It's only been a couple of days since Albert Pujols joined Babe Ruth, Henry Aaron and Barry Bonds in Major League Baseball's hallowed 700 home run club. You can expect the wait for the next new member to last not days, weeks, months or even years, but decades.
Is this stating the obvious? Yeah, this is probably stating the obvious.
Decades is the typical waiting period for new 700 home run club members, after all. Ruth was the founding member in 1934. It then took about 40 years for Aaron to gain his membership in 1973, followed by 31 for Bonds in 2004 and then 18 for Pujols this year.
An optimist could look at this and see that the wait times are getting smaller. Yet we'd advise not to read too much into that, as neither the general conditions in MLB right now nor the league's list of active home run leaders points to anyone getting to 700 any time soon.
How the 700 HR Club Came to Be
As the four members of the club can attest, there's no one way for a hitter to reach 700 career home runs.
Ruth, Aaron, Bonds and Pujols effectively took three different paths to 700, which we've visualized here:
The stories are in the trendlines, which display similar trajectories for Ruth and Bonds and different ones for Aaron and Pujols.
The first two mostly backloaded their home runs after the age of 30, with Ruth hitting 430 of his 714 and Bonds hitting 503 of his 762. By contrast, Pujols front-loaded his best homer-hitting years by clubbing 366 of his 700 as a 20-something in the first nine seasons of his 22-year career. Then there's Aaron, who really was as consistent as they say:
- First 11 Seasons: 366 HR
- Last 12 Seasons: 389 HR
Aaron's way is certainly the recommended path to 700 home runs, if for no other reason than consistency is never a bad way to go about anything. But if it's a question of which is the most practical route to 700 in the modern MLB, signs point to the Pujols way.
These specifically relate to which hitters are getting more plate appearances and hitting more home runs. There's a long-standing advantage for under-30 hitters relative to over-30 hitters in both regards, yet it's only been getting more pronounced in recent years:
Granted, it wasn't that long ago that over-30 hitters enjoyed a renaissance in the 1990s and 2000s. Though Bonds was ultimately the poster boy for it all, it wasn't uncommon for 30-somethings to be producing 30-plus home runs in those years.
Of course, there were reasons for this. Expansion years in 1993 and 1998 theoretically thinned out the league's pitching. There might also have been a juiced ball in play. One thing that's for sure is that the use of performance-enhancing drugs was widespread, allegedly—or definitely, per his lawyer—including by Bonds.
The outlawing of PEDs in 2005 helps explain why the lines for under- and over-30 hitters have diverged of late, but there's also more to the story. Teams simply value young talent more nowadays. And at least in theory, youthful athleticism is helpful with hitting the high-octane fastballs and swing-and-miss breaking balls that have proliferated in recent years.
In any case, the current state of these trendlines indicate that if a modern hitter is going to make a run at 700, he'd better make like Pujols and get started early.
The Next Member of the 700 HR Club Probably Isn't Active Right Now
So, are there any promising Pujols pursuers among active players?
At least relative to the pace that got the St. Louis Cardinal and erstwhile Los Angeles Angel to the 700 home run club, no.
Here's a look at the top 25 active home run hitters in MLB right now, ordered from youngest to oldest and compared to where Pujols' home run count was at that age:
Apart from the one belonging to Pujols, the tallest blue line on this graph represents Miguel Cabrera's 506 home runs. An impressive figure, no doubt, but still 194 away from 700. That many home runs after his age-39 season would be a tall enough order even if his power wasn't already long gone. Alas, he has all of 60 home runs to show for his last six seasons.
Rather, the best hopes here are represented in 31-year-old Mike Trout's 347 home runs and 32-year-old Giancarlo Stanton's 375 home runs. Though neither is keeping pace with Pujols, both are in "close enough" territory.
Nevertheless, neither player is on his best pace any longer. Stanton was only 14 home runs off Pujols' rate through his age-28 season in 2018, whereas Trout was three ahead by the end of his age-27 season in 2019. The shortened 2020 season contributed to both fading in their respective pursuits, with injuries being still another factor.
Indeed, it is only among the 23-and-under crowd that we finally find some legitimate hopefuls.
One is Juan Soto, whose 124 home runs since his debut at age 19 in 2019 put him 10 ahead of where Pujols was at the same age. The other is Vladimir Guerrero Jr., whose 102 homers since his age-20 debut in 2019 put him just 12 behind Pujols.
Each of them would have to average about 35 home runs per year through their age-40 season to have a shot at 700. Doable in theory? Maybe.
But in reality, Soto and Guerrero have all of one 35-homer season between them just in their seven non-shortened years in the majors. Or, half as many as Pujols had between his age-21 and -23 seasons from 2001-03.
Even setting aside the numbers, Soto and Guerrero also come with what we'll call "conceptual concerns" as long-term power threats.
Soto is only going to have so many at-bats for home runs if he keeps walking 20-plus percent of the time. And while Guerrero has proved that he can get in shape when he needs to, he almost certainly won't find it as easy to do so in his 30s as it was in his 20s.
This Doesn't Mean the Next 700 HR Guy Isn't Out There Somewhere
To be sure, there are other young 700 home run club hopefuls who deserve mentioning.
Ronald Acuña Jr., for example, is at 118 home runs through his age-24 season even in spite of the shortened 2020 campaign and an early exit from 2021 by way of an ACL tear. And while Fernando Tatís Jr. will have been absent for more than a year when he returns from his PED suspension next year, he had previously clubbed 81 homers through his age-22 season.
And yet, we still come down on the side of there not being a truly good bet for 700 career home runs among MLB's current crop of star sluggers. They're all talented in a vacuum. But when compared to Pujols, they merely serve as reminders of just how historically special he was early in his career.
But lest anyone think we're advocating that there will never be another player to hit 700 home runs, well, two things.
For one, "never" is too long of a time to take any absolute for granted. For two, we can only be so pessimistic in light of this:
As much as it might seem like home runs are a strictly modern phenomenon, the truth is that they've been growing in frequency for a very long time. There's basically been no going back since Ruth broke his own home run record by a full 25 dingers back in 1920.
If home runs continue to not go away, then there's always going to be ample space in Major League Baseball for home run hitters. Many will be good. A select few will be great.
Eventually, there's bound to be at least one who will become as legendary as Ruth, Aaron, Bonds and Pujols.