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How Does Albert Pujols Compare to Hank Aaron?

Eric Sentell
People watching baseballJimmy Conover on Unsplash

Albert Pujols is closing in on 700 homeruns for his Major League Baseball career, a milestone that would elevate him to the upper echelon of the MLB Hall of Fame.

The St. Louis Cardinals designated hitter currently has 698 homeruns with about two weeks of his final season before his retirement left to go.

Pujols would become only the fourth player in MLB history to hit 700 or more homeruns, joining Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, and Babe Ruth.

What have baseball fans been blessed to witness in Albert Pujols' 22-year career? As I'll explain below, we've basically seen a spectacular replay of Hank Aaron's storied career.

Comparing Career Stats for Pujols and Aaron

Albert Pujols played 22 seasons for the Cardinals, Angels, Dodgers, and Cardinals again, primarily at first base and designated hitter. He debuted in 2001 and will retire at the end of the 2022 season.

Hank Aaron played 23 seasons in the outfield for the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves. His rookie season was 1954, and he retired in 1976.

As of this writing, Pujols has 1904 runs scored, 3371 hits, 698 homers, 685 doubles, 2203 RBI (runs batted in), 117 stolen bases, and 1369 walks.

Aaron scored 2174 runs and slugged 3771 hits, 755 homers, 624 doubles, and 2297 RBI. He added 240 stolen bases and 1402 walks.

At first glance, Aaron seems like a far superior player based on career stats. But keep in mind that Albert Pujols lost almost half a season to injury in 2013 and well over half a season to Covid in 2022.

This doesn't diminish Hank Aaron's greatness, but he had roughly two full seasons more than Pujols to accumulate hits, homers, RBI, and more.

For their careers, Pujols has 11,387 at-bats versus Aaron's 12,364 at-bats. Aaron enjoyed almost 1000 more opportunities to hit the ball.

Comparing 162-Game Averages for Pujols and Aaron

So, how do the full-season averages compare for these all-time greats?

Here are Albert Pujols' 162-game averages:

  • 601 at-bats
  • 101 runs scored
  • 178 hits
  • 36 doubles
  • 37 home runs
  • 116 RBI
  • 6 stolen bases
  • 72 walks
  • 74 strikeouts
  • .296 BA
  • .374 OBP (on-base percentage)
  • .543 Slugging (total bases reached divided by at-bats)
  • .917 OPS (on-base plus slugging)

Those are the average statistics over a 22-year career. Those averages include several seasons played at age 36+, when most formerly elite major leaguers are sitting the bench or retired.

To put it another way, Albert Pujols' average season was an All-Star caliber performance.

Here are Hank Aaron's 162-game averages.

  • 607 at-bats
  • 107 runs scored
  • 185 hits
  • 31 doubles
  • 37 home runs
  • 113 RBI
  • 12 stolen bases
  • 69 walks
  • 68 strikeouts
  • .305 BA
  • .374 OBP (on-base percentage)
  • .555 Slugging (total bases reached divided by at-bats)
  • .928 OPS (on-base plus slugging)

Like Pujols, Hank Aaron put up All-Star numbers as his average season. A "down" year for both Pujols and Aaron would have been a great year for the vast majority of major leaguers.

Looking at the 162-game averages, Aaron seems to edge out Pujols for greatness. They hit the same number of home runs per season and drove in nearly the same number of runs, but Aaron hit for a slightly higher batting average, "slugging" percentage, and OPS.

But remember, Aaron had 1000 more at-bats. "Slugging" is calculated by counting the bases a player reaches (e.g., a homerun is 4 bases) and dividing by at-bats. Slugging then factors into OPS.

Aaron had 1000 more at-bats over two additional seasons to accumulate more hits and homers, strengthening his Slugging and OPS compared to Pujols.

What If Pujols Had Gotten Another 1000 At-Bats?

If Albert Pujols regained the at-bats lost to injury and Covid, then he could be challenging Hank Aaron's homerun mark of 755 and all-time MLB record of 2297 RBI.

In fact, Pujols could have bested Barry Bonds' all-time homerun record and shattered Aaron's RBI record. He averaged 37 homers and 116 RBI per 601 at-bats. He could have hit 70 homers and 200 RBI with another 1000 chances.

Of course, there's no guarantee that Pujols would have performed at the same level for those 1000 at-bats. There's no denying he's a shadow of the player he was for the Cardinals from 2001-2011.

But it's definitely plausible that he could have performed at roughly the same level and hit another 60-70 homers and driven in another 160-170 RBI. He's swatted 19 homers and counting in his age 42 season this year.

What If Pujols Had Been Healthier?

Besides age, injuries plagued the latter part of Pujols' career. Back pain and plantar fasciitis hampered his swing and slowed his running. He didn't miss many games, but he lost some of the skills that made him so great.

If one compares Pujols and Aaron year-by-year, then one notices that Aaron played at a high level for 20 years and declined significantly during his last three seasons. Pujols played at an elite level for 15 seasons and then declined significantly.

With better health, Pujols almost certainly would have continued his elite play for a few more seasons. He would have gotten some of those 1000 at-bats close to his peak.

What If "Shifts" Hadn't Become So Popular and Precise?

Adding insult to injury, Pujol's latter years coincided with an unprecedented rate of "defensive shifts." With more data available than ever, major league managers began positioning their infielders and outfielders specifically for each and every batter.

Defensive shifts have existed in baseball for a century, but in the late 2010s, they went from, "stand over there because Ted Williams is a pull hitter" to "stand on this exact spot where Pujols hits 80% of sliders thrown down and away."

I'm not the first to observe that the shift hurt (the aging, slowing) Albert Pujols more than any other player. ESPN's Alden Gonzalez wrote on Aug. 7, 2018:

From 2015 to 2018, Pujols has accumulated a whopping 403 hard-hit outs, putting balls in play that travel at least 95 mph. Nobody has more.

Pujols hit 403 rocket line-drives that could have been singles or doubles. Add those "lost" hits to his batting average, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, and OPS.

The Verdict

Hank Aaron and Albert Pujols had remarkably similar careers. If a couple things had gone differently for Pujols (more at-bats, better health, MLB banning shifts), then he would very likely be a .300 hitter like Aaron and approach passing Aaron in hits, homers, and RBI. Aaron might still have a better slugging percentage and OPS, but the gaps would be much narrower.

For my money, Pujols is the better player not only because of the "what ifs" but also because he put up such monster performances against better pitching and more defensive shifts.

No matter how we look at it, though, we can imagine watching Hank Aaron for 23 years because we've been lucky enough to see Albert Pujols for 22.

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