It is almost a foregone conclusion that, barring catastrophic failures, Alex Rodriguez will replace Barry Bonds as baseball’s all-time home run leader. After he does, however, is there any other current player with a realistic chance of reaching 784 (Rodriguez’s projected total) and beyond?
Could that player be Albert Pujols?
Possibly, but it’s not likely.
Pujols is the greatest player of his generation and one of the best players of all time. He does everything—hits for average and power, fields his position and is a leader on and off the field. He has already won a World Series championship, has not been scarred by baseball’s steroid scandal or any other issues.
In a world that is filled with controversy Pujols has risen above it all and become baseball’s Mr. Perfect. He just won’t be its career home run champion no matter how quickly he is climbing the ladder now. Likely he will not reach second, third or even fourth on the all-time list. Fifth place, slightly ahead of Willie Mays, is where Pujols will finish up, struggling near the end of his career and failing to reach 700 home runs.
Sure Pujols has the ability, the power and the greatness to get there. He has all the tools and should have the opportunity to chase Bonds and Rodriguez. However he cannot fight the one obstacle surely to get him as it has gotten countless others: Father Time. There is simply not enough time left in Pujols’ great career to reach that hallowed mark.
He is 31 years old and has slugged 408 home runs; he is 354 shy of Bonds and 376 away from Alex Rodriguez’ projected total. With eight to 10 years left—only four of them prime—does Pujols have enough time left to nearly double his already monstrous home run total? No, and history proves that.
In the careers of baseball players, age 35 has proven to be a pivotal year. A player's career can often be broken down into three categories: the younger years (from their debut up to age 26), the prime years (ages 27 through 34) and the decline (35 and beyond). Baseball’s top 20 career home run leaders have combined for 11,941 home runs. They have also hit 78 percent, or 9,347 of those home runs, before the season in which they turned 35.
Only three players in history have even topped 200 after that pivotal year (Bonds, 284; Hank Aaron, 245; Rafael Palmeiro, 208). In the non-steroid eras no player has ever increased their average home run production after turning 35. (Babe Ruth did, as his yearly average up to age 35 is skewed by spending his first five seasons primarily as a pitcher, and only coming to the plate a combined 678 times.)
Alex Rodriguez is 35 years old this year and has 613 career home runs. His production, whatever caused it, has been declining since his 31st birthday. Breaking his career into five-year trends shows exactly what history teaches us. He is very good at first, averaging 38.6 home runs per season, and then he’s great, running his average season total up to 48 and then very good again, duplicating his 38.6 number for the next five seasons. Breaking it down further, into three-year trends, Rodriguez’s production begins at 33.6 home runs per season, reaches a high of 46.6 and then begins falling again, reaching as low as 31.6 home runs per season as the steady, inevitable decline begins.
Following the same trends Rodriguez has set for himself, he will see his three-year arcs fall from 31.6 to 30.9 to 21.4 before finally finishing off his career with the lowest total of his career, 14, in his final season, 2017. He will have passed Bonds a year or two before, but will not reach 800. Sadahaur Oh’s world record of 868 from the Japanese league is not in jeopardy.
Albert Pujols begins his 11th season of major baseball at age 31 and he has 408 career home runs. That is 56 fewer than Rodriguez had when he began play in the season he turned 31.
Pujols’ three-year trends are also similar, beginning at 41.3 home runs per season his first three years and peaking at 45.3. He hasn’t reached Rodriguez’s season high (57), but he hasn’t bottomed out as low (23) either. Pujols has been more consistent and should remain so, but even he cannot fight time. Eventually the decline, as seen by every other player to play the game, will begin and that day is approaching faster than any of us realize.
Rodriguez’s decline may have been sped up by mitigating factors—steroids, the degenerative hip problem he had surgery to repair a few seasons ago—Pujols may or may not face in his career. Following Rodriguez’s career decline rate and projecting Pujols’ may not be perfectly accurate, but it’s worth comparing Pujols against his contemporaries rather than against the likes of Willie Mays (who hit only 134 of his 660 career home runs after turning 35) or Frank Robinson (who hit 111 of his 586 home runs after age 34) or any other player from decades before. And Rodriguez’s production has not fallen completely, the way Ken Griffey Jr.’s did because of all the injuries he suffered.
If Pujols suffers the same type of decline rate that Rodriguez has experienced his three-year trends will fall from 39.3 home runs per season to 27.1 to 26.3 to 18.1 to his final season in which he hits 13 (I’m giving Pujols another 10 years of play, as that is apparently the length of contract he is looking for). That will leave Pujols with a career home run total of 633, only good for sixth all time.
However since Pujols may not face some of the issues Alex Rodriguez has, his decline rate may be slower. Giving Pujols the benefit of the doubt and assuming he keeps up his production longer, we can cut his decline rate in half, giving him the three-year home run trends that follow: 39.3 to 33.4 to 32.6 to 27.7 to 22 in his final year, at age 30. That gives Pujols a healthy total of 742 home runs, within striking distance of Bonds and just 43 shy of breaking the all-time mark. He may hang around, even with dwindling skills and a body breaking down, to attempt to reach the biggest number in sports.
More likely however Pujols will see his decline fall somewhere in between the two arcs listed, so let’s split the difference and say he finishes with 688 home runs—good enough for elite status, a place in Cooperstown, but not within striking distance of baseball immortality.