Sports

The Absurdity of Albert Pujols’ Comeback Season

Pujols makes a heart shape with his hands in dugout full of teammates
Pujols celebrates after a home run this month. Justin Berl/Getty Images

Albert Pujols is staging one of the greatest goodbyes in the history of sports. He is sitting at 698 career home runs, on the doorstep of becoming the fourth player—with Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, and Babe Ruth—to hit 700. (Update: Pujols reached 700 on Friday with a two-homer game.) He has gotten there with a throwback tear that calls to mind the regular mashing of his early career, but he has done it as a 42-year-old back with the Cardinals and playing what he has said will be his last season. Watching Pujols hit has become a matter of both baseball and civic pride in the closing weeks of his Hall of Fame career.

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During those early years, this outcome would’ve seemed entirely possible. Pujols is a somewhat obvious entrant to the 700 club, if one takes the long view. He was the game’s definitive hitter for a decade, from not long after his debut in 2001 until his departure from St. Louis after 2011. He won three MVP awards in that period (and finished second in MVP voting four more times). He left the Cardinals with 445 homers at age 31. When he signed his 10-year deal with the Angels, he looked like a good bet to get here much sooner than now, even if he suffered the expected late-career decline. A rate of 25.5 homers per year would have done the job over the next 10 years. If he’d kept hitting 30 homers per year, something he’d done every season of his Major League career, he’d have gotten to 700 in 2019.

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But it didn’t happen. Pujols was not good with the Angels. He didn’t hit, and he provided no defensive value as a first baseman and designated hitter. By adjusted on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS+), which indexes a player’s offensive contributions to the league average, Pujols never had a season in Southern California that was as good as his worst one in Missouri. He averaged only 23 home runs per year during his time in California, and the number trended downward with everything else as time went on. In May 2021, early in the last year of their contract, the Angels cut Pujols. He signed with the neighboring Dodgers and hit better, but still not well. That ought to have been it. Pujols had hit 679 homers. He had been worth 13 wins above replacement over the previous 10 seasons, according to Baseball Reference, making him a below-average starter. Narrowed to the more relevant previous five seasons, Pujols was not even playing like a major leaguer. He had been worth negative 1.8 wins in that time.

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Most of Pujols’ peers would’ve wrapped things up by then. Bonds mashed until the very end, posting a 169 OPS+ in his final year in 2007. He was almost certainly chemically altered at this point, but in any event, he never had even a single down year leading into his retirement. Pujols had five. Aaron was a slightly above-average hitter for the last three years of his career and had no bad years like Pujols’ in Anaheim. Ruth also hit right until the end, when he was 40 in a homecoming to Boston, à la Pujols’ return to St. Louis. Alex Rodriguez was a shell of himself by the end, and he missed one of the last years of his career with a steroid suspension. But when he finally got bad, he was done. Ken Griffey Jr. was about average for three years, then wrapped it up as soon as it was clear he was no longer able to hack it. Willie Mays called it off after his first genuinely bad season.

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Pujols’ peers tended to retire almost as soon as they stopped approximating their old selves. It bears repeating that Pujols had five years of being a ghost. His OPS+ was 87 from 2017 to 2021; he was 13 percent worse than the league’s average hitter while providing nothing in the field.

But Pujols kept hanging around (albeit largely on the strength of the money the Angels owed him), and it made this renaissance possible. In late March, days before the lockout-delayed season, Pujols signed a one-year deal with the Cardinals. They had a designated hitter opening after Major League Baseball’s negotiations with its players yielded a full-time DH for the National League. Pujols was not supposed to be good, and he wasn’t. On July 4, his OPS was .601. But he got himself together over his next few games, and then things really ramped up.

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From July 10 to Sept. 20, in the very literal twilight of his career, Pujols has gone on a run that is downright Pujolsian. Fifty-one games, 15 homers, and a .313/.379/.667 triple-slash line of batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. His 1.045 OPS in that stretch stands up against the best seasons of his career. It amounts to a two-and-a-half-month taste of Pujols as his old, superhero self.

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It has been stunning. There is no analogy for it. Guys who are barely major league–caliber for five years do not often go on a multimonth run among the best hitters in the world. During this stretch of games, the only players with superior OPS figures were the also historic Aaron Judge and Philadelphia Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto. Pujols’ OPS for the year stands at .852with his league-adjusted OPS+ number at 142. It means that, for the year, the retiring Pujols has hit 42 percent better than average.

To assume baseball will ever again get a couple of months like Pujols’ last few is naïve. A singular career is getting a singular conclusion. Pujols’ last few months have been a gift from the baseball gods that fans of this sport might never see again.

This story was updated when Pujols hit his 700th home run.

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