ST. LOUIS — Ask anyone in the Cardinals clubhouse about Albert Pujols’ mash dash toward becoming only the fourth player in MLB history to reach 700 career home runs and you’ll hear an answer something like this one, from Jack Flaherty.
“Everybody’s caught up on the chase for 700, as we all should be and it’s special to watch, it’s been unbelievable to see, but every one of those has been big, and important,” Flaherty said. “It’s not like we’re just giving him at-bats to get to 700. This dude’s coming up big. Every time he gets up there, he’s producing. That’s what’s most impressive.”
It’s cool to hear that from one of Pujols’ teammates.
But is that really true? Because, let’s be honest, that would make a wonderful subplot to what’s already an incredible final-season tale, the kind of run fitting for the last playing days of a superstar who will be an easy “yes” on the Hall of Fame ballot the first year he’s eligible. And if you’ve only been paying attention with MLB Network snippets or highlights on social media, it’s only natural to be skeptical, to wonder whether the story is being amplified a bit.
So, have the home runs mattered as much as the Cardinals say they have?
Turns out (SPOILER!), they have. Pujols’ run of clutch has been rather incredible. Here’s a fun fact: The Cardinals are 15-1 when Pujols homers this season.
Starting with his breakthrough game in Colorado on Aug. 10 — 4-for-5 with a homer and two runs scored — he’s been one of the better right-handed hitters in the sport. Against lefties, you’d be hard-pressed to find an argument for anyone being better.
Heading into that game, Pujols had been good, not great. Nobody would call his signing a disappointment — the “feel-good” meter in St. Louis was high — but he was heading into mid-August with only seven homers, needing 14 more to reach 700. It did not seem likely. But since then? He’s batting .356 with 12 homers, 28 RBIs and a 1.168 OPS in 120 plate appearances vs. lefties this season. Yeah, that’ll play.
Let’s take a look at all 12 of his homers starting with the day in Colorado, to appreciate just what he’s done when it matters most for the Cardinals.
We’ve included the advanced metric WPA, which stands for Win Probability Added. The definition, from MLB.com: “WPA quantifies the percent change in a team’s chances of winning from one event to the next. It does so by measuring the importance of a given plate appearance in the context of the game.”
As for context, let’s look to Aaron Judge. He’s had three walk-off home runs this year, with WPAs of .796 (three-run homer, down by two runs), .424 (solo homer, tie game) and .360 (three-run homer, tie game). He also has three leadoff homers this year, with WPAs of .106, .097 and .097. So the more important the situation, the higher the WPA when a hit is delivered. Make sense?
We’ll start with the now and work our way backward.
Sept. 16 vs. Reds; 19th season, 698th career
Situation: Behind, 2-4, bottom 6. Two-run homer, ties game. As DH
Thoughts: The importance here is obvious. Pujols’ home run tied the game in the sixth inning, and the Cardinals would go on to win, 6-5.
“It’s really cool to be a part of this, to be on base and witnessing him, it’s seriously one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen,” said Nolan Arenado, who was on second base. “And the fans get so fired up. It’s cool to see them anticipating something good happening, and then when it does, it’s pretty cool.”
Flaherty, who started that game, just laughed, then tried to sum it up.
“He’s being Albert,” he said.
Sept. 11 @ Pirates; 18th season, 697th career
Situation: Behind, 2-1, top 9. Two-run homer, puts STL ahead. As 1B
Thoughts: Again, as home runs go, popping a two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth is pretty darn clutch. But, as Marmol pointed out, it wasn’t just that he hit a home run, but where he hit the home run — to center field, with no outs and a runner on second base — that was an indication of what Pujols is doing at the plate.
“He was legitimately trying to execute a strategic at-bat of the game,” Marmol said. “He was looking to move the runner, trying to use the big part of the field from second base on over to right, and he just happens to be a very strong human and it leaves the park. But his approach was, ‘I need to use the big part of the field, move the runner over and let the guy behind me do his job.’ He gets a pitch out over and he leaves the park. But you could see the intent.”
Sept. 10 @ Pirates; 17th season, 696th career
Situation: Behind 1-3, top 6. Two-run homer, ties game. As 1B
Thoughts: From time to time, Marmol can’t help but think back to the first phone conversation he had with Pujols this spring, when the player and the club were talking about a reunion for the final season of his career.
“He was very adamant, ‘I have one more productive year in me that I can help contribute, and I want to come back.’” Marmol said, laughing. “If this is his description of contributing, I’m in on that.”
And moments like this home run make Adam Wainwright think back a bit, too, but further back than Marmol.
“That’s what he does. That’s what he’s always done,” said Wainwright, who was teammates with Pujols from 2005 to 2011, a run that included two World Series titles (though Wainwright was injured in 2011). “I tell those stories all the time, and now they really believe me, I think. They were like, ‘Yeah, right, he’s not THAT much better than so-and-so.’ And I’m like, ‘Just know that this is what he did all the time. This is him.’”
This is, essentially, history repeating itself.
Sept. 4 vs. Cubs; 16th season, 695th career
Situation: Tied, 0-0, bottom 8. Two-run homer, puts STL ahead. As PH
Thoughts: Spoiler, but this was the second time in a couple of weeks that Pujols hit a home run against the Cubs late in the game when the score was tied 0-0. This one came as a pinch-hitter, replacing Lars Nootbaar — the leadoff batter in the lineup — in the eighth inning.
It’s not like he replaced the No. 7 or 8 batter. Marmol saw an opportunity to use Pujols in a situation against a left-handed pitcher in an important moment, and he never hesitated.
“It’s balancing what’s scarier for the opposition,” Marmol said a few days later, “me being able to pick my spots with the best matchup (as a pinch-hitter) they don’t have an answer for, or them being able to match up with him based on him being in the initial lineup.”
And, of course, Pujols delivered. The Cardinals won 2-0.
Aug. 29 @ Reds; 15th season, 694th career
Situation: Ahead, 6-0, top 3. Two-run homer, extends STL lead. As 1B
Thoughts: The least-impactful home run of this stretch. Still, an impressive opposite-field home run. But, moving on …
Aug. 22 @ Cubs; 14th season, 693rd career
Situation: Tied, 0-0, top 7. Solo homer, gives STL lead. As 1B
Thoughts: The wind was blowing in at Wrigley, and nobody could get the ball to leave the ballpark. Except Pujols, who clubbed a fastball way above the zone over the ivy and into the Wrigley bleachers.
“You’re not supposed to make contact with that pitch,” Marmol said with a grin.
Aug. 20 @ Diamondbacks; 13th, 692nd career
Situation: Behind, 0-2, top 2. Solo homer, cuts STL deficit to one. As DH
Aug. 20 @ Diamondbacks; 12th season, 691st career
Situation: Behind, 2-4, top 4. Solo homer, cuts STL deficit to one. as DH
Thoughts: We’ll combine these two, both off Madison Bumgarner. The final score of the game — a 16-7 win for the Cardinals — doesn’t tell the story of Pujols’ two homers. As you can see, both came with the Cardinals trailing, and St. Louis held a slim one-run lead going into the ninth, when they scored eight runs to turn the game into a blowout.
“He’s not just hitting home runs in meaningless situations,” Marmol said earlier this week. “He’s contributing to our wins. The home runs are coming in tie games to put us up, late innings, pinch-hit, grand slams. It’s Albert chasing 700 while chasing a playoff spot. It’s meaningful. It all goes hand-in-hand.”
Aug. 18 vs. Rockies; 11th season, 690th career
Situation: Ahead, 6-0, bottom 3. Grand slam, extends STL lead to 10-0. As PH
Thoughts: Marmol still smiles about this one. Yes, the score was already 6-0 and it was just the third inning, but the aggressiveness shown by the manager — pinch-hitting in the third inning, replacing the No. 2 batter in the lineup! — was rewarded.
“He’s been killing lefties,” Marmol said after the game. “The game’s never over, but you can put the game away there with a good swing. Thought it was good to get the crowd engaged. We felt good about it.”
For good reason.
Aug. 14 vs. Brewers; 10th season, 689th career
Situation: Ahead, 3-4, bottom 8. Three-run homer, extends STL lead to 6-2
Aug. 14 vs. Brewers; 9th season, 688th career
Situation: Behind, 0-2, bottom 2. Solo homer, cuts STL deficit to one
Thoughts: Again, what else is there to say? The Cardinals won the game, 6-3, and Pujols had two homers and four RBIs in the contest.
“We’re just kind of living in his shadow right now, which is where we should be,” Wainwright said a few days later. “He’s incredible.”
Aug. 10 at Rockies; 8th season, 687th career
Situation: Ahead, 7-2, top 6. Solo homer, extends STL lead to 8-2
Thoughts: The homer itself wasn’t significant. What it sparked, though?
Pretty darn historic.