Whether driving in runs is more of a skill or a product of opportunity is open to debate. What cannot be denied is that Albert Pujols has been very good at it for a very long time.
Pujols, who ranks fourth on Major League Baseball’s all-time RBI list behind Hank Aaron (2,297), Babe Ruth (2,213) and Alex Rodriguez (2,086), slammed a 2-and-0 fastball from left-hander Ryan Carpenter 415 feet into the left-field seats for the 639th homer and 3,107th hit of his career.
The hit, which snapped an 0-for-15 skid, vaulted Pujols into another exclusive club: He joins Aaron and Rodriguez as the only players with 600 homers, 3,000 hits and 2,000 RBIs.
“There are some 20,000 players who have played this game and to be the [fourth] one on that list … that’s amazing,” Pujols said. “I know right now there are a lot of geniuses who don’t want to give credit for RBIs, which I don’t understand, because that’s how you win games, by driving in runs and scoring runs.
“I thank God for the ability and the talent. I thank my family and my wife and kids, my coaching staff, the players. You don’t accomplish it by yourself. You have to have guys on base and get the opportunity to drive them in. Look at that number. That’s a big number.”
There was no doubt Pujols’ homer, one of five hit by the Angels, was leaving the yard. Pujols flipped his bat toward the Angels dugout after his violent swing, rounded the bases and gave Mike Trout a hearty hug before exchanging high-fives with teammates.
“It’s unbelievable, to be honest — 2,000 RBIs, that’s a huge number,” said Trout, who has 668 RBIs in eight-plus seasons. “It’s obviously a huge accomplishment for him. I’m just very fortunate to be a part of it, to see it. I don’t think I’ll ever see it again in my lifetime.”
The ball, which was not authenticated by MLB, was retrieved by Ely Hydes, a shaggy-haired fan who identified himself to local media as a law student. But the ball was not returned to Pujols despite extensive efforts by Tigers and Angels officials to exchange it for signed memorabilia and a meeting with Pujols.
“I don’t care about money; I don’t want anything out of this,” Hydes said in a television interview. “It’s folklore. I love it. I’ve never caught a foul ball in a thousand games. What a first.”
Pujols did not push Hydes for the ball. Nor was he angry at him.
“I told the guys, just let him have it — he can have a great piece of history,” Pujols said. “When he looks at the ball, he can remember this game. We play this game for the fans. If they want to keep it, I think they have a right to.”
Angels manager Brad Ausmus, a former catcher who played 18 major league seasons, was on teams that Pujols collected 83 RBIs against. He said it was nice to see the slugger notch RBI No. 2,000 wearing the same uniform.
“I played against Albert for a long time when we were both in the National League Central, and he is one of the greatest hitters to ever walk the planet, without question,” Ausmus said. “It’s such an elite group. In 150 years, [four] guys have now done it. It’s unbelievable.
“I know in this day and age they say RBIs are a product of opportunity when you get guys in scoring position, but guys like Albert drive guys in from first, and he’s driven himself in more than 600 times, so it’s extremely special.”
The latest Pujols milestone in a certain Hall-of-Fame career filled with them has rekindled the debate — fueled by mountains of advanced statistical data— about whether the accumulation of RBIs is driven more by skill or an abundance of opportunities.
“A thousand percent, that’s a skill,” Angels right fielder Kole Calhoun said. “You get hits, but the game is different when someone is on second base or guys are in scoring position. Watch any game. Guys pitch at 92 to 93 mph, and then a guy gets in scoring position and they are 95 to 97.
“Pitchers step up and don’t let runners score. Guys who get RBIs, it’s 100% a skill. When he comes up in those situations throughout his career, there are not many better guys to have up there.”
Pujols was baseball’s most feared right-handed hitter during his 11-year career (2001-2011) in St. Louis, nicknamed “The Machine” for his persistent power and production while winning three NL most valuable player awards and two World Series titles.
While his performance has tailed off since signing a 10-year, $240-million deal with the Angels before 2012, the numbers suggest that Pujols has always thrived in the clutch.
His career average with runners in scoring position (.313) is 12 points higher than his overall average (.301) and 19 points higher than his average with the bases empty (.294). He has a .317 mark with the bases loaded.
“I’ve been having this conversation for what feels like the last 15 years with different people,” Angels general manager Billy Eppler said. “You try to assess RBIs. They're obviously an outcome you want. You want to push runs across. You tend to look at RBI opportunities and what the frequency is on capitalizing on those opportunities, because it's not always equitable for everybody.
“But I do think that there's some hitters out there who do have an innate skill to drive a runner in. Usually it comes with high-contact hitters and hitters that can use foul line to foul line, who have the ability to have some bat range and manipulate the barrel.”