Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Alex Rodriguez: at some point soon, Albert Pujols will join this exclusive company, the list of players who have attained both the 3,000-hit and 600-home-run milestones. With a home run and a double off Dylan Bundy on Wednesday night, the 38-year-old slugger is at 2,998 hits after collecting just four in his previous seven games. His mid-April hot streak, such as it was, is a memory.
Baseball’s major milestones and records are supposed to be opportunities to celebrate careers, the totality of a player’s accomplishments, the road he took along the way, and the connection to history. But as they tip their caps, too often they remind us that the man we’re cheering is far from the player he once was. In Pujols’ case, the difference is particularly striking, as it’s almost impossible to fathom the gap between “the best player of this young millennium” and “the worst regular in the majors,” or how a single player might hold both titles at the same time. Any honest reckoning with his career, however, will take us to this uncomfortable place.
The Pujols who earned the first of those titles is the one we’ll be celebrating when hit number 3,000 drops. That guy — a powerful but bad-bodied 13th-round 1999 pick out of Maple Woods Community College who rocketed three levels in his lone minor league season and was in the majors by 2001 — is the stuff of legend. Pujols’ All-Star and unanimous NL Rookie of the Year-winning debut (.329/.403/.610, 37 HR, 130 RBI) began an amazing 11-year run during which he hit a combined .328/.420/.617 while averaging 40 homers, 121 RBIs and 7.4 WAR, made nine All-Star teams, won three MVP awards and a batting title, with 19 top-three slash-stat finishes. In 2006, -08 and, -09, he led the league in slugging percentage, wRC+,and WAR. His 81.4 WAR for that span was 27.1 more than the next-highest total, Bonds’ 54.3, and his 167 wRC+ trailed only Bonds’ 208, over more than double the plate appearances. On a rate-stat or prorated basis, Bonds did have more value during the period the two players overlapped, but beyond the video-game stats he put up from 2001 to -04, he didn’t have much value outside the batter’s box, producing just 7.1 WAR from 2005 to -07, his age-40 to -42 seasons.
Pujols’ remarkable consistency with the bat during that 11-year run was bolstered by defense that probably should have earned him more than the two Gold Gloves he won. His +61 UZR at first base from 2003 (when the metric was introduced) through 2011 was 36 runs better than the second-ranked first baseman, Todd Helton. And there’s the postseason. After helping the Cardinals to seven playoff berths, three pennants ,and two championships, he hit a combined .330/.439/.607 with 18 homers in 74 postseason games for St. Louis.
The champagne from the Cardinals’ 2011 championship had barely dried when the going-on-32-year-old Pujols signed a 10-year, $254-million deal with the Angels, the second largest in baseball history. In retrospect, the Cardinals dodged a bullet, for the Anaheim-based version of Pujols — who had set a career low with 4.0 WAR in his final year in St. Louis — has never approached the brilliance of what came before. After a more-solid-than-spectacular debut (.285/.343/.516, 30 HR, 133 wRC+, 3.3 WAR), it’s been downhill. Aside from a 40-homer 2015 (with just 1.6 WAR), he’s never matched any of those numbers in five full seasons, in part due to a long series of leg and foot injuries. After surgery to debride his right knee in October 2012, he missed over two months with plantar fasciitis in his left foot in 2013, managed just 0.5 WAR, and after rebounding to 2.7 WAR in 2014, his value declined in each subsequent season. In 2017, he hit just .241/.286/.386 for a 78 wRC+, career worsts across the board. His -1.9 WAR was the lowest mark among any position player and remains tied for the lowest in the majors by a batting title qualifier since 2010.
As an Angel, Pujols has hit .261/.317/.458 for a 111 wRC+ and a net of 6.8 WAR in six seasons and change, a performance dragged down by two signature flaws: a .255 BABIP and the erosion of his plate discipline. The former is the third-lowest mark in the majors among players with at least 2,000 PA, 56 points lower than during his Cardinals tenure. In the latter case, his out-of-zone swing rate has jumped from 21.2% in St. Louis to 33.4% in Anaheim, including a cringeworthy 42.2% this year. While he was said to have lost 13-15 pounds this past offseason in preparation for increased first-base duty, he’s hitting .248/.266/.446, having raised his wRC+ 12 points (from 80 to 92) with his big night. Basically, he’s been almost as bad as he was last year.
If Pujols were to walk away today instead of playing out the final three-plus seasons of his contract, his legacy would be secure. Via my JAWS system, he ranks second among first basemen, trailing only Lou Gehrig, whom he won’t catch. Via Baseball-Reference’s version, Gehrig had 112.4 career WAR and 67.7 for his seven-year peak en route to a JAWS of 90.1. Pujols has 99.5 career WAR, and 61.7 for his peak, for a JAWS of 80.6. He’s 2.8 points ahead of third-place Jimmie Foxx, which means it would take another -5.6 WAR (since JAWS is the average of career and peak totals) to slip into a tie. That can’t happen, can it? That mess aside, Pujols’ only contemporaries with higher JAWS are Alex Rodriguez (117.8/64.3/91.0 in a big league career that began in 1994) and Bonds (162.8/72.7/117.8 in a career that began in 1986). And unlike those two players, whose connections to performance-enhancing drugs have placed significant roadblocks to entry to the Hall of Fame, Pujols has no such baggage.
That’s the good news, and if you simply want to enjoy the moment and celebrate Pujols’ milestone when it arrives, you’re excused from reading further. You have until the end of this paragraph to make up your mind.
Still here? The bad news is that, while we’ve seen players limp to the finish line in attaining milestones, Pujols is arriving at 3,000 hits in worse shape than anyone who preceded him. Via FanGraphs WAR, he’s at risk of becoming the only one of the 3,000 hit club’s 32 players to finish below replacement level both in the season before he reached the milestone — normally, a signal to an aging veteran that it might be time to hang up the ol’ spikes — and the one in which he attained it. Here are Pujols and those 31, ranked by total WAR in those two seasons, in the second column from the right:
|Player||Reached 3,000||WAR in
|Cal Ripken Jr.||2000||1.3||2.9||4.2||-0.5|
That’s not a pretty picture at all. While Pujols certainly has ample time this year to climb back above replacement level, he needs to reach 1.0 WAR by season’s end, something he hasn’t done since 2015, just to overtake Brock. Alternately, he could continue struggling and overtake Biggio for the lowest WAR of any player in the season in which he collected his 3,000th hit.
The column to the far right shows the total WAR of each player in the seasons after collecting the milestone. As you can see, seven of the above players, six of them among the lowest ranked, didn’t return for a follow-up. Five retired, while Palmeiro, who was suspended for failing a PED test just a couple weeks after reaching the milestone, was essentially chased away by an angry mob, and Clemente tragically died in a plane crash that winter while delivering aid to earthquake-stricken Nicaragua. Eleven others continued playing after 3,000 but delivered less than 1.0 WAR over the remainder of their careers, though both Beltre and Suzuki are still active; the former will likely play his way out of that group, but not the latter. Of the remaining players, some still had a good deal of value left, with Cobb and Aaron, the former all-time hits and home-run leaders, respectively, running away from the pack.
The accounting, alas, is likely to get worse for Pujols, who appears destined to remind us that Father Time remains undefeated. The slugger deserves all of the accolades he’ll receive upon reaching 3,000 hits, and all of the ones that will someday be cast in bronze on his Hall of Fame plaque. That said, his performance and his contract have set the Angels back in recent years, and given the way his play could threaten the team’s viability in a race for a postseason spot — something the Angels have attained just once since he arrived — I think that manager Mike Scioscia, general manager Billy Eppler, and owner Arte Moreno could be in for some difficult conversations in the coming months.
I’m not sure how to solve that problem, but Pujols and the Angels won’t be the last to face it. As a devotee of baseball history, I understand the importance of milestones, even when they’re counting things — hits, pitcher wins, even home runs — that we no longer value quite as highly as we once did, and even when they’re reached by players whose value within the frramework of our analytically minded age has been diminished as well. Given the choice between celebrating and sitting on our hands, it’s always better to go the former route (except in the press box, ahem), particularly when names like Aaron and Mays are attached, and hey, those guys got old, too. So, congratulations in advance to Pujols. Now please keep hitting.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.