How much higher can Pujols climb on career home run leaderboard?
The season is young, but already, Albert Pujols is collecting milestones. Last Wednesday, he hit career home run No. 521, tying Hall of Famers Ted Williams, Willie McCovey and Frank Thomas for 19th on the all-time list. On Sunday, he moved into sole possession of 18th place with his 522nd homer.
The first of those homers came in the first inning of what would be a 5–3 win for the Angels at Safeco Field, served up by the Mariners' Hisashi Iwakuma. The second, also a first-inning shot, came in a 9–2 loss to the Royals in Anaheim; Yordano Ventura was the pitcher. Here it is, via MLB.com:
Now in the fourth season of the 10-year, $240 million deal he signed with the Angels in December 2011, Pujols has yet to replicate the eye-popping numbers he put up over his 11-year run in St. Louis, where he hit a combined .328/.420/.617 (170 OPS+) and averaged 40 homers and 7.9 Wins Above Replacement per year, winning two World Series rings. With Los Angeles, he's hit .272/.331/.479 (128 OPS+) and averaged 25 homers and 3.5 WAR, playing in just one three-and-out postseason series.
In the aggregate, he's remained productive during his time in an Angels uniform, with still-respectable lows of 1.9 WAR and a 116 OPS+ in 2013, the year that plantar fasciitis limited him to 99 games and shut him down for good in late July. Measured against that historic and by definition unsustainable run that began a career that will end in Cooperstown, it nonetheless can’t help but feel like a letdown.
How much further can Pujols climb in terms of milestones? To date, the 35-year-old slugger has 2,523 hits to go with his 522 homers, with a contract that runs through 2021, giving him nearly seven years remaining. He may not stick around that long; in February, Pujols suggested that if his daughter Sophia, now nine years old, qualifies for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, he might retire to follow her journey. That would seem to be a longshot given that current Olympic gymnastics rules require girls to be 16 years old to compete, and that Sophia would only be 14 at that point, but it does suggest he may not stick around to collect every last nickel. Given that his contract climbs by $1 million per year from '14 to '21, he'll be at $30 million by its end, and if he retires before the '20 season, he'll be leaving $59 million on the table.
In any event, we can get a rough idea of where Pujols might wind up by looking at his long-term PECOTA forecast at Baseball Prospectus, which uses his recent performance as well as a database of comparable players in terms of age, performance, height and weight to plot out his trajectory along an aging curve. If we cap what’s usually a 10-year projection at seven years, through the end of his contract, here's where he could reasonably end up:
|year||age||hits||total h||homers||total hr|
PECOTA projects Pujols to reach both 3,000 hits and 600 homers sometime during the 2018 campaign, his age-38 season, and to finish with numbers that would rank 10th on the all-time hit list, nudging aside Paul Molitor (3,319), and sixth on the all-time home run list, surpassing Ken Griffey Jr. (630). In theory, he could beat the forecasts in both categories by a year if he more closely approximates last year's totals of 172 hits and 28 homers. If he averages 161 hits per year from '15 to '17, that would push him to 3,002 by the end of that timeframe. Twenty-seven homers per year would push him to 601, no doubt giving him a better shot at reaching Willie Mays's mark of 660—likely to be surpassed by Alex Rodriguez (655) in the near future—in the latter category if he sticks around for the full term of the deal.
Building on what I wrote in this space last year on the subject of Pujols and the 500 home run club, it's worth another look given the resilience of David Ortiz, the next-closest player to reaching that milestone; he's at 467 after clubbing 35 at age 38 last year. Again using BP's long-term forecasts, cutting them off either after age 42 or following the player’s first year below replacement level (0.0 WARP, BP's version of WAR), unless their contract runs beyond either of those points, here are the players with at least 200 home runs under their belts who project to hit at least 398:
|players||hr||2015 age||final age||total|
If you're wondering about Giancarlo Stanton, who has 154 homers through age 24: PECOTA projects him to add 350 through 2024, his age-34 season, which would put him at 504 and leave him with even bigger milestones still in sight. Likewise for Mike Trout, who has hit 99 homers though age 22; his projection only takes him to 351 homers through '24, his age-32 season, when he'll presumably still have plenty of baseball left.
As for the rest, Pujols and Cabrera project to be the ninth and 10th players to reach the 600 home run club, with Ortiz, Bautista and Beltre projected to grow the 500 homer club to 29 members. Bautista rates as quite the surprise, in that he's already in his age-34 season and less than halfway there, but with 35 homers last year and an MLB-high 188 since the start of the 2010 season, he's making up for lost time in a big way.
Of course, it's worth noting that these long-term forecasts are quite sensitive to changes in a player's current level of production; when I ran through this exercise last year, Pujols projected to finish at 673, 31 more than the current forecast, Cabrera at 637, Ortiz at 495, Fielder at 486, Teixeira at 462. Age and injuries can take significant bites out of their projections, and late-career resurgence can push the numbers significantly further.
In any case, we haven’t seen the last of Pujols’s milestones, either in terms of round numbers or with respect to the leaderboards. Within his reach in a healthy season this year are Jimmie Foxx (534 homers), Mickey Mantle (536) and Mike Schmidt (548), the last of which would take just one more homer than his PECOTA projection to reach and would put him into the top 15 all-time. Stay tuned.