When Manny Ramirez was approaching his 500th career home run in 2008, he deflected attention on the milestone by saying he was shooting for 600.
Fellow Dominican Albert Pujols is taking a similar tack as he closes in on becoming the ninth player ever to hit 600 homers. The figure eluded Ramirez by 45, but Pujols is only one short and has loftier achievements in mind.
“You set goals every year, the first one being winning the World Series and having a good season,’’ Pujols told USA TODAY Sports in a Spanish-language conversation. “So it’s at the end of your career that you can analyze what you have accomplished. I have four years left on my contract. If I stay healthy, I have a good chance to reach 700. Who knows?’’
It was only three years ago that Pujols was mounting his charge on 500, and moving so quickly to the next round number serves as a testament to his continued ability to produce the long ball. His average of 33 home runs over the last three seasons – 10th best in the majors – is just four below his career norm of 37.
So joining the 700 club – populated only by Barry Bonds (762), Hank Aaron (755) and Babe Ruth (714) – seems realistic, but there’s another step he must reach before that, and getting there would give Pujols great satisfaction.
Sammy Sosa, another native of the Dominican Republic, is next ahead of Pujols on the home run list with 609, and he has the record for most homers hit by a player born in Latin America. Pujols will soon be angling for that mark.
“For me, it’s a source of pride and a blessing not just to represent the Angels but to know 11 million people in the Dominican Republic are always supporting my career and all the other Dominicans in the big leagues,’’ Pujols said. “To me, that’s a blessing.’’
Pujols, 37, is clearly not the same hitter who haunted National League pitchers over 11 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, which yielded three MVP awards, seven trips to the playoffs and two World Series championships.
What he still does almost as well as anybody is send runners home. Even while still searching for his stroke this season, Pujols has driven in 38 runs, tied for third-best in the American League. His 330 RBI over the last three seasons rank fifth among all major leaguers.
That’s part of the reason manager Mike Scioscia likes to slot Pujols behind on-base machine Mike Trout in the lineup, figuring something good is bound to happen when you put a run producer and a run scorer together.
Scioscia’s aware RBI have been devalued by some metrics-driven observers, who point out the statistic is dependent on the team and opportunities batters get, but he has a response to that argument.
“Somebody’s got to knock them in. If you don’t knock them in, we don’t score runs,’’ Scioscia said. “When you knock in a run, that still carries an enormous amount of weight to what your offense is about. And there are guys who historically (drive in runs). You look at Tony Perez, you look at Edgar Martinez, guys you want up there in those situations. Albert’s one of those guys. I can tell you we value RBIs, and runs scored.’’
With the passage of time, Pujols has become more of a pull hitter, especially when the bases are empty and he may be hunting for a home run. As a result, he’s vulnerable to shifts and getting robbed of hits on well-struck balls. According to Fangraphs.com, his percentage of hard-hit balls last season (36.5%) was a bit above his career standard of 35.9%, yet he batted .268, or 40 points below his lifetime mark.
This year that figure has dipped to .238, which he attributes in part to having his offseason workout curtailed after December foot surgery and getting a late start on spring training. Perhaps as a result, Pujols has seen a rare spike in his strikeout rate, from just under 10% in his previous 16 seasons to 18.8%.
Pujols has struck out more than 80 times just once in his career, 93 times his rookie season. Of the 27 batters with 500 career home runs, only Ted Williams, Mel Ott and Aaron struck out at a lower rate than Pujols.
No wonder he looks at his current clip as an early-season anomaly.
“Maybe I’ve swung at some pitches out of the strike zone,’’ he said. “I’ve had that bad streak lately. I’ve never struck out so much, but we’ll see at the end of the season where we are. My bat speed is there and I feel great at the plate. I might have expanded the strike zone on a couple of pitches, but other than that I feel really good.’’
And ready to shoot for 600 and beyond.
Ortiz reported from Oakland