Because, during the height of COVID-19 lockdowns and its total absence of televised sports, everybody with even the most casual interest in the NBA, and even a bunch of people who didn’t, gravitated towards watching The Last Dance, a perfectly watchable documentary produced by ESPN Films and Netflix about the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls. Because of its popularity, the series became memeified to levels that few considered possible–a deluge of “And I took that personally” references thrives on the internet a solid two years later. But the concept of the basic framing device of the series–a trio of legends nearing the ends of their careers simultaneously–has permeated in St. Louis since the days after the return of Albert Pujols to the St. Louis Cardinals was first announced. The t-shirts sold are vague enough to be copyright-compliant yet fairly obvious in their conjuring of the imagery.
The parallels are easy enough to draw. Like Dennis Rodman, Yadier Molina is a defense-oriented star, one in obvious decline but with flashes of brilliance, and also with an occasional propensity to leave the team during the season for fairly dubious reasons. Like Scottie Pippen, Adam Wainwright is a mild-manner southerner who has spent a career being underappreciated and in the shadow of bigger stars, and also he’s by far the most likely of the three to play for the Cardinals again after this season. And while Albert Pujols isn’t in a broad, historical sense quite Michael Jordan–nobody outside of the most vociferous partisans is trying to argue that Pujols is the literal greatest baseball player of all-time–he is certainly the most undisputable all-timer of the group.
Prior to the 2022 season, any comparisons of Albert Pujols to Michael Jordan for the next season would seemingly be drawing a line from Pujols, a bat-only pinch-hitter type who hadn’t produced an above-average season at the plate since 2016, to the 1994 Birmingham Barons outfielder who produced a mere .556 OPS in his age-31 season at AA. But with a pinch-hit single on Sunday (Tommy Edman, who was wisely deployed as a pinch-runner, scored what turned out to be the game-winning run in Albert’s place), Pujols saw his wRC+ rise to 141. It wasn’t all that long ago that Pujols merely having an above-average offensive season seemed like a major accomplishment–as it stands right now, Albert Pujols is having his best offensive season since his final season as a St. Louis Cardinal prior to this one, and Pujols is a strong performance tonight away from leapfrogging that season as well.
For as much as Albert Pujols as Unrelenting Destroyer of Lefty Pitching was played up in the leadup to 2022, what he is doing this season far outpaces recent seasons for the 42 year-old, and it far outpaces even his own previous outcomes. In his 98 plate appearances against lefties in 2022, Pujols has a 1.205 OPS which would be his highest mark since 2008; his wRC+ of 225 is his highest mark against lefties ever. For context, his wRC+ last season against lefties was 145, which equals the career mark (against all handedness) of Paul Goldschmidt. 225 is not only higher than any batter in MLB history with more than 19 career plate appearances, but it eclipses the mark of any qualified season in MLB history by a player not named Babe Ruth or Barry Bonds. On the full balance, Albert Pujols has a 141 wRC+ both in 2022 and for his career, which given the steady decline of his offense over the last decade-plus seems impossible.
There have been thirty-seven seasons in Major League Baseball history in which a player in his age-42 season or older has mustered at least as many plate appearances as Albert Pujols now has (227). And only one player–Barry Bonds in 2007–had a higher wRC+. To echo the sentiment of something I wrote last week, the vibes surrounding 2007 Barry Bonds were absolutely horrendous–it was the year he spent unpopularly chasing Henry Aaron’s all-time home run record, the team lost twenty more games than it won, and aside from Pedro Feliz and a Rich Aurilia return, the lineup which Bonds had led to the 2002 World Series was gone. Bonds was considered so toxic that despite a 157 wRC+ that trailed only Chipper Jones among NL batters with as many plate appearances as he had, no team signed him as a free agent the next season
Whether you adhere to conspiracy theories or think he was organically that unpopular (I lean the former, but that certainly doesn’t nullify the basic principles of the latter), it reflects the general toxicity that surrounded Bonds. Meanwhile, Albert Pujols has been beloved as a 2022 Cardinal. He has understood his role, recognizing that he will frequently sit against right-handed pitching and often be removed from games late in favor of a pinch-runner or a left-handed batter. Over the previous six seasons, Albert Pujols had been a sub-Replacement Level player by Wins Above Replacement; in 2022, he has been worth 1.2 WAR and finds himself comfortably above the 100 WAR level, a line which he has tiptoed for years. For now, the now-New York Yankee Harrison Bader has a fractional lead to keep Pujols away from the Baseball Reference Top 12 leaderboard (an arbitrary cutoff, but also it means you get to see pictures!), but this is almost certain to change very soon. With a left-handed starter, Drew Smyly, scheduled for the Chicago Cubs against the Cardinals tonight, it could easily change by tomorrow morning.
With Albert Pujols’s extraordinary surge (after a pronounced dip in May and especially June, Pujols found himself with a 159 wRC+ in July and an incomprehensible 335 wRC+ in August), many fans and media have opined that an Albert Pujols retirement should now be an open question (for his part, Pujols has never backtracked or even left open the possibility of returning next season). But to suggest that an Albert Pujols who is playing legitimately well ought to remain is to imply that a player shouldn’t go out with dignity. Babe Ruth on the Boston Braves and Willie Mays on the New York Mets are often cited as examples of players who stuck around too long, a completely unfair assertion given that both, while not nearly at their peak levels of performance, were still above-average hitters in their final stops. But Albert Pujols is now outperforming both of them, and given his decline prior to this year, it is perfectly reasonable to expect that in subsequent seasons he would perform to the Ruth/Mays reputations rather than the realities. He has a right to keep playing, of course, to keep chasing whichever career milestones he wishes, but he also has a right to allow the last taste in his mouth to be that of a beloved elder statesman performing strongly enough to justify the love he was inevitably going to receive regardless of his successes. Who could wish for anything else for him?