Albert Pujols Is Enjoying a Renaissance

Albert Pujols
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

When the Cardinals re-signed Albert Pujols in late March, few imagined that the transaction would amount to much more than a victory lap and a nice bit of closure for a 42-year-old all-time great. Though he hit well in limited duty in April, Pujols struggled to such a great extent for the next two months that a midseason retirement wouldn’t have been a surprise. Over the past six weeks, however, he’s been one of the hottest hitters in baseball, and on Saturday, he made a bit of history.

In a 16–7 rout of the Diamondbacks in Arizona, Pujols went 4-for-4 with a pair of homers, both off Madison Bumgarner, with exit velocities of 105.4 mph and 107.5 mph. He also ripped a 109.4-mph single off the left field wall against Bumgarner, then capped his night with a softer single off Chris Devenski.

Via his first homer, Pujols surpassed Cardinals legend Stan Musial for second place in total bases. Not second in team history or second since Babe Ruth, or the start of the integration or expansion eras — that’s second all-time, behind only Hank Aaron:

Career Total Bases Leaders
Rk Player Years PA H 1B 2B 3B HR TB
1 Hank Aaron 1954-1976 13941 3771 2294 624 98 755 6856
2 Albert Pujols 2001-2022 12917 3355 1966 681 16 692 6144
3 Stan Musial 1941-1963 12721 3630 2253 725 177 475 6134
4 Willie Mays 1948-1973 12545 3293 1967 525 141 660 6080
5 Barry Bonds 1986-2007 12606 2935 1495 601 77 762 5976
6 Ty Cobb 1905-1928 13103 4189 3053 724 295 117 5854
7 Alex Rodriguez 1994-2016 12207 3115 1840 548 31 696 5813
8 Babe Ruth 1914-1935 10626 2873 1517 506 136 714 5793
9 Pete Rose 1963-1986 15890 4256 3215 746 135 160 5752
10 Carl Yastrzemski 1961-1981 13992 3419 2262 646 59 452 5539
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

His was a pretty quiet ascent; few noted Pujols passing Bonds in 2021 or Mays earlier this year.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that Pujols ranks so high in total bases given that he’s 10th in hits and fifth in both doubles and homers, but it’s that combination of power and persistence (and a little bit of luck when it comes to time missed) that’s placed him so high. While Pujols lost nearly two-thirds of a late-career season to the pandemic, Musial and Mays each missed a full season of their primes to military service, with the latter losing most of a second one as well.

Additionally, Saturday’s outburst made Pujols the oldest player to collect three multi-homer games in a season, breaking a tie with Bonds (two at 42 years old in 2007) and Carlton Fisk (two at 43 years old in 1991). Pujols also paired up against the Pirates on May 22 and against the Brewers on August 14. Only seven times has a player older than Pujols’ current age had a multi-homer game (Julio Franco, at 46 years, 299 days is the oldest), and only nine times has an older player had at least a four-hit game (Rose had five hits at 45 years, 119 days). Nobody has had a four-hit, two-homer game at an older age:

Oldest Players with 4 Hits and 2 Homers in a Game
Rk Player H HR Date Age Team Opp
1 Albert Pujols 4 2 8/20/2022 42.216 STL ARI
2 Nelson Cruz 4 2 9/7/2021 41.068 TBR BOS
3 Stan Musial 4 2 6/7/1961 40.198 STL CHC
4 Babe Ruth 4 3 5/25/1935 40.108 BSN PIT
5 Rickey Henderson 4 2 4/7/1999 40.103 NYM FLA
6 Willie Stargell 4 2 6/13/1980 40.099 PIT HOU
7 Barry Bonds 4 2 8/29/2004 40.036 SFG ATL
8 Nelson Cruz 4 2 7/26/2020 40.025 MIN CHW
9 Joe Morgan 4 2 9/19/1983 40.000 PHI CHC
10 Andre Dawson 4 2 6/25/1994 39.350 BOS MIL
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

All of that is pretty cool on its own, but it’s particularly impressive in the context of his season. Including a seventh-inning, pinch-hit single on Sunday, Pujols is now hitting .273/.348/.515 with 13 homers and a 141 wRC+ in 227 plate appearances. Of those, 167 have come as a designated hitter, 48 as a first baseman (where he’s doing a credible Paul Goldschmidt imitation by hitting .333/.396/.595), and 19 as a pinch-hitter. While he’s well short of qualifying for the batting title, Pujols’ wRC+ ranks 22nd in the majors among all players with at least 200 PA, and his slugging percentage is in a virtual tie for 17th. Meanwhile, he’s tied with Nolan Gorman for third on the team in homers behind only Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, not-so-coincidentally the only two Cardinals with a higher wRC+. Oh, and — while acknowledging the lesser sample size — there’s this: in his 10 seasons away from St. Louis, Pujols maxed out with a 133 wRC+ in 2012; he was last above 140 the year before, his final one in St. Louis.

What’s more, Pujols has been en fuego lately. Since August 10, he’s hit .556/.586/1.259 in 29 PA, with two four-hit games and two two-hit games among his six starts. Since the All-Star break, he’s hit .449/.500/.939 (a major league-best 298 wRC+) with seven homers in 54 PA, and since the start of July, he’s hit .378/.429/.769 (229 wRC+) with nine homers in 91 PA, that after ending June with a .198/.294/.336 (83 wRC+) line. Remarkably, his 0.9 WAR is his highest mark since 2015, and his first in the black; by our measurements, he was 3.2 wins below replacement from 2017 to ’21, with -0.2 WAR last year via his overall .236/.284/.433 (89 wRC+) showing. Because Baseball Reference uses higher positional adjustment for designated hitters and first basemen, the story is a little different using their version of WAR; he netted -1.8 WAR from ’16 to ’21 but is at 1.2 this season. For those following the ups and downs of his career total, he’s back above 100 (100.7) after slipping below in ’17 and again in ’21.

Thanks in part to his hot bat, the Cardinals have won seven straight and are 15–3 in August and 19–7 since the All-Star break; in the last of those spans, they’ve turned a one-game deficit in the NL Central into a five-game lead over the Brewers.

It’s not entirely a military secret how Pujols and the Cardinals have accomplished this. They’re following the playbook the Dodgers used last year upon picking him up off the scrapheap after the Angels designated him for assignment, that while taking advantage of the advent of the universal DH. He’s utterly destroying left-handed pitching:

Highest wRC+ Versus Left-Handed Pitchers
1 Paul Goldschmidt STL 111 .435 .527 .848 276
2 Austin Riley ATL 130 .366 .446 .777 228
3 Albert Pujols STL 98 .388 .429 .776 225
4 Jose Altuve HOU 119 .311 .387 .670 197
5 Xander Bogaerts BOS 102 .372 .471 .558 192
6 Chas McCormick HOU 89 .338 .404 .600 188
7 Mike Trout LAA 91 .315 .451 .562 187
8 Sean Murphy OAK 128 .284 .414 .569 184
9 Nathaniel Lowe TEX 130 .344 .385 .598 182
10T Jonah Heim TEX 100 .315 .390 .596 181
Rhys Hoskins PHI 130 .306 .415 .611 181
Harold Ramírez TBR 86 .377 .442 .506 181
Minimum 80 plate appearances. Statistics through August 21.

Recall that Pujols hit .294/.336/.603 (146 wRC+) in 146 PA against lefties last year, including .303/.347/.606 (149 wRC+) in 118 PA for the Dodgers. Meanwhile, he hit a sorry .180/.233/.266 (36 wRC+) in 150 PA against righties last year, and a somewhat better but still lousy .186/.287/.319 (79 wRC+) in 129 PA against them this year; fortuitously, his performance has improved despite his share of plate appearances against lefties dropping from 49.3% to 43.2%.

Over the course of his full career, Pujols hasn’t had a particularly wide platoon split; since 2002 (as far back as our splits go, omitting his rookie season), he owns a 150 wRC+ against lefties, 137 against righties. But since 2019, the gap has turned into a canyon, with a 137 wRC+ in 491 PA against lefties and 71 wRC+ in 740 PA against righties. Check out his batted ball splits in that span:

Albert Pujols Batted Ball Platoon Splits
Split Season BBE EV Barrel PA AVG SLG wOBA xwOBA
vs RHP 2019 286 87.7 4.9% 364 .236 .387 .293 .313
vs RHP 2020 74 87.7 5.4% 96 .218 .402 .294 .296
vs RHP 2021 116 89.6 2.6% 149 .180 .266 .220 .255
vs RHP 2022 90 90.1 7.8% 129 .186 .319 .276 .296
vs LHP 2019 145 89.4 7.6% 180 .261 .515 .340 .333
vs LHP 2020 54 89.8 5.6% 66 .231 .385 .266 .304
vs LHP 2021 116 91.0 15.5% 144 .294 .603 .387 .393
vs LHP 2022 75 92.0 16.0% 97 .388 .776 .492 .446
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Balls have generally come off Pujols’ bat about two miles per hour faster during this period, but the performance gap hasn’t always been this wide, and it seems likely that sample sizes have something to do with it. Still, it’s very clear that he remains a potent weapon against lefties, and in fact, the Cardinals’ 130 wRC+ against lefties leads the majors; they’re seventh against righties (111 wRC+) as well.

Pujols’ renaissance has rocketed him within striking distance of 700 homers, a plateau previously reached only by Ruth (714), Aaron (755), and Bonds (762). Unless he can maintain this sizzling second-half clip, adding another eight homers seems unlikely; ZiPS projects him for four, which would tie him with Rodriguez (696) for fourth. Pujols has maintained that he’s not focused upon his ranking or the milestone and insists that he’s done after this year. After Saturday’s game, he told USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, “I’m still going to retire, no matter whether I end up hitting 693, 696, 700, whatever. I don’t get caught up in numbers. If you were going to tell me 22 years ago that I would be this close, I would have told you that you’re freakin’ crazy. My career has been amazing.”

He added, “If I can’t hit 70 homers [a total that would match that of Bonds], I’m not coming back. No, I’ve had enough. I’m glad I made the announcement this was it when I signed. Really, I wouldn’t change a thing.”

After the disappointment of Pujols’ tenure with the Angels, who are themselves even more of a vortex of disappointment lately than usual, his rebound in St. Louis is allowing him to go out on a higher note. Even if he can’t maintain this clip, he’s already collected enough highlights to make his final season a fitting testament to a legendary career.

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, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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1 year ago

It’s fun to see him doing something well after being almost entirely useless for 6 years. It’s a small thing–he’s only been able to put together about 100 PAs against left-handed pitching. But it’s doing one small thing really, really well.

It’s a nice palate cleanser before he sails off into retirement.

free-range turducken
1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

More important, it looks like we can avoid Roger Connor completing his 6-year quest to pass Pujols for 28th place on the all-time WAR leaderboard.

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Earlier this year, I compared Pujols to Paul McCartney. Well, if Pujols’ first decade was his “Beatles” years, and his Angels tenure was his “Wings” years, this final stretch is the part where he’s no longer topping the charts himself, but does manage to write the biggest hit of Elvis’s * career.

(*Costello, that is.)

Mr. Redlegsmember
1 year ago
Reply to  tz

Not here for the Wings slander

1 year ago
Reply to  Mr. Redlegs

No intense offended – I’ll make the comp less lazy:

First half of time in Anaheim (2012-2016) = Wings years aka still cranking out the hits

Second half of time in Los Angelheim (2017-2022) = eh, “Give My Regards to Broad Street” years.

1 year ago
Reply to  tz

No More Lonely Nights was still a nice song, especially the ending guitar solo.