Last night, Albert Pujols lit baseball Twitter on fire, smacking his 699th and 700th career home runs in the same game, the same feat he accomplished for his 499th and 500th home runs. It’s been an incredible run for Pujols. One that not a lot of people saw coming, unless you’re Greg Amsinger.
I mean, 15 home runs in the second half?! That’s nuts! Fourteen of them coming in his past 130 plate appearances?! Incredible. Clearly, something inside Pujols was awakened when he was sent back to St. Louis this offseason. However, after just six home runs in his first 90 games, it seemed impossible for Pujols to reach the legendary 700 mark. After the All-Star break, Pujols started mashing though. Only Aaron Judge and Eugenio Suarez have hit more home runs since. So, when was the last time Pujols had a stretch of baseball this incredible?
Now, Pujols hitting 14 home runs over the course of 39 games isn’t anything new. He’s had numerous such streaks over the course of his career. However, Pujols is 42 this season. He’s not playing the entirety of every game like he used to. His 14 home runs between Aug. 10 and Sept. 23 happened over the course of just 130 plate appearances and 116 at-bats. To put that in perspective, every other 39-game span that saw Pujols hit 14 or more home runs needed at least 160 plate appearances and 127 at-bats. That was in Pujols’ prime too, since aside from his current stretch, the last time Pujols mashed 14 or more home runs in a 39-game span was 2015. Prior to that hot streak, it happened in 2012. It’s been seven years since Pujols had a stretch as good as this, and he did it in fewer at-bats and plate appearances than it took for him to do so in 2015. Do the Cardinals just simply bring out the absolute best in Pujols?
There have been 81 instances across the history of baseball of a player hitting 14 or more home runs in 39 games at 40 or older. Thirty-one of them belong to Barry Bonds. Twenty-one of them belong to Nelson Cruz. However, Cruz never did this after turning 42. Only Bonds and Pujols. Raúl Ibañez had an incredible stretch in 2013, but he was 41 years old. As is the case with every other stretch of this magnitude, Pujols needed fewer plate appearances than anyone. The only person who comes even close is Jim Thome, who in 2010, needed 135 plate appearances to smack 14 dongs. Thome actually only needed 108 at-bats, too, which is actually fewer than Pujols, but still, Pujols did it the fastest overall. Although Ibañez did hit 16 home runs in 162 plate appearances, Cruz hit 15 in 150, and Bonds hit 15 in 151, Pujols still had the best home run-to-plate appearance ratio of the bunch.
Now, what about just hitting home runs in the second half? Historically, Pujols has always been a much better second-half hitter than first-half. His average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS-plus, walk rate, and strikeout rates are all superior after the All-Star break, but that hasn’t always been the case. Since 2017, Pujols has only had one season (2019) where his OPS has been higher in the second half than the first. In fact, prior to 2022, 2019 was the only season where Pujols even had an OPS higher than .700 in the second half. Pujols’ on-base percentage has been lower in the second half of every season since 2017. Yet, somehow, in 2022, he has managed to record an on-base percentage over 100 points higher than his first-half split, an OPS greater than 1.000, and an OPS-plus of 198, meaning Pujols has been nearly 100 percent better than an average player in the second half. To put that in perspective, Aaron Judge’s OPS-plus in the first half was 173. Yeah, Pujols’ second half has been better than Judge’s first half, and need I remind you, Pujols is 42 years old.
I don’t know how he’s managed to turn his fortune around since the All-Star break, but Pujols is on one of the hottest streaks of his career, more than half a decade after everyone thought he was done for. Obviously, there are going to be some people who assume PEDs are at play here, and I find that notion ridiculous. Pujols pushed through the steroid era entirely clean. I know hitting 700 home runs is a legendary feat worth striving for, but why would he muddy his Hall of Fame chances just for one-half of great baseball? Hitting 700 home runs doesn’t guarantee your place in baseball’s immortal Hall, as evidenced by Bonds and probably Álex Rodríguez in a few years as well. If Pujols did that, he’d be one of the stupidest people alive. He’s not.
That said, something about St. Louis just brings out the best in The Machine. If you’d asked Dodgers or Angels fans whether or not they believed Pujols could hit 700 this year prior to the season, they probably would’ve laughed at you. Given the Pujols that they’d seen over the past seven or so years, 700 had been out of the question for half a decade, yet The Machine found a way. He channeled his prime self for one last “Hoorah!” and it was exhilarating to experience. I haven’t felt this ecstatic to be a baseball fan since the ‘Re2pect’ commercial that aired for Derek Jeter’s retirement. Imagine if he wins a World Series now. That’d be special. Cherish these moments while we have them. We’re watching the second-ever unanimous Hall of Fame entry in his final season.