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How Albert Pujols went from a nostalgia signing to one of the hottest hitters in MLB

Albert Pujols has suddenly turned back the clock.

St. Louis Cardinals v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

It’s totally okay for all of us to admit that when the St. Louis Cardinals signed Albert Pujols for his final season in Major League Baseball, we didn’t think much of it past this being a quaint little swan song for a guy that was going to waltz into the Baseball Hall of Fame with little-to-no problems at all. There wasn’t really much reason to believe that Pujols was going to do much more than put some smiles on the faces of longtime Cardinals fans who got to see one of their living legends put on the iconic redbird uniform for one more go around while possibly hitting a few dingers along the way.

It’s fine to go out like that! In an era where fading star athletes are increasingly receiving their flowers when they can smell them as players, it made all the sense in the world that one of the greatest hitters of his generation was going to get a proper send-off playing in the city where he became a star. With that being said, it definitely didn’t seem like a competitive move from St. Louis — not when Pujols went into this season on the heels of five straight seasons where he finished in the negative in FanGraphs WAR while putting up anemic hitting numbers for his standards.

I can’t repeat enough just how much this was purely a nostalgia signing for the Cardinals. If you don’t believe me then just listen to Cardinals fans, themselves!

In a perfect world, I completely understand signing Pujols. And would be very on board with that perfect world. Pujols ends up hitting fairly well against LHP, he gets to retire with two other Cardinal legends, and it will just make for a very memorable last season for him that we get to experience as fans. That all sounds great.

On the other hand, there’s really no questioning that he is truly not a good baseball player anymore. And the overwhelming odds are that it will be straight up depressing to watch him play baseball by the end. And speaking personally, his style of offense is possibly my least favorite, the guy who never walks and is overaggressive, and who will definitely get thrown out if a ball so much as touches an infielder. I loved watching the old Pujols bat, but that’s not what we’d be getting.

As the final month of the season is now right around the corner, this seems like a good time to check in and see how Albert Pujols’ final go-around is going in St. Louis. I can’t say that I’m expecting much but hey, it’ll be cool to see Pujols wearing that Cardinal uniform for old time’s sake, right?

Well then! Looks like he had a pretty good day. Even guys who are over the hill can have a good day every now and then, so that’s not a huge shock. Surely he’s not keeping that up, right? Right?

No way. That’s not Tío Albert from his days as a Dodger — that looks like the Albert Pujols that used to terrorize the National League during his prime. This is absolutely crazy, but surely he’s calmed down a little bit after that, right? Please tell me that he’s calmed down.

Okay, this is actually happening. Going into play on Tuesday night, Albert Pujols was putting up a slash line of .277/.351/.530 with 14 home runs, a .375 wOBA, .252 Isolated Power and a fantastic wRC+ of 146. For comparison’s sake, Pujols’ highest wRC+ since 2017 was 90, which is still 10 points below the annual league average wRC+ of 100. He went into the doubleheader on Tuesday sitting on 1.1 fWAR for the season, which is already the best season he’s had since 2015 and he could very well finish with a season that is somewhat similar to his age-34 season back in 2014. Albert Pujols has somehow turned the clock back and is playing a decent-sized role for a Cardinals team that is flying high in first place atop the NL Central.

So what in the world is going on here? Has Albert Pujols defeated Father Time? Is he simply emptying the tank since he knows that this is his final stretch of baseball? Are the opposing pitchers just taking him lightly? Well, the answer is actually pretty simple: He might be 42-years-old, but he can still absolutely mash left-handed pitching. It also helps that Pujols was able to stick around long enough for the Universal DH to finally become a thing in MLB. Instead of having to find somewhere on the diamond to stick him, the Cardinals can simply deploy Pujols as their DH whenever there’s a lefty out there and let him sit for most right-handers.

Again, it’s a pretty simple strategy but it’s one that has worked like a charm for the Cardinals. Granted, this strategy also worked for the Dodgers during his brief stint at Chavez Ravine, but 2021 Pujols didn’t anywhere come close to what we’ve seen from him here in 2022. This recent stretch in particular has been about as good as anything we’ve seen from Albert Pujols, ever. Through the first 22 days of August, Pujols hit at a .472/.525/1.083 clip. He’s slugged seven dingers this month, with those seven homers being part of 17 hits during that 22-day span.

He’s had 40 plate appearances during that span and his scarcely-believable 341 wRC+ is the best in all of baseball for hitters with at least 40 PAs since the start of August — 102 points ahead of his MVP candidate teammate, Paul Goldschmidt. Nobody is hotter than Albert Pujols right now, which is a wild statement to be making as a fact in 2022.

The big question now is a pretty fun question that honestly didn’t seem too feasible heading into the season: Can Albert Pujols reach 700 home runs? After this incredible return to form at the plate for the future Cooperstown member, this is now a legit question. Unfortunately, it still doesn’t seem super-likely that Pujols can rack up another seven dingers between now and the end of the season. After all, this amazing stretch of hitting that currently has the baseball world buzzing has only seen him hit seven homers over that span. Unless Pujols can keep this scalding-hot pace going all the way to the first week of October, he’s likely going to come up short. I’d imagine that he’ll come pretty close but I’m not holding my breath for Pujols to hit the milestone dinger this season.

Even if he doesn’t do it, this is an absolutely incredible note for Albert Pujols to end on. This has been anything but a nostalgia run for the legendary Cardinals slugger — he’s been playing an important role on a team that will be looking to make some noise in October. It’s pretty uncommon to see stars go out on a high note like this and Albert Pujols is currently on a run that absolutely has to be appreciated. Like a shooting star in the night sky, it’s not every day where you see a 42-year-old big leaguer tearing it up like this, so this is definitely something to take note of for however long this is going to last.