Why Albert Pujols hitting 600 homers is a big freaking deal

We can, with surgical precision, point to the moment when people stopped caring as much about 500 home runs. Within a five-week stretch in 2003, both Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro cracked the once-magical barrier, and both of those players were perfectly placed to make it seem like every Tom, Dick, and Barry was going to hit 500 now. Sosa was sitting at 207 homers after his age-28 season (a little ahead of Mark Trumbo’s pace). Palmeiro averaged nine home runs for his first five seasons, and he didn’t even hit 200 until he was 31.

Really, I don’t know what got into those guys. Guess we’ll never know.

Between 1971 and 2001, every 500-homer player was an event. Willie McCovey’s came in 1978, with Reggie Jackson’s coming six years later. The highlight of Mike Schmidt’s puppy dance was played on every This Week in Baseball for years. Then there were a bunch of them linked together, right around the time of the BALCO scandal, when fans started to act like Claude Rains collecting roulette winnings. It wasn’t unreasonable to think that the 500-homer club would be 50 players deep by 2017. There was evident fatigue by the time Frank Thomas, Alex Rodriguez, and Jim Thome joined in the summer of 2007.

Albert Pujols came in at the tail end of this wave, hitting 500 homers in a down season with a new team. The excitement was muted, possibly because of the down season, possibly because of the new team, probably because of a combination of both. When Miguel Cabrera hit his 500th, though, the calculus changed a bit. Suddenly, it was clear that Adrian Beltre was the last chance of the decade, but even that seems dicier with the current reminder that he’s 38 and vulnerable to injuries. The 500-homer club was rare and cool again.

If it’s rare and cool to hit 500, it’s a big freaking deal to hit 600.

After Pujols, we might not see this for 20 years.

Pujols belongs to that rare inner circle of the 600-homer club. He just kept plugging away, year after year.

He led the league twice in home runs, which isn’t a lot for the 600-homer club. Thome did it once, and Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa also did it twice. The rest of the club (Willie Mays, Alex Rodriguez, Hank Aaron, Ken Griffey, Jr., Babe Ruth) led their respective leagues at least four times each.

It’s that geological grind that’s so tough. Pujols has 14 different seasons with 30 homers or more (one behind Aaron and Rodriguez … for now). His story of 600 homers is a story of incredible skill, health, and a gradual decline. The other possible story is that of incredible skill, an unfathomable peak, and just enough health to accumulate the stats. Once he missed the four-season stretch of 60 homers, he had to chip away.

And he did it.

Consider that while Cabrera is at 451 home runs at age 34, Bill James’ “Favorite Toy” gives him just a 34-percent chance at reaching 600. In two out of every three futures, something drags him down before he hits another 149 home runs. That’s a good start on your way to being impressed with just how unlikely 600 homers is; it’s hard even if you’re spotted the first 450. The final 25 percent will mess you up.

Think of a great 34-year-old player. Like Cabrera! Think of the sentence “eh, if he averages 30 home runs for another five seasons, he’ll get that extra 150 he needs.” Then look at the players with five of those seasons after turning 34. There are five of them in baseball history. If you want to change the parameters, and see how many hitters have the quintet of 25-homer seasons that Cabrera needs, the answer is seven.

And if you want to change parameters to include a 30-homer season here, a 25-homer season, a 20-homer season, followed by five 15-homer seasons … I mean, maybe? But you’re digging a pretty deep hole.

It’s not that time is undefeated, but that it cheats.

The easiest way to get into the 600-homer club, then, is to hoard all of the dingers before age catches you from behind. Sammy Sosa hit 292 home runs in a five-year stretch, which is like every homer of Pat Burrell’s 12-year career crammed into five seasons. Ken Griffey, Jr. averaged 19 home runs for the last five seasons of his career, but he made up for that by hitting 351 homers between 1993 and 2000.

There isn’t anyone young on that pace right now, which means there simply aren’t going to be a lot of contenders for the 600-dinger throne. There are just nine active players with even 300 homers, and Cabrera and Edwin Encarnacion are the youngest, at 34.

The under-30 career home run leaderboard looks like this:

  1. Justin Upton, 29 (230 HR)
  2. Giancarlo Stanton, 27 (222)
  3. Mike Trout, 25 (184)
  4. Pedro Alvarez, 29 (153)
  5. Freddie Freeman, 27 (152)
  6. Paul Goldschmidt, 29 (151)
  7. Anthony Rizzo, 27 (146)
  8. Bryce Harper, 24 (136)
  9. Kyle Seager, 29 (131)
  10. Nolan Arenado, 26 (123)

That same list, but with the percentages to reach 600 homers from James’ Favorite Toy:

  1. Justin Upton, 4 percent
  2. Giancarlo Stanton, 9 percent
  3. Mike Trout, 21 percent
  4. Pedro Alvarez, 0 percent
  5. Freddie Freeman, 0 percent
  6. Paul Goldschmidt, 0 percent
  7. Anthony Rizzo, 4 percent
  8. Bryce Harper, 6 percent
  9. Kyle Seager, 0 percent
  10. Nolan Arenado, 15 percent

James calls it his “favorite toy” because it isn’t an exact science. There are park effects, league-wide home run rates, and other variables to consider. Arenado’s chances go up when you consider Coors Field. They’ll get better if he signs an extension.

As a rough estimate, though, they’ll prove my point just fine. For as great as Trout and Harper are, for as young as they are, for as talented as they are, there’s a lot left between them and 600 home runs. A lot of fastballs inside. A lot of legs extended toward first base on a full sprint. A lot of dives. A lot of slides. And a helluva lot of decaying cells.

The 600-homer trend, by decade:

1900s: 0
1910s: 0
1920s: 0
1930s: 1
1940s: 0
1950s: 0
1970s: 2
1980s: 0
1990s: 0
2000s: 2
2010s: 4

It looks like an upward trend. And maybe it is. But there’s a chance that no one will do it again for the next 30 years. Or 40. Because after this one, if Cabrera doesn’t get there, there are no guarantees the 2020s will have a representative.

If it does happen, it doesn’t have to be Trout, Stanton, or Harper. It could be someone we don’t know a lot about just yet. Joey Gallo. Cody Bellinger. Jake Burger, y’all.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the 600-homer club is the new 500-homer club. It’s absurdly difficult to hit that many home runs, and those extra 100 homers have to come from somewhere. Only 852 of the 15,000 players to have recorded a plate appearance have hit 100 homers in their career. Which means the next 600-homer hitter will need to claw their way to 500 — something that’s been done only 27 times before — and then have a better post-500-dinger career than the about 14,000 players ever had.

It’ll happen again. Cabrera might do it in the next few years. But it doesn’t have to happen a lot just because of the last couple decades, and it doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate the heck out of Pujols and what he’s accomplished. His mid-30s slide and the Angels’ descent into irrelevance have conspired to help the world forget just how good he used to be. Note that he was incredible, though. And while it doesn’t take 600 homers to make us appreciate that, it certainly helps.

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