the National League, just to name a few. Those guys won MVP awards, batting titles, World Series titles, and home run titles. Bagwell’s going into the Hall of Fame this summer; Cabrera and possibly Votto will join him eventually. Yet Pujols, like Bonds before him and Trout after him, just ate up his contemporaries.

At another position, in another era, any one of those players could have been the dominant first baseman of his generation, but Pujols was so far ahead of the field that even the phrase “in the discussion” started to lose its meaning. Pujols is the only player to hit 400 home runs in his first 10 seasons. There is no “discussion.” There is only Pujols.

Home Run No. 500: April 22, 2014, off Taylor Jordan of the Washington Nationals

On February 19, 2004, the St. Louis Cardinals bought out Pujols’s three arbitration years, and his first five years of what would have been free agency, for $111 million. The last year of that deal, a $16 million team option for the 2011 season, ended in a second title, a seven-game classic over the Texas Rangers. Pujols hit .353/.463/.691 over 18 games that postseason. Shortly thereafter, Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa — the only manager Pujols had ever played for — retired at age 67, and Pujols signed with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, enticed by a 10-year, $240 million deal that would take Pujols through his age-41 season, backstopped by a 10-year, $10 million personal services contract. It will almost certainly be the only free agent contract he ever signs.

Pujols’s 500th home run was no. 55 in an Angels uniform. He hit 47 homers in a season two different times with the Cardinals, but it took two years to get that far with Los Angeles. There are a couple of mystical arguments for why Pujols declined so suddenly upon his arrival in California: a symbiotic relationship with La Russa or the Cardinals; or perhaps Trout, who arrived for good in Los Angeles a month after Pujols did, stole whatever spirit made him the best player in baseball. Either explanation would be more fun than what’s probably the truth: Pujols just got old, like everyone does.

In 2012, at age 32, Pujols hit .285/.343/.516, good for 4.8 WAR and a 138 OPS+. Both of those numbers were career lows, but they were only marginally worse than his 2011 stats, and would have been damn good for just about any other player in the game. Even so, Pujols struck out more than he walked for the first time since his rookie year, and he was obviously getting bigger and starting to slow down.

In 2013, he struggled all year with plantar fasciitis, which limited him to 99 games — a career low by 44 games for the ordinarily indestructible Pujols — and hobbled him when he could play. Pujols bounced back in 2014 to hit 28 home runs with a 126 OPS+ and lead the Angels to the playoffs for the first time in his tenure, but by that point, the team obviously belonged to Trout, who won his first MVP award, unanimously.

Pujols finished 2014, his 14th big league season, with 520 home runs, two behind his former teammate McGwire for the most that early in a career. Alex Rodriguez and Willie Mays are the only other players to get to 500.

Home Run No. 600: June 3, 2017, off Ervin Santana of the Minnesota Twins

Between his 500th and 600th career home runs, Pujols made an All-Star team with a 40-home-run season in 2015, then followed it up with the worst season of his career. With his shaved head and severe goatee, Pujols has never looked young. He’s always come to the plate seeming like he’d been planted into the dirt with cement pilings, assuming a stance that radiates strength and confidence but never agility. Even so, today the 37-year-old Pujols is grayer and thicker than the 21-year-old version — as almost all men are — and he runs the bases with the weary gait of a dad who wishes he’d given in and put his children on a leash.

As of home run no. 600, Pujols is hitting .249/.296/.398, and is on pace to be a below-average hitter and a below-replacement-level player for the first time in his career. It’s the price Pujols pays for being human, which, for more than a decade, nobody in baseball really believed to be the case anyway.

Pujols becomes the ninth player ever to hit 600 major league home runs. Bonds and Rodriguez, with 613 apiece, are the only others to hit that mark in their first 17 seasons. With four months left in the 2017 campaign, Pujols could eclipse that mark with ease even at his current pace. Watching him swing and run now, we know that Pujols isn’t completely immune to time, but he was so good for so long that even years into his decline, the statistical record still makes him look that way.