Why Albert Pujols will break the single-seaon home run record
Albert Pujols is having an almost unbelievable year. He’s hitting .323. His on-base percentage is .449. He’s on pace to hit over eighty home runs. It’s ridiculous. The season’s a little over a quarter done, but at this rate, he’s going to walk about 140 times and strike out only 45 times. That’s historic.
Top Five Hitter Seasons ever by BB-K
Barry Bonds, 2004, 191
Barry Bonds, 2002, 151
Ted Williams, 1941, 120
Ted Williams, 1947, 115
Ted Williams, 1949, 114
If Pujols finishes at +95, he’d be the 17th-best ever.
Pujols has to hit 50 home runs the rest of the way to tie Bonds at 73. Now, there’s reason to believe he won’t keep up this torrid pace. He’s currently putting over 30% of fly balls over fences, which is way over his career numbers around 20%.
Hitting 50 home runs over the next 110+ games is not that tough for Pujols, though. Assume he cools off tomorrow and goes back to only hitting a home run every 14 at-bats. That’s another 30, to finish at 53.
Where do the other twenty come in? He’s going to be given them. The pitches aren’t going to come gift-wrapped, and he’s not going to have meatballs grooved over the plate. But he’ll be challenged, and Pujols will hit home runs in many of those situations.
– Barry Bonds holds the single-season record
– Pujols is liked
It’s that simple. When Bonds pursued the record, when he wasn’t intentionally walked, he was semi-intentionally walked: they’d throw him four garbage pitches hoping he’d swing at something so awful the only thing he could do with it would be to ground out weakly or pop up. Bonds’ 2001 is the 8th-most anyone’s been walked intentionally. Four of the seven slots ahead of that year are other Bonds seasons. He got walked 120 times in 2004, putting the brakes on a year where he might have challenged his own record. This hasn’t been helped by the Giants’ offense, but that’s beside the point.
Whether or not the intentional walk is the right choice for opposing managers to make, the only way the record can be challenged will be for a prodigious power hitter to get a ton of at-bats. St. Louis doesn’t have an offense that gets on base a lot to turn the lineup over and get Pujols more at-bats, unfortunately, but that won’t matter.
Every manager who faces the decision on whether or not to walk a hitter has to decide whether that’s the best move. If they’re facing a player involved in the home run chase at home, they have to make an additional consideration: how pissed are these fans going to be if I don’t pitch to this guy, and does that mean the owner’s going to be chewing on my butt before tomorrow’s game?
That pressure will be much greater for Pujols. People believe he’s clean. They like him. They don’t like Bonds. He’s tainted, and as long as he holds the record, the record is tainted. When Pujols threatens 73, they will yearn for his success, even at the expense of their own team, because if the record is held by a clean player, the record’s redeemed, and baseball will have in a symbolic way closed the book on the steroid era.
Every manager will also weigh their own personal views — do they want to take away a chance for Pujols to beat Bonds? I can’t imagine that Bonds is any more popular among opposing managers than he is with any other segment of baseball, and it’s not as if managers live in a vacuum and don’t get earfuls from people they know about the state of the game. If Pujols cracking the record makes everyone’s life easier, the decision becomes easier too.
I don’t expect that any of these considerations, consciously considered or not, will override a manager’s better judgement. If they love the intentional walk, and they think it’ll help win, they’ll still call for it. But all of these things will help push decisions on when to pitch to Pujols strongly in Pujols’ favor.
Similarly, pitchers aren’t going to want to give up a home run to Pujols, but they’re going to feel the same way their managers will: better him than Bonds, and if I get beat challenging Pujols and go into the record books that way, it could be worse.
This sounds a little strange, I understand. Yet it’s already happening. Pujols is a monster hitter on a tear. Would you pitch to that guy? But he’s only been walked seven times this season. He’s walked on purpose far less often than you’d expect given his career numbers (compare his last few years to Bonds’ 2002-2004, for instance), but seven times a quarter of the way into a season like this? It doesn’t make sense, no matter who else is behind them, they’re not Albert Pujols.
Pujols’ hot start makes a run at the title possible, and unless we see a dramatic shift in sentiment, he’ll be given every opportunity teams can spare to make sure his path is clear.