Albert Pujols could retire right this minute and get a head start on preparing his induction into the Hall of Fame in five years' time.
Pujols already had all the creds, and now he's part of a club Cooperstown is fond of: the 500 home run club.
The Los Angeles Angels slugger entered Tuesday night's contest against the Washington Nationals with 498 career home runs. He got No. 499 out of the way with a three-run blast down the left field line off Nats righty Taylor Jordan in the first inning. After that, it was one to go.
With Mike Trout on first base and nobody out in the fifth for Pujols' third at-bat of the night, there it went:
Cue the modern displays of celebration!
Here's one from the Angels:
#500!!!!!!!!!— Los Angeles Angels (@Angels) April 23, 2014
And us here at Bleacher Report:
Albert Pujols hits his 500th career home run. He is the first player to hit both 499 & 500 in the same game. pic.twitter.com/k37Dqmbkrj— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) April 23, 2014
With home run No. 500 in the bag, Pujols has become the 26th member of the 500 home run club. He has five more to go to pass Eddie Murray in the ranks.
It's a good bet that Murray won't be the only member of the club passed by Pujols. As the Angels found out from the Elias Sports Bureau, Pujols has gotten to 500 home runs more quickly than most:
According to @EliasSports, at 34 years and 96 days, Pujols is the third youngest player in ML history to hit 500 home runs.— Los Angeles Angels (@Angels) April 23, 2014
Now, it's actually not a given that Pujols' presence in the 500 home run club alone is good enough for a first-ballot ticket to the Hall of Fame. Of the 26 members of the 500 home run club, only 16 are already in the Hall of Fame. And somewhat amazingly, Mel Ott, Jimmie Foxx, Eddie Mathews and Harmon Killebrew were not first-ballot selections.
Regarding the members of the 500 home run club who aren't in yet, that's due to a mix of some not yet being eligible and other cases being clouded by performance-enhancing drug controversies.
But that's where things should work in Pujols' favor.
The worst PED controversy Pujols has been involved in resulted from former major leaguer Jack Clark making a flimsy accusation on the radio in 2013. After Pujols filed a defamation lawsuit, Clark eventually retracted his comments.
Perhaps some voters will be suspicious anyway when Pujols' time comes, but it will be hard to apply the same guilty-by-association logic that voters are currently applying to assorted steroid era stars. The bulk of Pujols' career has taken place in the testing era (since 2005), and he's never been caught.
The 500 home runs (and counting) on Pujols' record and the apparent legitimacy with which they've been acquired are two huge feathers in his cap. He has other numbers, though—some of which are far more impressive than his collection of home runs.
Entering Tuesday, this is where Pujols ranked on the all-time leaderboards:
Note: a minimum of 3,000 plate appearances was set for the rate stats.
If "OPS+" is one you haven't heard of before, that's a version of OPS that adjusts for parks and leagues, which makes it useful in comparing players from different eras. It's set on a scale where 100 is average and anything over 100 is above average.
As far as OPS+ is concerned, Pujols is one of the 10 greatest hitters of all time. And if we narrow it down to only right-handed hitters, we find that the top of the list looks like this:
- Rogers Hornsby: 175
- Albert Pujols: 165
In other words: When fans watch Pujols play, they're watching a player who's arguably the second-best right-handed hitter and one of the five best first basemen the game has ever seen.
All of this is to say nothing of Pujols' postseason resume from his time with the St. Louis Cardinals. That includes a 1.046 OPS in 74 games, 18 home runs and two World Series championships.
“He’s a once-in-a-generation player,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia told Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times. “There’s no doubt he’s the gold standard for what guys did not only in the batter’s box but in the field — he’s a Gold Glove first baseman. He’s put up incredible numbers.”
Granted, Pujols is presumably going to slow down and see his overall numbers take a hit as he gets older.
His OPS+, in particular, will be in danger of deflation, and it should be noted that there's not that big of a drop from Pujols being the second-best righty hitter ever and, say, the 10th-best righty hitter ever (Hank Aaron and Joe DiMaggio are tied for ninth all time at 155).
WAR, however, is a lot harder to lose, and the cushion between Pujols and Jeff Bagwell for fourth place on the all-time list for first basemen is a matter of 14.1 WAR. It's hard to imagine Pujols seeing that much WAR drop off his record in the years to come.
And I wonder if anybody would even care by the time Pujols' time comes. More voters might be willing to consider as many factors as possible, and there's one factor that says Pujols' place in history is secure no matter what.
Per Baseball-Reference.com, Pujols' WAR7—part of the Jaffe WAR Score System (JAWS) that simply adds a player's seven best seasons together—is 61.6. Once again, that puts him second behind first baseman Gehrig.
Put it all together, and Pujols' candidacy to be a first-ballot Cooperstowner is about as ironclad as these things get. His career has seen him join the 500 home run club, and seemingly on the level to boot. He's also established himself as one of the greatest hitters ever and a tremendous postseason performer, and no amount of decline is going to ruin just how dominant his peak years were.
And man has it been fun to watch.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.
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