All Hail King Albert, Who Should Absolutely Return to Play in 2023
Pujols passed Alex Rodriguez for fourth all-time on the HR list with 697. Him hitting 700 was a pipe dream when the season began. Now it's a given.
I’ve gotta be honest with you guys: When the Angels DFA’d Albert Pujols last summer and the Dodgers picked him up, I sent more than a few tweets wondering if Andrew Friedman had lost his mind.
Pujols was 41 and his legs didn’t work. His OPS+ sat at an abysmal 66—or, 126 points lower than when he won the NL MVP award in 2008. But, the Dodgers’ bench was extremely thin after they let Joc Pederson and Enrique Hernandez walk in free agency, and Pujols could be had on the pro-rated major league minimum of $429,000 while the Angels paid the rest of his $30 million dollar salary. I was proven wrong almost immediately, as Pujols not only hit much better for the Dodgers than he did for the Angels (because of course he did), but he also proved invaluable to a team in desperate need of a Spanish-speaking leader.
With a 99 OPS+ for the Dodgers in 85 games, he was just a league-average player on paper. But when I asked Clayton Kershaw what Pujols brought to the team, Kershaw surprised me by gushing about how immeasurable his role has been in team-building because he was the only native Spanish-speaking veteran on the Dodgers. In my own obsession with X’s and O’s as well as my own blind spot as a native English speaker, it was a vital human element I completely missed.
Because Pujols is bilingual and deeply respected in the Dodgers’ clubhouse, he was able to easily bring the young Hispanic players more into the fold and make them feel included in the club’s every-day social activities. He was also able to serve as a hitting mentor to players of all stripes and experience, which made him more valuable to the Dodgers than any statistic I could find about him on Baseball Reference or FanGraphs.
But the thing that struck me most about Pujols was that as soon as he got out of Anaheim, he seemed to move through the world like the weight of a struggling franchise had been finally lifted off his aging back, and he was free to just have fun.
He quickly earned the nickname of Tīo Albert in the Dodger locker room, and looking back I think that moniker was more significant than just a show of respect and affection. I know this because I am an aunt to a three-year-old. I see her roughly once a week and I get to play with her and take her to ice cream or dance class and McDonald’s and teach her all the lyrics to every Harry Styles song (except “Watermelon Sugar,” which I’ve been told is off-limits). Then I get to go home. My sister and brother-in-law have to deal with the responsibility of actually raising my niece: the boundary setting, the sleepless nights, the constant “no’s.” They’re doing a tremendous job, but it’s a lot of work. I merely swoop in to have fun once a week for a few hours then I wave goodbye and let them deal with bed time.
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I say this because when the Angels gave Pujols that 10-year contract for $240 million, he became their dad. If the team stunk—which they did for the majority of the decade he spent there—fair or not it, was largely his fault. He did not play with a smile on his face. His breathing did not appear light. He looked stressed and upset and at times overwhelmed, like a dad with three unruly children under the age of five. You won’t find me crying for anyone who gets paid nine figures to play a children’s game. But Pujols? Well, he didn’t look like he was having any fun at all. And maybe that’s one of the reasons why he never played particularly well in Anaheim.
In his last season in St. Louis in 2011 he posted a career worst OPS+ of 138—which was still good enough for him to finish fifth in MVP voting. His OPS+ dipped a bit to 128+ in his first year with the Angels in 2012, then it fell off a cliff.
(I’m using OPS+ here instead of OPS because it adjusts for park factors and Pujols switched leagues from the NL to the AL so it feels like the most appropriate metric to gauge his success).
We don’t need to relive his nightmarish years in Anaheim, except to say that in his age 42 season as a St. Louis Cardinal, he is hitting better than he did in any season during his ages 31-41 seasons in Anaheim. Since Aug. 4, Pujols is hitting .326/.385/.756 with 11 home runs.
"There's impressive, and then there's unbelievable," Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol told reporters on Sunday. "And what we're witnessing right now is absolutely legendary."
Marmol was talking about how moments earlier, Pujols his the 697th home run of his career for pass Alex Rodriguez for 4th all-time on MLB’s home run list. More importantly for the playoff bound Cardinals, Pujols’ home run also proved to be the game-winner.
And then this happened:
Can you even imagine? I get the sense that Pujols was comfortable parting with that baseball because he knows how in his bones that he’s going to hit #700 this season, maybe even as soon as this week. It’s gotten to the point now where my favorite baseball game is whenever Pujols is up to bat. I’m trying to find a Twitter alert that will just let me know when that’s happening. (Or will any of you diehard Cardinal fans text me if I give you my number? I’m serious! I’m living for this!).
As it stands right now, Pujols trails Babe freaking Ruth by just 17 home runs. He’s insistent that this is his final season, no matter what, but….am I selfish for wanting him to pull a Tom Brady and un-retire 40 days after this season ends so he can keep this magical run going?
Pujols told reporters back in March that this was his last season.
“I’m still going to retire, no matter whether I end up hitting 693, 696, 700, whatever,’’ Pujols told USA TODAY Sports. “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.’’
So, nothing will change your mind?
“If I can’t hit 70 homers, I’m not coming back,’’ Pujols said, laughing. “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.’’
So how is Pujols doing all this during the eleventh hour of his career? Nobody knows for sure, but I have a few guesses. Besides the joy he’s playing with now that he’s not carrying the weight of an entire franchise on his shoulders, it’s possible that like Buster Posey before him, he is simply emptying the tank, like a marathon runner making a mad dash for the finish line once they hit mile 26.
Posey put up his best numbers in seven years in what turned out to be his swan song, though he kept his decision to retire a secret from the public until the year was finished. There’s another key different between Posey and Pujols that makes what Pujols is doing even more remarkable: Pujols didn’t even have a job until late in spring training. It was never a given that he would get a chance to play this year, let alone mash 18 homers in his 22nd season. Pujols was already a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but he now only needs three more home runs to reach the 700 club—a feat that seemed impossible when the Angels cut him last summer when he had 667.
I don’t want this to be his last season. But if it is, I will remember that the greatest hitter I ever saw went out like the legend he is. Maybe that’s how he wants to be remembered, as a man who walked away from a sport that would still gladly have him. For the other ninety-nine percent of players not named Posey or Pujols, the sport itself decides when it’s over.
But Tío Albert is hitting home runs for us. And that’s the beauty in this world that I’m choosing to focus on this week.