Last season, no one was thinking about Albert Pujols hitting 500 career homers. He played his final game of the year on July 26, finishing with a .258/.330/.437 line that, while not bad, was far from the Pujolsian ideal. The plantar fasciitis he had dealt with longer than he had not in his professional career finally scored a victory against the seemingly-impervious Pujols, cutting both his production and his season short of their expected marks.
In his younger days, Pujols shrugged off the pain in his foot daily, and put up numbers that earned him a spot next to the game's immortals while doing it. From 2001 through 2011 (ages 21 through 31) Pujols compiled a 170 OPS+, the seventh-best ever minimum 7,000 plate appearances. Pujols' name was sandwiched between Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle and Ty Cobb, and he was well ahead of the pace that history's greatest Cardinal, Stan Musial, had set in his own tremendous career.
It's harder to ignore pain as a player ages, though, and Pujols' foot could no longer take the incessant march towards his mid-30s. A tear in his plantar fascia gave the 33-year-old's foot the opportunity to recover in much the same way surgery would have repaired a problem that had literally nipped at his heels since 2004. The 2014 season promised a fresh start for one of the game's great hitters, a first baseman who even as he exited his peak years could still put a charge into a pitch when he was feeling right.
Much of that was forgotten or flat-out ignored by the general populace and even large segments of the media, if for no other reason than Pujols' contract. Signed prior to the 2012 season, Pujols is with the Angels through 2012 at an average annual cost of $24 million, for a total of $240 million. Elite players like Pujols tend to age better than their mere-mortal peers, but $30 million for a 41-year-old Pujols won't work out as planned even if he's still useful. With that said, this contract was always about getting the best of what Pujols had left for an Angels team that was trying to win in the present, future be damned. Things didn't work out that way, but that's on the Angels and not Pujols. He just got caught in the middle of the pointer fingers aimed at his team.
Pujols' doom has been oversold because of fears of what his and the Angels' future will hold, and because many seem to remember his awful first month with the Halos but not his tremendous recovery. From his first homer of the season onward, he batted .305/.365/.569 (a span of 127 games of 2012) despite Angels Stadium being one of the more homer-killing parks in all the land. Pujols might not have looked like an all-time great on the surface during his first year with Los Angeles, but he still produced a 138 OPS+ in spite of a horrid first 30 games or so.
His disappointing, injury-plagued 2013 helped erase all memory of his comeback, but his start to 2014 and his convincing push to 500 career homers will, in turn, replace thoughts of last summer. Pujols didn't limp to 500 homers, as he would have if he had stuck around to play out 2013. Instead, he's leading the majors with eight blasts already, batting .274/.337/.619 -- a slugging percentage that leads the American League -- and is above his career-average OPS+, at 168. He doesn't walk quite as much as he used to, but it's still very dangerous to put the ball where his bat can get to it.
Pujols is not entirely his old self in that regard either, though. All of his homers to this point have been pulled, whereas in his final season with the Cardinals when he went deep 37 times, there was (while not a perfectly even distribution) more of a spread, with homers to center and right field as well. His pull power remains tremendous, though, and his bat doesn't appear to have slowed down to a worrisome point where he needs to cheat and swing early. The real test for where his previous all-fields power is at will come when opposing pitchers feed Pujols more on the outer part of the plate in the hopes of neutralizing his ability to pull the ball into the stands. If he can still drive those with authority, then nothing except the health of his foot has changed.
That time is not now, though, as we're not even at April's end yet. Just like April 2012 could not tell the whole story of Pujols' season, 2014 is no different, even if it's far more likely to be honest. He's struck out just eight times all season, a low rate even for him. The ball is traveling off his bat with the same kind of distance he had prior to leaving the Cardinals: back in 2011 his average home-run distance was 403 feet, thus far in 2014 he's at 402. More walks will likely come even as his homers dip when pitchers realize the Pujols of 2013 was a temporary opponent they need to erase from their game plans. He might not be fully back, but when you're as great as Pujols was at his peak, a very large fraction of past self will do just fine.
If that's the case, and 500 homers was the announcement that Pujols and his pop are back, then maybe we can start to look forward to a hitter's club that's even more elite. Pujols is the 26th player ever to reach 500 homers -- no small feat considering over 18,000 men have picked up a bat in this game since 1871 -- but only eight have hit 600 or more, with a few of those tainted by PED suspicions or admissions. Reaching that figure seemed nigh impossible last July, when Pujols was forced off of first base and then the field by injury, but that's all a plantar fascia tear, a strong April, and a milestone behind him now.