Albert Pujols is one of the five best hitters I've ever seen in my life. Barry Bonds, A-Rod, Mike Trout, and Ken Griffey Jr. being the others. Pujols has been around for so long now (his rookie year was 2001) that I don't think baseball fans remember how dominant he was for all those great years. It doesn't help that every year now we are moving farther and farther away from his prime, and that every year his 10 year, $240 million Angels contract looks worse and worse, but Pujols' apex was fucking incredible.
In the 10 year stretch from 2001 through 2010 Pujols hit at least .310 with 30 home runs and 100 RBIs in every single season. In nine of those 10 years he finished fourth or better in the National League MVP voting, which included three first place finishes and four second place finishes. According to this FiveThirtyEight article Pujols generated the third best ISO during this period (basically meaning he was the third best power hitter during this stretch). He also never struck out. From the same article of the ISO leaders from 2001 to 2010 you would have to scroll down to the 177th ranked player to find someone with as low a strikeout rate as Pujols.
That's what made "The Machine" so special. It was his combination of raw power and ability to hit for contact. He was so good at this rare combination of skills that his nickname suggests he literally wasn't human. Hence "The Machine". For the cherry on top Pujols was patient enough to take a walk when he didn't like any of the pitches thrown his way. In every year from 2004 through 2011 he walked more often than he struck out. In every single season during that time. That would be hard enough to do without hitting for power but Pujols hit 40 homers in six of those eight years.
If all of this wasn't enough, Pujols is/was an underrated incredible post-season hitter. So far he has played in 77 games covering 334 plate appearances, easily enough to qualify as a meaningful sample size. His triple slash line in his playoff career? .323/.431/.599. That's insane. He's also responsible for two of the most well known playoff moments from this century. The first was when he seemingly ruined Brad Lidge's career in the 2005 NLCS with this majestic moonshot:
However, his signature moment came in the 2011 World Series against the Rangers. Pujols and the Cardinals had already won a championship together in 2006 but there were plenty of rumors that the team wasn't going to re-sign him after 2011. Pujols then made the most of his final series with St. Louis, homering three times in game three of the Fall Classic, which the Cardinals went on to win in seven.
This was the height of Pujols' popularity in baseball. He was a World Series hero fresh off winning his second championship with the only team he had ever known. Then came "The Contract". Fair or not Pujols basically grabbed the money. It's tough to blame him. Maybe he wanted to move to the west coast, or just wanted a new challenge. But basically overnight the conversation around him shifted from how great he was to how overpaid he became. That conversation has only worsened as he has declined the past several seasons. From the time he left St. Louis through this 2017 season his strikeout rate has doubled and his walk rate has been cut in half.
So that takes us to present day. He's off to a poor start, slashing .232/.268/.361 with five home runs and 27 RBIs. His .371 slugging percentage is close to what his batting average used to be during the mid 2000s. Clearly this isn't the same player. While the strikeouts have risen and the walks haven't come as frequently Pujols has at least still hit homers at a respectable pace. This is a guy who as recently as 2015 hit 40 homers in a season. In his four healthy seasons with the Angels his home run totals have been 30, 28, 40, and 31. Now he is just four long balls away from becoming the ninth member of the 600 home run club.
As Pujols inches closer and closer to 600 there will be a lot written about what the milestone means, if it's a big deal, if it even matters anymore, etc. I would say it matters, particularly when you consider The Machine has done it without any steroid accusations, which is something that only half of the current 600 home run club can say. To put things in perspective the 37-year-old still has four more years left on his contract after 2017, which gives him a legitimate chance at 700 career home runs. So this may not be the last time we are celebrating him before his Hall of Fame induction. Those counting stats combined with his apex make The Machine one of the best 20 to 25 players in baseball history. It's time to start appreciating him more, despite how terrible his contract may be.