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Albert Pujols Is Having A Send-Off For The Ages

Perhaps a homecoming was all he needed.

“I think I’m here for a reason,” Albert Pujols had said back in March, upon rejoining the St. Louis Cardinals — the franchise he’d spent his first 11 seasons with — after a decade away. “They believe I can still play this game, and they believe I can help this organization win a championship.”

While the championship part is still anyone’s guess (the Cardinals have a 3 percent chance to win it all, according to the FiveThirtyEight forecast), Pujols was right about still being able to play. Yes, he is 42 now — almost twice as old as some of his teammates — and he declared before the season that 2022 would be his last. But Pujols is going out with nothing less than a performance for the ages.

There are the raw accomplishments Pujols has been tallying, such as passing Stan Musial for No. 2 on the all-time total bases list,1 or his bid to become just the fourth member of the 700-home run club in baseball history — leapfrogging Álex Rodríguez in the process. (Through Sunday, Pujols needed five more homers to pass A-Rod and eight more to hit the 700 mark.) There are also the special moments Pujols has created this season, not least of which was a Cinderella run to the semifinal of July’s home run derby before narrowly losing to eventual winner (and fellow Dominican) Juan Soto.

But what’s most incredible about Pujols’s farewell season is just how Vintage Pujols it has been. No, his batting average (.273) isn’t what it used to be (.297 for his career). Remarkably, though, Pujols’s OPS+ this season (146) is slightly higher than his career number (144) — the mark of one of the greatest mixes of power and patience the game has ever seen. Among batters with at least 200 plate appearances in a season at age 40 or older, Pujols’s OPS+ this season ranks eighth; among 42-year-olds, it trails only Barry Bonds’s 2007 figure:

Pujols is having one of baseball’s greatest old-guy seasons …

Best OPS+ for MLB batters in their age-42 season or older

Player Season Age Team PA OPS+
Barry Bonds 2007 42 SFG 477 169
Albert Pujols 2022 42 STL 227 146
Tony Pérez 1985 43 CIN 207 138
Cap Anson 1894 42 CHC 394 135
Carlton Fisk 1990 42 CHW 521 134
John Henry Lloyd 1929 45 NLG 245 128
Luke Appling 1949 42 CHW 619 125
Honus Wagner 1916 42 PIT 485 121
Joe Start 1885 42 PRO 413 121
Andrés Galarraga 2003 42 SFG 293 118

Minimum 200 plate appearances. Through games of Aug. 21.

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

As far as career goodbyes go, Pujols is also going out in a style few players have ever managed to pull off. Ted Williams hit for a ridiculous 190 OPS+ at age 41 in 1960, which is the best mark ever by a qualified hitter in his final season.2 (It also included a home run in Williams’s final at-bat, memorably chronicled by John Updike in the New Yorker: “Gods do not answer letters.”) In more recent memory, the gold standard for final campaigns was set by future Hall of Famer David Ortiz, who at age 40 in 2016 had an OPS+ of 164 and finished sixth in MVP voting. While Pujols hasn’t quite been as good as the Splendid Splinter or Big Papi were — he is a bit older, after all — his OPS+ currently ranks sixth-best among qualified hitters in their swan songs, as fitting a career finale as we could imagine for The Machine.

… and one of its greatest career finales

Best OPS+ for batters in their final MLB season, age 35 or older

Player Season Age Team PA OPS+
Ted Williams 1960 41 BOS 390 190
Lester Lockett 1948 36 BEG 255 170
Barry Bonds 2007 42 SFG 477 169
Joe Adcock 1966 38 CAL 265 167
David Ortiz 2016 40 BOS 626 164
Albert Pujols 2022 42 STL 227 146
Will Clark 2000 36 BAL/STL 507 145
Mickey Mantle 1968 36 NYY 547 143
Henry Kimbro 1948 36 BEG 270 141
Brian Downing 1992 41 TEX 391 138

Minimum 200 plate appearances. Through games of Aug. 21.

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

Finally, it has to be noted just how unlikely a Pujols renaissance seemed. Pujols’s performance after leaving St. Louis for the Los Angeles Angels in 2012 was mainly memorable for how underwhelming it was. In fact, Pujols would become the worst statistical player in all of MLB at one point. His OPS+ in the five years leading up to 2022 was a dismal 87, meaning he was 13 percent worse at the plate than an average hitter — an unthinkably bad run for a player who had been 77 percent better than average during his best five seasons, roughly a decade earlier. All of that makes Pujols’s resurgence this season just as unthinkable: Compared with the previous five seasons, his OPS+ is up a staggering 59 points in 2022.

That makes Pujols just one of 33 batters in history to ever improve by so much in a season, among players with at least 200 plate appearances that year and 2,000 in the previous five years. And his list of comparable seasons gets a lot shorter when we account for the fact that Pujols was: a) below-average in his previous five years (that leaves out guys like Bonds, who were already good and got way better), and b) quite old at the time of his turnaround. Before Pujols, only seven batters had improved on a subpar OPS+ by 50 or more points during their thirties, and none was nearly as old as Pujols is now:

Pujols’s resurgence came out of nowhere

Largest single-season improvement in OPS+ over a player’s previous five seasons, age 30 or older

Player Season Age PA OPS+ PA OPS+ Diff.
Lonnie Smith 1989 33 577 168 2,093 97 +71
Bret Boone 2001 32 690 153 2,913 82 +70
Albert Pujols 2022 42 227 146 2,138 87 +59
Zack Cozart 2017 31 507 140 2,483 81 +58
Terry Pendleton 1991 30 644 139 2,859 84 +55
Bob Dernier 1987 30 220 128 2,141 76 +52
Monte Cross 1905 35 298 114 2,750 63 +51
Carlos Ruiz 2012 33 421 149 2,086 99 +50
Jose Hernandez 2004 34 238 137 2,809 89 +49
Cookie Rojas 1971 32 463 118 2,792 70 +48

To qualify, a player needed to have at least 200 plate appearances during the season in question, at least 2,000 plate appearances and an OPS+ below 100 over the previous five seasons. Through games of Aug. 21.

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

It’s a list littered with one-year wonders, late bloomers and talented players with checkered backstories. But none sniffed the status of Pujols before his late-career slide. This was a bona fide, first-ballot Hall of Famer who fell on hard times over a period of multiple seasons, was cut by the Halos before his mega-contract ended, did little of note in a brief stint with the Dodgers in 2021 and was well on the wrong side of 40 at the time of his St. Louis homecoming. Aside from the situational ability to hit left-handed pitching, Pujols had shown zero signs that his final stint with the Cardinals would be anything but ceremonial.

And yet, here he is, performing far better than a mere figurehead, with a particularly scorching 1.428 OPS since the All-Star break. “The organization never closed the door on me, and I never closed the door, either,” Pujols said of the Cardinals during spring training. Maybe that mutually welcomed return was all he needed to rediscover the form that brought him so much success earlier in his long and storied career.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Trailing only Henry Aaron.

  2. Among those in their age-35 season or older who had at least 200 plate appearances.

Neil Paine is the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

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