(This is an all Albert Pujols edition of the 10.5 because there's no reason to ruin the start of a perfectly good summer weekend by reminding everyone that last night the Cardinals lost their second game to an inferior opponent this week by making the last out on the basepaths because their most promising young pitcher was inexplicably...pinch-running?? Yeah, no reason at all.)
Albert Pujols debuted with the Cardinals in April of my senior year of college. I had never heard of him until that point. The internet wasn't what it is today and I wasn't much of a prospects person anyway, and I was about to finish school and had things to worry about besides baseball. But once the 2001 season started you couldn't miss Albert Pujols because he made his mark immediately. By the fifth game he was batting over .300 and had an OPS north of .950. There was a very early Sports Illustrated profile, if I recall. I was intrigued but suspicious. Maybe he was just our longform version of Tuffy Rhodes.
The season went on, however, and it became clear that what the Cardinals had in Pujols was unmistakable brilliance. After that fifth game, the average and OPS never dropped below those benchmarks from above, which was the sort of methodical dominance that we would come to expect during his eleven seasons in St. Louis. (His 1.013 OPS as a rookie is still the highest in the National League dating back to 1930.) I can't speak for opposing pitchers but I know for a fact his mere batting stance put fear into opposing fans.
This probably doesn't do it justice, but here's a wonderful still shot of Pujols in his classic stance at old Busch with the arches looming in the background from the 2005 NLCS, taken from a video posted in Ben Godar's piece on Pujols this week at Viva El Birdos.
I am now 40, and college feels like it was from another lifetime. Pujols it still around though and he will be playing in St. Louis tonight for the first time as a visitor. We are now the opposing fans who for so long were afraid to death of this guy. Only we're not because in many ways a lot of us are still rooting for him and, sadly, naturally, he just isn't that same guy any more. Every season spent in Anaheim would have easily been his worst in St. Louis, and that's a bummer. Not just for Angels fans but for anyone who can no longer easily remember in-his-prime Pujols. Prime Pujols was a beautiful thing. I never cared much for the "Machine" nickname but it was highly appropriate given his reliable excellence. He never had fewer than 634 plate appearances in a season while wearing the Cardinals uniform and his stats were reserved for inner-circle Hall of Famers.
The slash line
Albert Pujols was the master of the slash line. From 2001-2010, he hit .331/.426/.624, which is a phenomenal season let alone extrapolated over an entire decade. On Episode 33 of the Chirps podcast, guest Ben Cerutti mentioned that if you cherry-picked Pujols's worst batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging from these ten seasons, you'd be left with a still very impressive .312 (2010)/.394 (2002)/.561 (2002). Only three Cardinals who qualified for the batting title have exceeded a .312 batting average since Pujols headed west: Yadier Molina (.319 - 2013; .315 - 2012), Matt Carpenter (.318 - 2013), and Allen Craig (.315 - 2013). Only one Cardinal has had a better than .394 OBP: Tommy Pham (.411 - 2017). And not a single Cardinal has been able to equal or best a .561 slugging percentage since 2012.
As for MLB players who have been better than .312/.394/.561 across the board for a season since 2012, that list is as exclusive as you would expect (courtesy of Baseball Reference's Play Index).
And if we're going to cherry-pick his worst slash line stats over his first ten years then it seems fair to do the same for Pujols's best. That looks like this: .359 (2003)/.462 (2008)/.671 (2006). It goes without saying that no qualifying Cardinal has finished the season ahead Pujols in any of these categories and it will probably be a long time until that happens. Go back until the beginning of time and you'll only find a select few who have been better than this entire slash line in a season, and that only includes two players since Ted Williams, one of whom played at Coors and the other of whom is peak-absurd Barry Bonds.
The 2011 furious finish
I'm perhaps conveniently leaving out Pujols's last and 11th season with the Cardinals when he hit .299/.366/.541 and still had a wRC+ (147) that has only been bested by Tommy Pham's 148 in 2017. It was his worst season as a Cardinal but to put it another way, our worst version of Pujols was as good or better than anything we've had since. But I left out that season because ten years is a nice round number and 2011 was when there were first signs of a decline, perhaps exaggerated by a mid-season wrist injury.
The narratives from the 2011 season also eclipse Pujols in a lot of ways but there is one facet from that season that is probably overlooked. When the Cardinals needed to be the best team in baseball for the month of September to even have a chance at making the playoffs, Pujols casually hit .355/.393/.561, effectively saving their butts one last time. We all know what happened after that.
It felt like the Cardinals never missed the playoffs when Pujols was on the roster and that's nearly true. What is true is that they were never out of it in those years, even in the team injury-plagued, dreadful 2007 season, the Cardinals were just one game out of first as late as September 7. But they played enough extra baseball from 2001-2011, for Pujols to accumulate 321 postseason plate appearances and he had an OPS around 1.100. Somehow, I'm not sure that part of the Pujols legacy has been discussed enough. He was very good all of the time, especially when we needed him to be good.
Another reason I left out the 2011 season earlier is that he, as noted, finished with a .299 batting average. The only time he would fall below .300 as a Cardinal. (That he might finish his career with a career batting average below .300 feels like some sort of major injustice. He currently sits at .301.) But take a look at his first ten seasons in the bigs and pretend you're looking at the back of a baseball card. It's like looking at a Picasso or the tracklist for Blonde On Blonde. Batting average well over .300 every year. At least 30 home runs every season. At least 100 runs batted in and runs scored (with an exception of 2007 when he scored 99 runs, a fact that still grinds at me).
You've probably heard of the Maddux stat. A season batting above .300 with at least 30 home runs and 100 runs scored and batted in could appropriately be be called a Pujols. Pujols has nine such seasons to his name (damn you, 2007), matched by Barry Bonds and bested only by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Even Mike Trout struggled when he first arrived in the majors in 2011, but Pujols was elite the minute he stepped in a batter's box, and those first ten seasons are as near to perfect symmetry as you will find in baseball.
So welcome home, Albert. The Cardinals could not have been more lucky to have you.
Recent words written about baseball that are worth reading
Appreciation goes both ways for Pujols, Cards by Will Leitch of MLB.com. This explains very well the nuance of Pujols leaving, the feelings at the time by all sides, and why it's perhaps for the best that it took so long for him to return to St. Louis.
That will do it. Forget about last night and have a great weekend, everyone.