Will Pujols hit No. 700?

Albert Pujols

Albert Pujols
Photo: Getty Images

There’s no one on Earth hotter than Albert Pujols right now. In his last 10 games, Pujols is slugging 1.258. That is the second-highest mark of his career over any 10-game stretch, beaten only by his slugging percentage between August 6 and August 21 of this year: 1.259. Basically, at 42 years old. The Machine is having arguably the best hitting stretch of his career. Since the start of August, Pujols leads all big leaguers with at least 40 plate appearances in slugging percentage… by more than 300 points — 1.083 for Pujols; .779 for second-place Paul Goldschmidt. He also leads MLB in on-base percentage, batting average, weighted runs created-plus, isolated power, and he’s tied for the league lead in home runs in that span. That last number is the most important. With just 41 games left in the regular season, Pujols needs seven more dingers in order to become the fourth member of the 700 club. What are the odds he gets there?

Well, at his current pace, he should get there before the end of September, but that’s not realistic. In order to appropriately determine where Pujols will end the season on the all-time home run leaderboards, we need to look at a couple factors.

  1. The likelihood that the Cardinals will face left-handed pitching down the stretch. This year, against right-handed pitchers, Pujols is slugging just .600. That’s awful. Against southpaws, Pujols is slugging 1.242, which is 232 points higher than Aaron Judge is slugging against lefties. So, if Pujols is going to reach 700 dongs, a hefty amount of lefties on the starting docket should be the first thing we look at. Sure, Pujols can still pinch-hit against lefties late in games, but those at-bats would be too far and few between.
  2. Pujols has only played in about 60% of Cardinals’ games this season. I’ll try to look at every possibility of his prominence in the lineup in these final 41 games, but the main points of emphasis will be how soon the Cardinals secure a playoff spot and division title. If they have nothing to play for other than playoff seeding, I’d imagine the Cardinals would give Pujols every chance they could offer for him to reach his milestone. If they don’t secure a playoff spot soon, they’d likely push Pujols’ home run chase aside in favor of playing the people that will help them win.
  3. Home run regression. Sure, at his current pace, Pujols would reach 700 even if he only got one plate appearance per game. The more likely scenario is that Pujols starts falling back to Earth more in line to where he was earlier in the season. That said, if Pujols gets a bunch of lefties lined up and is given a hefty amount of opportunities at the plate, he could still reach 700 even if his at-bats per home run mark regresses.

Today, the Cardinals continued their 5-game series against the Chicago Cubs with a double-header. According to mlb.com, three of the four Cubs’ probable pitchers are righties (Javier Assad, Adrian Sampson, and Marcus Stroman). Tomorrow’s starter is still yet to be determined, but it seems like righty Luke Farrell will be given the nod. Given Pujols’ hot bat, the Cards probably won’t worry about his righty-lefty splits unless the team starts losing. After all, Pujols got the start at DH for the first game of the doubleheader today. That said, I doubt he’ll start all four games. He may get more opportunities late in games he isn’t starting if lefty relievers are brought in, but I don’t think we can assume Pujols will hit any home runs this series. At most, one.

Even during his incredible month of August, he’s yet to hit a single dinger off a right-handed pitcher. The Cubs do have three lefties in their bullpen currently — Brandon Hughes, Sean Newcomb, and Steven Brault — and Hughes has even worked as the team’s closer recently. However, it’s too unlikely that Pujols will face a lefty multiple times in any game throughout this series.

After the Cubs, it will be the Braves. They have a great bullpen and will be trotting out three righties for their upcoming series (Spencer Strider, Charlie Morton, and Jake Odorizzi). In 33 career at-bats against Morton, Pujols has just eight hits and zero home runs. Can’t count on anything coming out of that game. He’s had 11 plate appearances against Odorizzi. Pujols is 0-for-10. Can’t expect anything there. He’s never faced Spencer Strider.

At that point, we’re already a sixth of the way through the remainder of the season for St. Louis, and he’s added zero to his name. The Cardinals have nine games left this season against the Pirates, eight against the Reds, and seven against the Cubs. I’ve already discussed how Pujols won’t have many opportunities against lefties when facing the Cubs.

Against the Reds, he’ll likely get to face Mike Minor and Nick Lodolo multiple times. That would be Pujols’ best opportunity to gain ground. Minor is giving up an astonishingly high 2.2 home runs per nine innings on the season and Lodolo, although much less prone to the home run this year, is more prone to the walk. If some Cards can get on base in front of Pujols in those games, Lodolo would have to challenge Pujols. You don’t want to do that.

The Pirates don’t have a single lefty on their starting rotation currently. The team traded away their only consistent left-handed starter, José Quintana, at the deadline and now only have righties in JT Brubaker, Mitch Keller, Zach Thompson, Bryse Wilson, and Roansy Contreras. The Pirates do have three left-handed relievers, but they’ve only pitched a combined 21.2 innings all season long. Maybe Dillon Peters will return from the IL and pitch a bit against the Cardinals, but given that the Pirates are in no position to make a run for the playoffs, it’s likely they wouldn’t put Peters out on the mound very often down the final stretch, opting for some of the younger guys instead, all of whom happen to be righties. That said, if Pujols manages to get an at-bat against someone like Cam Vieaux, a few home runs could very well happen.

The NL Central is one of the tightest division races in baseball. Only the NL East and AL Central are tighter. At the time of writing this though, the Cardinals had won eight in a row and nine of their last 10, while the Brewers had gone 5-5 in that same span. In my opinion, the Cardinals are the better team and should win the division. Given that the Cardinals have a pretty easy schedule down the stretch — just 13 games against teams over .500 — and only four games against Milwaukee (St. Louis is currently five games ahead), I’d imagine that the Cardinals will wrap up the division title sometime between September 21 and 28. Obviously, the earlier the better for Pujols’ sake.

Let’s assume the best and say that the Cardinals clinch their division on the 21st, in the middle of their series with the San Diego Padres. That would leave two games against the Padres, three against the Dodgers, two against the Brewers, and six against the Pirates. Six of Pujols’ fourteen home runs this year have come against those four teams. In fact, two of Pujols’ three multi-homer games this year have come against the Brewers and Pirates — one of those homers in the Pirates was off utility man Josh VanMeter though; I doubt he’ll be pitching again.

If Pujols is to reach 700, the final ten games of the season would probably be the best time to do so. Both the Brewers and Dodgers have a plethora of southpaws on their staffs. Pujols did great in his last game against Brewers’ starter Aaron Ashby (two home runs), who should be back from the IL before that series — although it’s unknown when he’ll be scheduled to start when he returns. Pujols has also been great in his career against guys like Milwaukee’s Taylor Rogers as well as Los Angeles’s David Price, Tyler Anderson, Clayton Kershaw, although Pujols has never homered off Kershaw or Anderson. Sadly, it might be too little too late at that point for Pujols.

It’s not likely Pujols reaches 700 home runs. If Pujols had better numbers against right-handed pitchers this season, I’d feel more confident in saying the contrary, but as it stands, there is a line of righties waiting for the Cardinals that I can’t see Pujols penetrating. The Cardinals are vying for a division title, their first since 2019, and if they want to secure that title, they’ll have to realize that as hot as Pujols is right now, that DH spot would be best served with someone other than Pujols filling that role. Keep Pujols on the bench in case the opposition brings in a lefty reliever, but that would mean only one or two at-bats for Pujols for several games in the immediate future. Pujols would have to continue his incredible tear, and at age 42, I don’t see it lasting much longer.

As of Monday morning, Baseball Reference gave Pujols a 7.1 percent chance of reaching 700 by the end of the season.

Even after his home run that night, those odds still hold true. Frankly, there just aren’t enough lefties on the plate and the Cardinals will likely opt for someone better against righties until the team clinches the NL Central, and that might not be for a long time. I wouldn’t be shocked if Pujols passes Álex Rodríguez for fourth all-time, but 700 might be just out of reach. Who knows? If he’s just short, maybe he’ll decide to come back next year. That’s always a possibility.

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