It was June 2001, the first half of the first season of a career nobody saw coming. Albert Pujols was back in Kansas City, Mo., where he had played two years earlier for a community college that had never produced a major league player. Now, as a St. Louis Cardinals rookie, he was somehow batting .350 with a lot of home runs. But how good was he, really?
“The feeling that day was that you’ve got this whole lineup of 10-year veterans coming at you — Mark McGwire, Jim Edmonds — so don’t let any of those guys beat you,” said Chad Durbin, who started that night for the Royals, recalling a scouting meeting with a coach. “Jamie Quirk told me, ‘I think your stuff is going to beat Pujols’ — and he didn’t even call him that, he pronounced it wrong. You just didn’t know much about him.”
The education was swift and convincing. Pujols singled twice before punishing a curveball for a homer in the ninth inning, spoiling Durbin’s chance for his first career complete game. It was the 20th career home run for Pujols on a journey that has lasted more than two decades.
“That home run off me is old enough to drink; it’s old enough to go order a beer at the bar,” said Durbin, who is 44 and has been retired for nine years. “I was doing good by baseball, though, just trying to help the game out. I did my part.”
Pujols has said he will retire at the end of this season, and on Friday he won his race against the end. He reached 700 career home runs by homering twice against the Dodgers in Los Angeles, joining the most exclusive home run neighborhood of all. Before Pujols, only Babe Ruth (in 1934), Hank Aaron (1973) and Barry Bonds (2004) had reached 700.
Bonds finished his career with the most homers, 762, followed by Aaron at 755 and Ruth at 714. But Pujols, in this age of specialization and supersized bullpens, has homered off more pitchers than anyone: 455.
“People ask me all the time: ‘Who’s the toughest hitter you ever faced?’” said Glendon Rusch, 47, who gave up three homers to Pujols in 40 career at-bats. “And I always say Albert. Especially when he was in his prime, he could do the most damage in the most different ways.”
Ruth spread his homers across 216 different pitchers, and Aaron across 310. Both sluggers retired long before the introduction of interleague play in 1997, midway through Bonds’s career. Bonds connected off 449 different pitchers, a mark Pujols reached on Aug. 22 against Drew Smyly of the Chicago Cubs.
“How he’s playing right now, he’s definitely a different Albert Pujols than what I saw when he was with the Angels,” Smyly said. “I never got a chance to face him when he was with the Cardinals early in his career, when he was just the most dominant player out there. But right now it feels as if he’s that guy again.”
Pujols is finishing with a flourish nearly as improbable as his rise at the start. Playing on a part-time basis in his farewell season, his .509 slugging percentage through Thursday was his highest since 2011, the final year of his first stint in St. Louis.
Pujols averaged more than 40 homers per year with the Cardinals from 2001 through 2011, slugging .617 overall. Then he left for a $240 million contract with the Angels, and averaged just 23 homers per year with a .448 slugging percentage across the 10-year deal. The Angels released him last May, and he finished the 2021 season with the Dodgers.
Yet while Pujols batted just .256 with the Angels — compared to .328 before that — his presence always loomed for opposing pitchers, especially with runners on base. Pujols, who trails only Aaron and Ruth on the career list for R.B.I., with 2,208, drove in at least 93 runs in six of his first eight seasons with the Angels.
“In the Anaheim days, obviously he didn’t hit for average, but I think R.B.I.s are a big thing, and he had over 100 R.B.I.s for a good stretch,” said the right-hander Taijuan Walker of the Mets. “He was always productive. He did his job to drive guys in, and that could be with a sac fly or a double he’d poke the other way. That’s what made it tough.”
Walker added his name to Pujols’s list with career home run No. 587 in September 2016. Walker, who was then with the Seattle Mariners, had held Pujols to one hit in 10 at-bats before then, but this was not his day.
“I don’t even know if I got an out — home run, home run, home run, hit the showers,” said Walker, who gave up three in a row and got only two outs in the first inning. “Albert finished it off for me. I think it was a fastball, left-center. It was pretty deep, too. I remember they said he couldn’t get to the fastball up, but he could get to it down, so I was trying to beat him up. And I think a lot of his home runs now are up.”
That was the pitch Smyly tried last month in the seventh inning of a scoreless game at Wrigley Field: a 1-2 fastball at 93 miles an hour, high above the outer half of the plate. Pujols swatted it into the first row of the left field bleachers for homer No. 693, the only run of the game. The pitch was 4.23 feet off the ground, according to Statcast, making it the second-highest pitch hit for a homer in the majors this season.
“Early in the game, though, I threw him a curveball down below the zone — and he hit that off the wall, too,” Smyly said. “He’s just locked in.”
Pujols broke another scoreless tie against the Cubs on Sept. 4 at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, lifting Brandon Hughes’s fastball for a towering drive over the left field bullpen in the eighth inning. Hughes, a rookie, insisted that Pujols’s résumé made no difference to him — “I don’t put a name on a hitter when I’m out there,” he said — but he clearly knew Pujols’s history.
“I’m from Detroit, so we lost to the Cardinals,” said Hughes, who was 10 years old when Pujols led St. Louis to the 2006 World Series title. “I say ‘we,’ because I was a Tigers fan growing up.”
Pujols homered to right field off Justin Verlander in Game 1 of that World Series, demonstrating a trait he is known for. Among the many pitchers he has beaten for homers are some of the best to ever take the mound.
“Jim Leyland mentioned this when I was in Detroit with him: ‘Albert Pujols and those guys, they hit really good pitching really well,’” Durbin said, referring to the former Tigers manager. “That’s what I think about with Albert: he hit good, quality pitches really hard — and then when you made mistakes, he punished those. And that’s the difference between the guys that have a .280 career average with 350 home runs, which is a heck of a career, and a guy like him.”
Ace pitchers from the last decade often confounded Pujols; Corey Kluber and Chris Sale have combined to hold him to three hits in 44 at-bats, with just one home run (off the left-handed Sale in 2012).
But consider this bigger collection of mostly retired standouts, a group with 23 Cy Young Awards among them: Roger Clemens, Tom Glavine, Randy Johnson, Clayton Kershaw, Greg Maddux and Johan Santana. Pujols smashed 10 homers off them — including five off Johnson — while batting a combined .367.
A .367 average is one point better than the highest career mark in history, by Ty Cobb. So while Pujols will always symbolize slugging, remember that power was only part of the package.
Against Clemens, Glavine, Johnson, Kershaw, Maddux and Santana, he was even better than Cobb.