Except for the legend himself, who always believes in himself, no one saw this coming.
It has been a season of magic and might, a season of defying age and assumptions. A season of unrealistic hopes turning into dreams that come true. His home runs create kisses in the crowd, and prompt enough delirious duckwalks to make the late Chuck Berry prowd.
It’s the season of Albert Pujols, fully restored, at age 42. By logical standards, this shouldn’t be happening. But Pujols has always been different in a special kind of way. As a very young player he had a wise head and the advanced knowledge of a savvy veteran. Now that Pujols is the oldest active ballplayer in the majors, his abundant baseball intellect is complemented by a boyish heart.
Old when young.
Young when old.
And seemingly happier than he’s ever been. The advance of age makes us appreciate the goodness in our lives, from the quiet and sweet moments to the most meaningful waymarks on the journey.
“Wrinkles should merely indicate where the smiles have been,” Mark Twain wrote.
Over the weekend at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pujols hit a tying two-run homer, No. 696 of his career, to get the Cardinals rolling for a 7-5 victory. Late Sunday afternoon, another two-run Pujols homer triggered the Cardinals into a 3-2 lead, and they took it from there to win 4-3.
The 697th home run of his 22 major-league season elevated Pujols into sole possession of fourth place on the all-time HR count. And the opposite-field thump gave Pujols the most MLB home runs hit by a Latino player.
With 21 games to play in his team’s regular-season schedule, Pujols needs three homers to join Barry Bonds, Henry Aaron and Babe Ruth in the exclusive fraternity of 700 home-run hitters.
“This opportunity only comes once and it’s something that’s a gift God has given me and I try to take advantage of it every single day,” Pujols said after Sunday’s win. “I’m not only making memories for me but for the fans, my family and people who love me.
“At the end of the day, it’s pretty awesome and we’re playing great baseball and have a great group of teammates,” he said.
Pujols the player, Pujols the person. He’s loving every minute … every precious minute that’s left. And all we can say is this: back atcha, Albert.
We’ve been blessed to have him here again, doing all of these wonderful Pujols things. We understand how Matt and Samantha Brown feel – the couple that caught No. 767 at PNC Park, tried to gift it to Pujols, only to have him sign the ball and give it back to them. What a warmhearted, sensitive and thoughtful gesture. Albert presented the ball to the Browns after being informed that they’d been at the ballpark to honor the memory of Samantha’s late father – who had passed away a year ago to the day.
(Excuse me for about 30 seconds. I have to take a break.)
Pujols has given us the gift of his extraordinary presence in his final major-league season … a season we shall never forget. A season of celebration, gratitude and giddiness. It’s as perfect as something can be without technically being perfect.
How did we get here? I’m not talking about Pujols returning to St. Louis for a farewell that’s rapidly approaching the end. (Say it ain’t so.) He’d spent the previous 10 years playing for the Angels and (briefly) the Dodgers. He would not fail by coming back to St. Louis; he would delight the entire fanbase just by returning to close the circle.
But just because Pujols could not fail because of sentimental reasons, it didn’t mean he would thrive as a player. But he’s done just that.
We didn’t expect to see these numbers as Pujols takes a timely rest on the team’s off-day Monday: His best batting average (.266) in a season since 2016. His best OPS (.866), slugging percentage (.541) and OPS+ (145) since 2011. His best onbase percentage (.343) since 2012.
After Pujols batted .198 with four homers and a .336 slug during the first three months of the season – downcast stats – we surely didn’t anticipate what he’s fired up since July 10.
Which is … bat .333 with a .389 OBP, .722 slug, 1.111 OPS, and 14 home runs. How grand is that? Among players that have at least 139 plate appearances since July 10, Pujols leads the NL in slugging, OBP and OPS and wRC+ and is tied for third in homers. And he’s batting .355 with six homers and a 1.352 OPS with runners in scoring position. And during this time he’s reversed his primary weakness by batting .263 with a .487 slug, .800 OPS and four homers against right-handed pitching.
C’mon now. Quit showing off, Albert.
Again … how is he doing this?
I gave this a lot of thought on Sunday night, and typed in some notes on my smartphone while having a post-dinner cocktail and listening to the Tampa Bay at Dallas NFL game in the background.
I’ll share those thoughts, most of them put together in stream-of-consciousness style:
1) In the spring I didn’t think he would get enough playing time this season. Not many LH pitchers to go up against. Has struggled against RHP in recent years, about 20 percent below league average offensively against them from 2017 through 2021. But after a terrible start he has gradually improved vs. RHP this season (now 11% below average, and he’s absolutely destroying LH pitching. But even that part is a surprise. Pujols’ .775 slugging percentage this season would be the highest of his career, topping the .741 slug he had against them in 2004. A year ago Pujols slugged .606 against lefties while playing for the Dodgers. That was excellent, and a reason for signing him in 2022. But look at how much his slug vs. lefts has increased this season. Amazing.
2) I thought that having Pujols on the 26-man roster would put rookie manager Oli Marmol in a tough spot. There would be awkward situations on occasion, with Marmol playing the platoon-split matchups to do what’s best for the team – even if it meant sitting Pujols. But Marmol has integrity. He’s been a man of his word. When Pujols did poorly against RH pitchers through much of May and June, Marmol adjusted accordingly and scaled back Albert’s plate appearances vs. righthanders: 44 PA in May, and only 26 in June. Marmol has helped Pujols and the team by putting Pujols in his best position to succeed. Without Marmol as manager, that wouldn’t have happened.
3) Pujols punished himself physically last offseason by training himself into better much better shape. Pujols made sure he was primed to maximize his final season and go out strong. He put in the sweat and invested his pain in workouts that enhanced his chances for success.
4) Preparation … constant prep. Every day. And probably deep into the night, scanning his tablet to study pitchers. Pujols is dedicated and intense about his work – and the desire to gain a mental edge – and this kept him sharp and ready to play when called on.
5) Smart, smart, smart. After his problems offensively in May and June, Pujols adjusted by doing away with his leg kick and going with more of a toe tap to set his rhythm. He’s also made minor changes to his stance. The altered approach put Pujols on a better track for success. And we’ve been seeing the results since early July. Pujols’ strongest asset is his mind … and the tenacious mental toughness that comes with it.
6) More about the Pujols’ work ethic. It sets the ideal example for teammates — all teammates. Younger players, the established and respected veterans, and even the pitchers. He’s inspired all of them. How would you like to be the dude that doesn’t put in the work when one of the short-list greatest hitters in baseball history is going all-out and all-in to help his team win? How would you like to be a lazy or indifferent teammate who disappoints Albert Pujols? He’s been such a positive source in the overall energy of this team.
7) I didn’t think he’d be much of a first baseman … Truthfully, I thought he’d be a lousy first baseman. Well, he’s been much better than expected. In 138 innings at first base this year Pujols is a minus 1 in defensive runs saved – just a sliver below average. But last season he was minus 4 in defensive runs saved, so he’s improved defensively in 2022. Saturday night at Pittsburgh his diving stop saved a run and gave the Cards a chance to win.
8) Pujols is having a ton of fun. Do not underestimate that. During first 11 seasons with the Cardinals, Pujols competed in seven postseasons and 74 postseason games. He was a driving force on three NL pennant winners and two World Series champions. In Pujols’ 9-plus years with the Angels, the Halos had a .500 winning percentage and made it to one postseason in nine years. That playoff trip, in 2014, lasted three games … all losses to the Royals in their ALDS series.
Pujols was being paid a massive sum and all of that – but his final few seasons in Anaheim were miserable in every way. I don’t care who you are, how old you are or how much you make, when your job is drudgery — a mostly joyless experience — it’s more difficult to perform. And when you are Pujols – wired to win, and defining success by winning – it had to be downer to be so irrelevant when the playoffs got underway.
When Pujols was released by the Angels and signed by the Dodgers last season, the happiness returned. And Pujols was recharged by playing in nine postseason games for the Dodgers before the team was eliminated by the Braves in the NLCS. And whatever he felt like as a Dodger – all good, all great – you can go ahead and double the magnitude of what he’s feeling now that he’s made his way back to his baseball home in St. Louis.
9) What Pujols is doing matters again … it matters very much. He’s with a winning team, a really good team. He’s headed to the postseason, to take the stage in October for the final time. And he’s up in the middle of everything as a big part of the Cardinal success. As an Angel, Pujols gradually lost day-to-day prominence. He was overlooked, and somewhat forgotten unless he set another record, or hit a milestone home run to get a brief flash of recognition on ESPN.
Now he’s back to being a leading man, commanding attention for all of the right reasons, and adding to his legacy in a profound way. Being named to the All-Star game – and doing well and having a ball as a Home Run Derby contestant – was an enriching adventure for Pujols. He was surrounded – and saluted – by MLB’s best players. Albert was back on that stage, and absorbed all of that love and respect coming from peers of every age.
This is no coincidence: since the All-Star break Pujols is batting .340 with a .395 OBP, .748 slug, 12 homers and a 1.142 OPS that ranks second in the majors to Aaron Judge.
Playing in games that mean something, and being included among the top players in the sport … well, that sure does bring out Pujols’ finest attributes as a player.
10) Pujols is reconnected in all phases. St. Louis. Cardinals. The Fans. Relationships that were built over his first 11 seasons here. And he’s reconnected in his previous standards as a performer, standing among the most feared hitters in the game again. This is a man of immense pride, and his confidence is at a peak level again.
Albert clearly draws emotional strength and purpose and added inspiration from his home base in St. Louis. He adores Cardinals fans. They revere him. The relationship has been rekindled in a beautiful way. It’s been an uplifting experience for Pujols, the fans and everyone who cares about the Cardinals. Pujols doesn’t need much (if any) motivation, but he didn’t want to let his people down.
No need to worry about that.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app which is available in your preferred app store.
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All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball Net and Spotrac.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.