It was June 2001, the first half of his first tenure that no one saw coming. Albert Pujols returns to Kansas City, Mo. Now, as a starter for the St. Louis Cardinals, he was somehow hitting .350 with a lot of home runs. But how good was he really?
“What you felt that day was these 10-year veterans coming at you — Mark McGwire, Jim Edmonds — so don’t let any of those guys beat you,” Chad Durbin said. That night started for the royalsRemembering the scout meeting with the coach. “Jamie Quick told me: ‘I think your stuff is going to beat Pujols’ – and he didn’t even call it, he said it was wrong. She didn’t know much about him.”
The lesson was quick and convincing. Pujols singled twice before being punished for a curveball for a homer in the ninth inning, spoiling Durbin’s chance for his first career complete game. It was Pujols’ 20th career walk in a journey that spanned more than two decades.
“He’s old enough to drink at the house he runs from me. “He’s old enough to order a beer at the bar,” said Durbin, 44 and retired for nine years. “I was doing good in baseball, but I was trying to help the game. I did my part.”
Pujols said he would retire at the end of this season, and on Friday he won the final game. He hit 700 home runs with two home runs with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Before Pujols, only Babe Ruth (in 1934), Hank Aaron (1973) and Barry Bonds (2004) had reached 700.
“It’s pretty special,” Pujols said after the game. “It’s really going to hit me when I’m done, at the end of the season, it’s time to retire, and maybe a time or two after that I’ll see the numbers.”
Bonds finished with a 762, Aaron with a 755 and Ruth with a 714. But Pujols has struck out more pitchers than anyone else in this era of specialization and a much larger bullpen: 455.
That total is still growing. Both homers on Friday came off new victims: a 434-foot shot to left in the third inning off Dodgers starter Andrew Heaney, and a 389-footer in the fourth inning off reliever Phil Bickford. Neither had faced Pujols before Friday night’s game.
“People always ask me, ‘Who’s the hardest hitter you’ve ever had?'” said Glendon Rush, 47, who gave up three homers to Pujols in 40 at-bats. “And I always say Albert. Especially when he was at a young age, he could do the most damage in different ways.
Ruth hit home runs over 216 different pitchers, while Aaron hit 310. Both pitchers retired in 1997, midway through Bonds’ career, long before interleague play began. Bonds has been linked with 449 different pitchers, a mark Pujols reached on Aug. 22 with Chicago Cubs Drew Smiley.
“The way he’s playing now, he’s definitely a different Albert Pujols than I saw when he was with the Angels,” Smiley said. “I didn’t get a chance to meet him when he was with the Cardinals early in his career, when he was the most dominant player there. But now he’s the same guy again.”
Pujols is flourishing at an unimaginable level that he has in the beginning. Playing in overtime during a bye, his .509 slugging percentage through Thursday was his highest since 2011, the final year of his first career in St. Louis.
Pujols averaged over 40 homers per year with the Cardinals from 2001 to 2011, while slugging .617 overall. He then left the Angels for a $240 million contract, and averaged just 23 homers with a .448 slugging percentage during his 10-year deal. The Angels released him last May and he finished the 2021 season with the Dodgers.
Yet while Pujols batted just .256 against the Angels — compared to .328 before that — his presence was always there for opposing pitchers, especially with runners on base. Pujols, who trails only Aaron and Ruth on the career RBI list with 2,208, has driven in at least 93 runs in six of his first eight seasons with the Angels.
“Obviously in the Anaheim days, he didn’t hit for average, but I think RBIs are a big thing, and he had over 100 RBIs for a good stretch,” Mets right-hander Taijuan Walker said. “It was always effective. He did his job to get guys in, and that could be with a sac fly or another hit double. This is what makes it difficult.
In September 2016, Walker added his name to Pujols’ list.
“I don’t even know if I got one out — I hit home run, home run, home run, shower,” said Walker, who gave up three in a row and got just two outs in the first inning. “Albert is done for me. Fastball, left-center, I think. It was very deep, too. I remember he couldn’t get to his fastball, but he could get down to it, so I was trying to hit him. And I think a lot of home runs are over now.
That’s what Smiley tried last month in the seventh inning of a scoreless game at Wrigley Field: a 1-2 fastball, 93 mph, higher than the outer half of the plate. Pujols lined a first-row sweeper into left field for homer number 693, the only run of the game. According to Statcast, the pitch was 4.23 feet off the ground, making it the highest pitch hit for a homer in the majors this season.
“But early in the game, I threw him a curveball down the zone — and he hit that over the wall,” Smiley said. “It’s closed now.”
Pujols snapped another scoreless game against the Cubs on Sept. 4 at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, lofting a Brandon Hughes fastball into the left field bullpen in the eighth inning. Hughes, a rookie, insists that Pujols’ credentials don’t matter to him — “I’m not going to put a name on a little guy when I’m out there,” he says, clearly knowing Pujols’ background.
“I’m from Detroit and we lost to the Cardinals,” said Hughes, 10, when Pujols led St. Louis to the 2006 World Series. I say ‘we’ because I was a Tigers fan growing up.
In Game 1, Pujols moved to right field from Justin Verlander, showing his signature behavior. Among the many pitchers he hit for homers were some of the best to take the mound.
“Jim Leyland mentioned this when I was with him in Detroit: ‘Albert Pujols and those guys, they hit really good balls,'” Durbin said, referring to the former Tigers manager. “That’s what I think with Albert: hitting a lot of good, quality pitches — and then punishing those mistakes when you make them. And that’s a .280 average with 350 career home runs, and that’s the difference between a great career and someone who looks like him.
Ace pitchers from past decades have often confused Pujols; Corey Kluber and Chris Sale each hit home runs three times in 44 at-bats (off the left-hander Sale in 2012).
But this big group is mostly retired, a group with 23 Cy Young Awards among them: Roger Clemens, Tom Glavine, Randy Johnson, Clayton Kershaw, Greg Maddux and Johan Santana. Pujols smashed 10 of them – including five off Johnson – while batting a combined .367.
His .367 average surpasses the all-time career mark by one point, set by T. Cobb. So keep in mind that while Pujols always points to sliding, power was only part of the package.
Against Clemens, Glavin, Johnson, Kershaw, Maddux and Santana, he was even better than Cobb.