It was just last Sunday when Albert Pujols added yet another feat to his already impressive resume. Smashing his 697th career dinger over the wall at PNC Park to cement himself in the history books as one of the top four home run leaders of all time. It is no secret that "The Machine" once had the ability to dominate opposing pitchers and threaten to leave the yard at any moments notice throughout his career. But, his production has had a severe downfall since 2017, as the numbers have him being a below average hitter with an OPS+ below 100.*
The start to Pujols' 2022 campaign was no different. Through his first half (39 games started) Pujols had been having an up year despite his recent struggles. Part of that could be attributed to him playing in the Cardinal red again, or having a platoon role versus lefties. He had a slash line of .215/.301/.376. Not too bad for a guy who's halfway to 84 years old!
As the All Star Weekend was approaching there were rumors of Pujols participating in the Home Run Derby as it would be his last one. The courtesy vote into the derby proved to be worthwhile as he did pull his weight throughout the competition, advancing through the first round. It's a common thought of the boring baseball "old-heads" that the derby messes up your swing. But recent second halves post-derby beg to differ. In 2021, after his participation in the derby, Juan Soto said the event had played a big role in his incredible second-half success that led him to finishing second in NL MVP voting finishing with a .999 OPS.
Pujols' second half has been nothing short of a revival from his previous domination. Coming off the break, Pujols was 12 HRs away from passing Alex Rodriguez for the 4th most HRs of all-time. He got after that number in a hurry. He has looked liken his 2008 MVP self carrying the Cardinals to the playoffs. Since the derby, Pujols has a slash line of .340/.395/.748. Yeah, you read that right. MLB fans have been celebrating his incredible success, but few are skeptical whether his recent production has been legitimate.
The Machine played in a time with many superstars, like Robinson Cano, David Ortiz, and Manny Ramirez, who got caught up for being on the sauce. Pujols stayed out of trouble and kept his legacy clean. However, his incredible success of late does seem a little too good to be true.
I'm not hating on Pujols, I actually think he is the greatest player of my generation in his prime, and I constantly compare his stats to Trout's. But some of his home runs of late have been rather fishy.
Home run 694 is what stands out to me the most. I know Citizens Bank Park is a hitter friendly stadium but this just looks too easy. Ross Detwiler makes a perfect 0-2 pitch, even fooling the future 1st ballot Hall of Famer. Out in front of the pitch, Pujols throws his bat-head at the pitch out side the zone in what looks like an attempt to flick the ball to right field. Instead, the ball clears the wall to plate another 2 runs for the red birds.
Having been in the box at a high-level, I know that baseball does not work like that. You don't get rewarded for being off-time. Hitting is the hardest thing to do in sports, and everything needs to go well in order to succeed. Not only was he off- timing, but his pitch selection was poor AND his swing was not one in a position of power to drive the ball over the fence. As soon as I saw this moment live, I knew something was up..
Fast-forward to home run 697, a number that would grant him the 4th position on the all time home run leader list. Pujols decided to leave the yard for the 12th time in just 22 games started.
Pujols gets his 2-0 fastball on the upper third of the zone and does what he is known for, drives it in the air with backspin. However, in recent years it is no question that his power numbers are dwindling do to his strength declining. You would have never guessed that this was the case if you were a novice fan. He launches this ball back up the middle of the yard, in what Ken Griffey Jr. considers "Grown man territory" for a home run like he would in his prime. What sticks out the most is the sound of the bat. It sounded like a Perfect-Perfect from MLB the Show, unrealistic.
Though it seems like I am exploiting Pujols and his incredible farewell season, I don't mind it at all. As an avid baseball fan, I always catch myself tuning in to the Cardinals' games to watch The Machine achieve yet another record. Perhaps this is exactly what the MLB executives had in mind when they were putting together their master-plan to tamper with the baseballs being fed to Pujols. If so, it's safe to say they have been successful. This past week baseball's fanbase was buzzing about Pujols' record.
It's nothing new that the MLB has to pushed narratives in the past. The famous steroid-filled home run race between Mark McQuire and Sammy Sosa in 1998 quite possibly saved baseball when MLB Executives looked the other way when they knew about the foreign substances being taken because their views were up.
Looking at the MLB as a business, its hard to see why they wouldn't push these narratives. It's more profit when people tune into games and follow along with thew season. Though it may seem unethical to baseball purist, how could you blame them? I'm curious to see how Pujols' production is after reaching the historic 700 mark. What do you think?
*OPS+ takes a player's on-base plus slugging percentage and normalizes the number across the entire league. It accounts for external factors like ballparks. It then adjusts so a score of 100 is league average, and 150 is 50 percent better than the league average.