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April 23, 2014

Overthinking It

Pujols Rewrites the Script

by Ben Lindbergh


Not long ago, it looked like Albert Pujols’ 500th home run, whenever it came, would at best be an opportunity for us to revisit the better days behind him. And that wouldn’t have been the worst thing, since Pujols’ past—thanks to his four-season streak of declines and his injury-shortened 2013—has already become chronically underappreciated.

Compare Pujols and the consensus top right-handed hitter du jour, Miguel Cabrera. The two were similarly productive at the plate in their best offensive seasons: Pujols posted a .373 True Average over 700 plate appearances in 2009, while Cabrera achieved a .372 mark in 652 PA last season. Scan the single-season TAv leaderboard, though, and you pass five more Pujols seasons before you get to Cabrera’s second strongest. Add in Pujols’ superior defense and better baserunning, and the gap between them grows: Pujols has had eight seasons that WARP says were worth more than Cabrera’s best.*

*Don't worry! I’m not trying to revive an MVP debate we’re all tired of talking about.

For most of the 25 men who made up the 500-homer club before Pujols went deep twice on Tuesday, making it to the milestone was a signal that the player was about to be past his sell-by date. If we assume that Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez have hit their last major-league home runs—a bigger assumption in A-Rod’s case—then on average, the members of the club (excluding Pujols) hit 585 homers. In other words, when they hit their 500th, they were, as a group, over 85 percent of the way to their career totals. Ernie Banks, Eddie Murray, Eddie Mathews, and Gary Sheffield, among others, called it quits just 200–300 plate appearances after limping across the finish line.

The 22 500-homer club members who played post-1950—everyone except Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, and Mel Ott—lingered on for an average of 407 games and 1601 plate appearances (about 2.5 full seasons) after striking the big blow. They triple-slashed a solid-but unspectacular .278/.368/.445, which was good enough to keep going but wouldn’t have gotten them close to where they were had they settled in at that level sooner. (Of course, I’m not adjusting for anything here: not seasonal offensive environment, not ballpark, not the fact that baseball superstars were once subject to the draft, not the atypical aging curve of the PED era.)

A month ago, it was easy to imagine Pujols easing into that kind of comfortable mediocrity, or worse, taking the next step in a decline that seemed to pick up pace with his injury issues and related performance deficits last season. Instead, with his formerly injured foot repaired and both his lower-half stability and balance largely restored, he’s seemingly rediscovered his swing and foot speed to the point that he no longer hobbles to first like a mix between Billy Butler and, well, a guy who has to have foot surgery. As it turns out, the ability to take steps without pain is probably pretty important.

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Related Content:  Albert Pujols,  500 Home Runs

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<< Previous Article
Premium Article What You Need to Know:... (04/23)
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Overthinking It: Lesso... (04/17)
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Overthinking It: The O... (04/24)
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The Lineup Card: 10 of... (04/23)

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