Appreciating Albert Pujols in 2017

One of the reasons millions of Cardinals fans should be able to sit back, watch and enjoy the latest milestone accomplished by former Cardinal Albert Pujols is that as a fanbase, we have nearly universal acceptance that the team was correct in not trying to match the Angels offer to Pujols back in 2011.

 

We got to see the best Albert had, and now we can enjoy the twilight of career from afar without that bitterness that was evident just several years ago.

Albert Pujols joins elite company with 600th career home run

Albert Pujols hit his 600th career homer in Saturday night's 7-2 win over the Minnesota Twins. Pujols delivered a grand slam to become the ninth player in major league history to reach the mark.

The Los Angeles Angels slugger connected in the fourth inning against Minnesota's Ervin Santana, driving a high fly into the short left-field porch at Angel Stadium.

The milestone homer is the latest superlative in the 17-year career of Pujols, a 13th-round draft pick who became one of the greatest hitters of his generation.

The 37-year-old Pujols is the fourth-youngest player to hit 600 homers behind Alex Rodriguez, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth. Pujols joins home run kings Barry Bonds and Aaron as the only players to hit 600 homers and 600 doubles.

The Dominican veteran is the first player to hit his 600th homer since Jim Thome in August 2011. With his ninth homer this season, Pujols has joined the club with Bonds (762), Aaron (755), Ruth (714), Rodriguez (696), Willie Mays (660), Ken Griffey Jr. (630), Thome (612) and Sammy Sosa (609).

Pujols also became the first player to hit a grand slam for No. 600.

He put a long, looping swing on the struggling Santana's low pitch, and he briefly stood at the plate to see whether the ball would stay fair. When it did, he rounded the bases to a fusillade of fireworks before greeting his excited teammates at home plate.

"I don't play here for numbers," Pujols said this week after hitting No. 599. "My goal since Day 1 when I got to the big leagues was to help the organization that I wear the uniform of. At the end of my career, numbers are numbers. I think I'm going to have plenty of time, but my main goal is to try to win a championship here.

"I'm aware of the history, don't get me wrong. I respect it, but I think that's kind of a distraction that I don't want to bring into the game for me."

Pujols hit his 599th homer on Tuesday and then went through three straight homerless games. The slugger rarely acknowledges the importance of individual accomplishments, but his fellow Angels thought he clearly wanted to reach the milestone at home before they hit the road Monday.

The Angels were excited, too: Mike Trout went to the ballpark right after having thumb surgery Wednesday because he wanted to see Pujols make history — and Trout has returned every night since, his hand in a cast.

"It's pretty incredible," Trout said. "Each night he gets a hit or gets an RBI, he's passing somebody. (On Thursday) he passed Babe Ruth in hits. I think that's pretty special. It's remarkable, his career so far. He's got a lot of baseball left, but I think the biggest thing is 600. That's special."

Pujols is in his sixth year with the Angels after beginning his career with 11 spectacular seasons in St. Louis. He became the youngest player to hit 250 homers and the first to hit 400 homers in his first 10 big-league seasons while with the Cardinals, and he is the only player ever to hit at least 30 homers in his first 12 big-league seasons.

The three-time NL MVP has slowed in numerous ways since joining the Angels, who haven't won a playoff game since giving him a $240 million free-agent contract in December 2011. Pujols doesn't round the bases or play the field with his youthful vigor, but he still delivers solid pop at the plate as one of the majors' top RBI producers.

Photos: Albert Pujols hits 600th home run

Pujols has homered in 37 ballparks and against all 30 big-league teams, including the Cardinals. Santana is one of 386 pitchers to yield a homer to Pujols.

Pujols is the majors' active leader in homers by a long shot, and the 600-homer club might not get its next member for several years. Detroit's 34-year-old Miguel Cabrera has 451 career homers, and the next-closest player under 34 years old is Milwaukee's 33-year-old Ryan Braun with 292.

"What Albert is about to do, it's legendary," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said before Friday's game. "To be able to witness it is something special. You look around baseball, and the guys that have reached that plateau are few and far between, to say the least. It's such a special journey. It doesn't happen very often."

Pujols has hit 155 homers in nearly 5 1/2 seasons with the Angels, dropping well off the incredible pace established when he hit 445 homers in his 11 seasons with St. Louis. He hit at least 40 homers in six seasons with the Cardinals, but has done it only once for Los Angeles.

Although he has made just one All-Star team with the Angels, Pujols has been a consistent offensive threat in Orange County when healthy, racking up 119 RBIs last season and ranking third in the AL with 38 RBIs entering Friday's games. Injuries and age have forced the Angels to use the formerly above-average fielder largely as a designated hitter: He played only 28 games at first base last season and just four this year.

"This guy is probably the toughest ballplayer I've ever seen," Scioscia said. "To be able to go out there at maybe 50 percent and still be productive, what he means to the team in the dugout, in the clubhouse, you can see why he's been a winner his whole career."

Pujols made nine All-Star teams for St. Louis and won three MVP awards, two NL home run titles and the 2003 batting crown. More importantly to Pujols, the Cardinals won the World Series in 2006 and 2011, and he capped that second championship run in style with three homers in Game 3 of St. Louis' seven-game victory over Texas.

Pujols then hit free agency for the first time in his career, and Angels owner Arte Moreno shocked the sport by offering one of the biggest contracts in baseball history to entice the slugger to uproot his family from St. Louis.

The contract set near-impossible expectations for everyone involved — and by his own admission, Pujols hasn't achieved his goals in Anaheim. Since Pujols arrived and Trout concurrently became a star, the Angels have made only one playoff appearance.

Yet the Angels are still optimistic about their future around Pujols and Trout, who is sidelined for six weeks with his injury. Trout was grateful to be in attendance for No. 600, and he expects to see No. 700 as well.

"Oh, yeah, for sure," Trout said. "I wouldn't put nothing past Albert. He comes in, plays hard. He's a competitor, a great teammate and a great person off the field. He'll do anything for you."

Pujols' historic home runs

1 -- April 6, 2001 at Arizona, Armando Reynoso

100 -- July 20, 2003 at Dodgers, Odalis Perez

200 -- Sept. 30, 2005 vs. Cincinnati, Matt Belisle

300 -- July 4, 2008 vs. Cubs, Bob Howry

400 -- Aug. 26, 2010 at Washington, Jordan Zimmermann

500 --  April 22, 2014 at Washington, Taylor Jordan

587* -- Sept. 3, 2016 at Seattle, Taijuan Walker

*Passed Frank Robinson for sole possession of 10th on baseball’s all-time list.

600 -- June 3, 2017 vs. Twins, Ervin Santana

9 times Albert Pujols was superhuman

In honor of Pujols’ 600th home run, Ted Berg of USA Today Sports assembled nine times Pujols seemed superhuman:

1. His first college game

This may be my favorite Albert Pujols anecdote. Pujols played high-school ball in the Kansas City area after immigrating from the Dominican Republic, but opposing pitchers walked him 55 times in 88 plate appearances his senior season in part to protest what they believed was an age disparity. Pujols did not get drafted out of high school, so he went to play at local Maple Woods Community College.

In his first college game, Pujols — then a shortstop — turned an unassisted triple play and hit a grand slam. Again: In his first college game, Pujols turned an unassisted triple play and hit a grand slam. No player has ever done that in well over 200,000 Major League games, and it’s hard to imagine it has happened in more than a handful of instances in the history of baseball at any level. But one of those times, it was Albert Pujols in his first college game. It seems about as effective a means imaginable to show that you’re ready for a higher level. Speaking of which….

2. When he erupted into the Majors

Though Pujols continued dominating the competition after his incredible first college game, he famously fell to the 13th round in the 1999 draft due in part to more skepticism about his age. Pujols spent most of the 2000 season at Class A ball, but graduated to Class AAA in time for that circuit’s postseason. He ranked only No. 42 on Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects list before the 2001 season and opened spring training as a non-roster invite.

But Pujols, it turned out, was already ready to be Albert Pujols. He made the big-league Cardinals out of camp, played 161 games, hit 37 homers with a 1.013 OPS and ran away with the Rookie of the Year Award. As for the questions about his birthdate that followed him in his early years: They look pretty dumb in retrospect. Though Pujols, to be fair, always looked mature for his age, he followed a fairly typical aging curve throughout his career, enjoying his best seasons in his late 20s and beginning to decline in his early 30s. Also, even if he was ten years older than his records said he was at the time of the draft — and he wasn’t — he was only a year away from dominating the Majors for a decade. Who wouldn’t want that guy? Scouts everywhere just totally whiffed.

3. When he did this

Pujols already had nine career postseason homers on his resume when his Cardinals took on the Astros in Houston for Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS. But while St. Louis would ultimately lose the series, Pujols’ mammoth, go-ahead, three-run homer off then-dominant closer Brad Lidge in the ninth inning of Game 5 remains perhaps the most memorable longball of his big-league career. It was so outrageously triumphant. Lidge looks like he’s just witnessed an actual human atrocity.

4. When academics tested his motor skills

In 2006, Pujols visited Washington University in St. Louis to undergo a series of tests once performed on Babe Ruth to measure certain aspects of his physical skills and cognition. From the school’s website:

Asked to depress a tapper with his index finger as many times as possible in 10 seconds, Pujols scored in the 99th percentile, a score almost identical to one earned by Ruth on a similar test of movement speed and endurance. White was impressed not only by Pujols’ tapping speed (2.4 standard deviations faster than normal), but also by the fact that his performance kept improving after repeated trials….

Pujols tapped with such force, in fact, that, at one point, he actually knocked the tapping key out of alignment. Pujols then helped White repair the finger tapper, tightening a loosened screw with his fingernail, she said.

Pujols also surprised researchers with his unique approach to a test that required he pick out specific letters from a page of “randomly positioned letters.” Instead of reading the letters left to right, like most would, Pujols scanned by sector.

5. When he bucked the strikeout trend

Baseball’s sabermetric revolution helped destigmatize the strikeout for power hitters, and many of Pujols’ fellow sluggers in recent years have fanned in excess of 150 times a season on the regular. But after striking out a career-high 93 times in his rookie season, Pujols began steadily walking more and whiffing less as he approached his peak and has not struck out more than 76 times in any season since.

Of the 27 big-leaguers in the 500 home-run club, Pujols ranks fourth with a rate of 8.6 at-bats per strikeout. That’s the best mark of any 500-homer guy since Hank Aaron retired in 1976, and more than double the rates of Sammy Sosa, Jim Thome and Mark McGwire.

“There are some home run hitters, obviously, that a lot of times strikeouts are part of the package,” Scioscia said. “Albert’s a unique player, and really, when you look at his seasons — very few strikeouts. I think that’s one of the reasons he has been able to adapt. Albert doesn’t believe a strikeout is just another out. He’s certainly not afraid to take his swings, but he understands situational hitting, he understands the ability to take what a pitcher is giving you, and he has just been a player that is very gifted — hits the ball hard, uses the whole field, and never has had a lot of strikeouts in his game.”

6. On his U.S. citizenship test

Pujols became a U.S. citizen before spring training in 2007. He scored 100% on his test. Only half of native-born Americans can clear 70% on the test.

7. Whenever he has been injured

On Thursday, Scioscia noted Pujols’ ability to play through pain multiple times during his pre-game talk with reporters.

“Albert is a special athlete,” Scioscia said. “And I’ve never really seen or played with anyone who can play or perform so well while being banged up as he has with us.”

It’s impossible to quantify a player’s ability to recover from injuries or succeed despite them, as every injury and every body is obviously a little bit different. But Scioscia’s praise for the way Pujols negotiates pain might not even cover it. This will sound fairly crazy, but Pujols has a history of returning to action from injury sooner than anyone expects.

In 2006, when Pujols made the first DL trip of his career with a strained muscle in his side, a veteran MLB trainer told USA TODAY Sports to expect Pujols to miss more than a month. He returned after 15 days. In 2011, after he suffered an on-field wrist fracture, he was again expected to miss at least a month and again returned in two weeks.

Though Pujols has by now endured a battery of procedures to correct knee and foot issues, they rarely seem to keep him off the field longer than the minimum time expected for recovery. Offseason foot surgery following the 2015 surgery put his 2016 opening day in question, but Pujols was there to play it. The exact same thing happened this year.

8. The 2011 postseason

9. This beautiful moment

Pujols’ daughter Bella has Down syndrome, and Pujols has always seemed to have a special connection to fans with Down syndrome and their families, from Joc Pederson’s brother Champ to all those the Cardinals annually welcomed for their “Buddy Walk Day.”

But one especially heartwarming moment of Pujols’ career came in August of 2009, after retired schoolteacher Tim Tepas and his son, Keith, made the drive from Buffalo to Pittsburgh to see Pujols play in person. The elder Tepas, who brought with him a letter he wrote to Pujols about the experience of raising a special-needs child, tried to corral a foul ball for Keith and fell on the field. Read Todd Frankel’s account of Pujols’ response.

© 2017 KSDK-TV


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