Albert Pujols is one home run away from joining baseball’s 600 home run club. He’ll become just the ninth player in the history of the game to achieve the feat. Do you care?
Maybe you do, either because you are a genuine Angels fan or you just really care about Albert Pujols. But I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Pujols’s march toward 600 has felt more like foot-dragging. Blame it on the fact that he plays his games out on the West Coast, or that he may be 79 years old, or that he simply hasn’t been very good since 2012.
Of course, Pujols wasn’t always a broken-down first baseman/DH who hasn’t sniffed an .800 OPS in five years. A lot has been said about Mike Trout’s incredible start to his career, but not that long ago Pujols was launching a similar assault on baseball history.
Through the first 10 years of his career Pujols was, as Trout is now, essentially a perfect baseball player. Here is a list, via Baseball Reference, ranking players by WAR accumulated through their first 10 seasons:
That run included eight seasons in which he had an OPS over 1.100, five seasons in which he led the league in runs scored, and three MVP awards. He struck out 93 times in his rookie year, and hasn’t struck out more than 76 times in a single season since. You can’t write any of this off as the work of a meaty slugger who was only around to take big hacks and do nothing else, either. Pujols came into the league as a slick third baseman who moved to the outfield due to a foot issue and the Cardinals’ acquisition of Scott Rolen. He later became a Gold Glove first baseman, and always ran the bases much quicker than a man his size had any business doing.
Albert Pujols may well go down as the greatest first baseman post-integration; he is 128 hits away from 3,000; he is about to hit his 600th home run; and I haven’t really thought about him in years.
Maybe this is a function of the timing of Pujols’s entrance into the 600 club. Take another look at the names in that club: Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Alex Rodriguez, Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr., Jim Thome, and Sammy Sosa. That’s a lot of names from roughly the same era in baseball history, meaning that anyone who joins the 600 club now is staking a claim as one of the half-dozen best home-run hitters of the last 20 years or so. That doesn’t sound so impressive when you say it out loud.
But how will it sound in another 10, 20, 30, 40 years? We’re well out of the steroid era, and there’s a good chance that after Pujols joins the 600 club, he won’t be joined by anyone else for a long time. Miguel Cabrera might get there, but it looks like we’re headed for a drought at least as long as the one that existed between Hank Aaron’s (1971) and Barry Bonds’s (2002) entries into the club.
So perhaps all Pujols needs is time. A few decades from now, when baseball fans have gained a proper distance from the steroid-era hysteria, Pujols’s career will shine as brightly as it deserves to. His days in Anaheim will fade away, and he’ll be remembered as a guy who hit the ball as well as anyone ever has, or will.