How long has albert pujols been in the mlb? Seven hundred-plus home runs. Nearly 3,400 hits. More than 100 career WAR. A 145 OPS+. Three MVP awards. All capped off by a magical final season in 2022 with the Cardinals. It’s a remarkable résumé, one that will see him enter the Hall of Fame the moment he becomes eligible in 2028.
But while Pujols rode into the sunset as one of the 20 greatest players in baseball history, he did so with just one MLB record to his name. There is but a single, lonely golden smudge on the bottom of his Baseball-Reference page. That’s because nobody in the history of the game grounded into more double plays than Pujols.
When it came to double plays, The Machine was … a machine. Over his 22-year career Pujols dribbled, bounded, grounded and plastered his way to a mind-boggling 426 career double plays. He retired with a commanding 73 double-play lead over his closest competition, fellow Cooperstown-bound batsman Miguel Cabrera. He posted 12 different seasons with at least 20 double plays, another feat that won’t soon be topped.
With a seemingly innocuous groundout on Aug. 4th, 2017, Pujols passed Orioles legend Cal Ripken Jr. for the top spot on the all-time list. There were no fireworks, no banners, no family on the field, no hugs. Perhaps there should have been — what Pujols did was, no joke, a legitimate accomplishment.
But what factors, obvious and overlooked, enabled Pujols’ ascension as the world’s most generous double-play vending machine? What makes his record so difficult to break? And are there any players in the league today with a fighting chance to chase down the king?
Pujols’ career featured a rare set of circumstances that allowed him to rack up double plays by the dozens. It was a perfect storm of factors that won’t soon be replicated and should allow him to sit atop the two-out-one-play leaderboard for a long, long time. Consider …
1. He played forever
This is the most obvious dynamic. If you want to be the MLB career leader in any category, you need to play for decades, multiple. If you want to be a big-league hitter for decades, multiple, well, you better freakin’ bop. And few hitters in the history of the game bopped harder than Pujols bopped.
That first St. Louis tenure was awe-inspiringly dominant. Those 11 seasons in Missouri he spent laying waste to the National League earned him that enormous 10-year deal in Anaheim. When the dust settled, he’d played for 22 years.
While no ballplayer lays awake in bed at night dreaming of grounding into more double plays than anyone else, you can’t get to 426 without being outrageously good at the important stuff.
2. He was durable as a youngster
During his peak years with the Cardinals, Pujols missed only 77 total games over an 11-year span. More games means more at-bats, more at-bats means more opportunities to stumble into a pitcher’s best friend.
3. He usually hit the ball hard
At its core, a double play is a math problem, a race against the clock. Infielders have to fling the ball around the dirt before the batter gets down the line to first. The harder a baseball is hit, the more time defenders have to work with. And for much of his career, few ballplayers were hitting the ball harder than Pujols.
4. He hit the ball often
You can’t ground into a double play if you’re striking out instead. In an era that saw strikeouts pile up by the gazillions, Pujols never punched out more than 100 times in a season. More balls in play means more opportunities to make two outs with one swing. When other hulky, lead-footed sluggers were swinging and missing their way back to the bench, Pujols, even in his advanced age, was consistently making contact. That wasn’t always a good thing.
5. He had Mike Trout hitting in front of him for 10 years
To ground into a double play, there has to be at least one runner on base. If Pujols had spent the second half of his esteemed career hitting behind, say, Ben Gamel or Alcides Escobar, his game logs would be littered with solo groundouts, not double plays.
Alas, from 2012 to the middle of 2021, Pujols hit a spot or two behind the greatest player in a generation. During that span, nobody got on base more often than Trout did (though Joey Votto had an identical .422 OBP). That is a superb recipe for double plays.
6. He was generationally slow at the end
This is the saddest factor.
During his first stint in St. Louis, Pujols was regular-slow. But during his early years in Anaheim, the already molasses-legged first baseman started to suffer from plantar fasciitis. That took his foot speed from regular-slow to painful-to-watch levels of sluggishness. According to Statcast, Pujols was, on average, the slowest runner in baseball from 2015 to 2022. By the end, Pujols was hobbling down the baseline, delicious bait for groundball pitchers and slick-fielding infielders alike.
Now, can anyone catch him?
The 77 double-play gap between Pujols and Cabrera is roughly equivalent to the gap between Cabrera and Paul Konerko, who’s No. 19 on the all-time list. Though Miggy has lost his offensive thump and nowadays has the running speed of a coffee table, he would need to play four more seasons with an average of 18 double plays a year to pass Pujols. Very unlikely.
To find the next-highest active player behind Cabrera on the leaderboard, you have to scroll down quite a ways (unless you count Robinson Canó, lol) to Evan Longoria in 113th place with 198 double plays. At age 36, Longoria doesn’t have the time left in his career to more than double his double-play output.
But not all hope is lost. There is a superstar in the game today with a fighting chance, a decent shot at one day catching the double-play king: Manuel Arturo Machado.
Over his last eight seasons, Machado has averaged 16.4 double plays per year, still a tick below Pujols’ hilarious 19.36 annual rate. He would need 264 more to top Pujols. But Machado has a number of characteristics in his favor: (1) He’s generationally good, so he should play for a long time, (2) he’s super durable, (3) he hits the ball hard, (4) he might have Fernando Tatís Jr., Juan Soto and Xander Bogaerts hitting ahead of him in the Padres’ lineup for a while, and (5) he’s not fast.
Beyond Machado, it’s a bleak scene. Pujols truly was the ideal concoction, the perfect recipe. So, while there’s a good chance our grandkids’ grandkids are fending off the rising seas in a world unrecognizable to ours, there’s also the real possibility that when the apocalypse comes, Albert Pujols will still be the undisputed god of the double play.
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