In 2011, the final season of his first life with the Cardinals, Albert Pujols led the Cardinals to a third NL pennant and second World Series championship in his years as their monumental first basemen.
Here were are, 11 seasons later, and Pujols is trying to do it again at age 42. He’s more than a passenger. He’s flying the plane. He’s as important to the Cardinals now as he was in 2011. In the final weeks of his epic 22-season career, Pujols isn’t winding down. He’s cranked up. He isn’t breaking down. He’s an updated model of the classic Pujols version. The one that everyone remembers with fondness and love and is embracing all over again now that he’s reappeared.
Pujos is one of the best and most impactful hitters in baseball. Since July 10, among the 183 MLB hitters that have at least 185 plate appearances, Pujols leads the National League and is second overall to the Yankees’ Aaron Judge in homers (17), slugging percentage (.669), OPS (1.292) and wRC+ (190.)
That wRC+ figure – adjusted runs created – means that Pujols is 90 percent above the MLB average offensively. For the season in wRC+ he’s 41 percent above the major-league average as a hitter – his best rate since 2011. Just as his overall 2022 season slugging percentage (.524), OPS (.860) and OPS+ (145) are his highest since 2011.
Who does this?
Absolutely no one.
This would be like Brett Hull leaving the Blues, playing elsewhere for a long time, going into a precipitous decline, and returning at age 42 in a time machine to score 86 goals again … as he did in 1990-91 at age 26.
This would be like a hobbled Kurt Warner returning to a St. Louis NFL team at age 42 after a nomadic one-decade absence – and shockingly put up “Greatest Show” era numbers of 4,300 passing yards and 40 touchdown throws.
Not a chance. Impossible. Never. Except that Pujols is writing a stunning epilogue to end the story of his incredible and unique career.
Pujols isn’t “turning back the clock.” He’s busting the clock to pieces, with his bat reducing the time tracker to smithereens.
At the end of his career, he’s gone back to the early years of his career. This precious antique has increased in value in a way that no one anticipated.
It’s remarkable. And we’ll never see anything like this again. Yeah, Tom Brady is still a formidable quarterback at age 45, but he never lost form. Brady’s continuous career is something to behold, but he never deteriorated into mediocrity or lost effectiveness because of injuries. At no time has Brady been irrelevant. He didn’t have to make a comeback. He didn’t have to follow the kind of challenging and highly unlikely path that Pujols took in his journey back to St. Louis.
And here’s the thing: the Cardinals really need Pujols to be great. This is no longer just a bonus or a delightful surprise. If this was destined to be a nostalgia act, Pujols began reworking the script right before this season’s All-Star break.
The St. Louis has gone off the rails, and Pujols continues to pound important, timely, game-changing, winning home runs that compensate for the lineup weaknesses.
And more and more you get the feeling that the Cardinals will have to depend on Pujols to carry them in the postseason. He is fearless. He does waver under pressure. He craves big moments and delivers accordingly. He’s been doing it for more than two decades. And he’s doing it again.
In 15 postseason series for the Cardinals, a total of 74 games, Pujols batted .330 with a .439 OBP and .607 slug for a 1.046 OPS. The damage total included 18 doubles, 18 homers, 52 RBI, 48 walks and 54 runs.
I know it’s insane to think that The Machine is capable of generating those numbers again. OK, but now answer me this: how many among us genuinely believed Pujols would launch 21 home runs this season to become the fourth man in MLB history to hit 700 homers?
After his first 47 games this season Pujols had a .198 average, .333 slugging percentage and only four homers. But we all knew he would go from that to becoming the NL’s most dangerous slugger since July 10 … right? Sure!
How many among us would have predicted that Pujols in 2022 would post his best home-run rate since 2009? That’s based on the percentage of plate appearances that result in a home run. And Pujols current HR percentage of 6.3% would be the fourth-highest of his career. Ridiculous.
Do not set limitations for Pujols.
He doesn’t recognize them.
Remember how we all said – adamantly – that Pujols couldn’t hit right-handed pitching? And that manager Oli Marmol had to use Pujols, almost exclusively, against lefties? Shush.
In 116 plate appearances vs. righties since July 10, Pujols is hitting .257 with a .486 slug and .796 OPS and has clubbed six doubles and six homers against them. Based on wRC+, Pujols is 24 percent above league average vs. right-handers over that time.
His pattern of destroying low expectations has been in place since the very beginning, when he was chosen No. 402 overall in the 1999 MLB draft. In two-plus years, Pujols went from hitting in the lineup of Maple Woods Community College near Kansas City to being voted 2001 NL Rookie of the Year.
And now, in his final season, he came out of the woods at age 42 to produce one of the most improbable seasons in pro-sports history. An unbelievable season, really. Except this is Albert Pujols we’re talking about.
I loved what Ben Lindbergh wrote about Pujols this week at The Ringer.
“Although he’s not playing like a relic, Pujols is the last active link to a bygone baseball era. The oldest man in the majors entered the league the same season as QuesTec; he debuted before Moneyball, before PED testing, before the earliest public pitch-tracking data. He got one hit off of Mike Morgan, who made the majors in 1978. He’s lasted so long that he played in games with half the current managers in the majors; he’s his own (much younger) manager’s landlord.
“On the day Pujols hit his 700th, Rockies prospect Ezequiel Tovar played in his first big league game. Tovar was born after Pujols made his MLB debut, when Pujols—the first MLB player born in the 1980s—was just a tad older than Tovar is now. That’s the circle of major league life. It’s also the circle of Pujols’s career. He’s going out the way he came in: both better than anyone could have hoped, and just about better than anyone.”
Pujols has been around for so long, we can connect him to Hank Aaron in two easy steps thanks to Baseball Reference: Pujols was teammates with Cal Eldred in St. Louis in 2004, Eldred was teammates with Jim Gantner in Milwaukee in 1991, and Gantner was teammates with Aaron in Milwaukee in 1976.
As I wrote over the weekend, Aaron and Pujols are the only two hitters in major-league history with at least 3,000 hits, 700 homers and 2,000 RBI.
And with Albert Pujols, we’re still counting his numbers after basically counting him out earlier this season. And now we’re looking to Pujols to lead the Cardinals to another deep postseason run, just as he did so many times as a much younger player. If you’re a young fan who missed him the first time around in St. Louis, now you’re getting to see why Busch Stadium is packed with happy smiling people standing at attention when he walks to the plate. You’re seeing living history. This time the baseball gods have outdid themselves with their benevolence.
Thanks for reading …
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.