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Column: Albert Pujols is approaching a big milestone but isn’t focused on it

Albert Pujols
Albert Pujols follows through on a walk-off two-run home run in a game against the Oakland Athletics on Wednesday, Aug. 3.
(Associated Press)

In a sporting world overstuffed with hype, there is a milestone rapidly approaching, with scarcely a murmur of anticipation.

There is no statistic in baseball more fabled than the home run. With three more home runs, Albert Pujols will take his place among the top 10 on the all-time list.

The list starts with Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth. By the time Pujols retires, his name could be the next one on the list, a proud member of the 700 club.

Mike Trout is the talk of the Angels, and the top player in baseball. Bryce Harper wants to make baseball fun again. The three most popular jerseys in the majors: David Ortiz, Kris Bryant and Clayton Kershaw.

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Pujols does not rank among the top 20. He is all over the record books, and all but invisible as he plays out his career in Anaheim.

“It’s a new era in baseball,” Pujols said. “I was the talk of the league 10, 15 years ago.

“Every year, people would talk about Albert, Albert, Albert, Albert, Albert. Now I’m blessed to have the opportunity to play with one of the best players in the game, if not the best.”

The national narrative is that the Pujols signing has been a disaster for the Angels. His 10-year contract is half over, the Angels have yet to win a postseason game with him, and he left his days of dominance behind in St. Louis.

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“We have no regrets about signing Albert Pujols,” Angels President John Carpino said.

Carpino said Pujols’ professionalism, accountability and community commitment radiates through the organization, not only among his teammates but into the front office as well.

He said Angels owner Arte Moreno never has vetoed a player acquisition because of the financial commitment to Pujols, despite the perception that the contracts of Pujols ($250 million) and Josh Hamilton ($125 million) crippled the Angels.

“Not with Albert’s contract,” Carpino said, choosing his words carefully.

Trout said he would not have enjoyed all of his success without the mentoring of Pujols.

“I’m very fortunate to have him here,” Trout said.

Trout said he can count on Pujols, from a tip between at-bats in the dugout, to learning how to carry himself in the clubhouse, to the off-season telephone calls that often have nothing to do with baseball.

“He’s one of the few guys that actually picks up his phone,” Trout said.

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For all his talents as an ambassador and tutor, the Angels need him to hit. He has settled into something of a new normal in Anaheim.

In St. Louis, his average season included a .328 batting average and 40 home runs. In Anaheim, his average season projects to a .259 batting average and 29 home runs.

“If you look around the league, I don’t think the average for guys is what it was,” Pujols said.

He’s right. In his five years with the Angels, the league batting average has ranged from .251 to .255. From 2005 to 2009, when he was the National League most valuable player three times with the Cardinals, the league average ranged from .262 to .269.

“With the shifts, I can look every year and add 30 more base hits because the shift affected me, and I could easily be hitting above .300, or .315,” Pujols said.

“I think the thing is that, when you have raised the bar so high, and then all of a sudden you have a down year like people think that I had in 2012, when I still hit .285 — that’s pretty much better than average for any big league player, with 30 home runs and [105] RBIs. Last year, 40 home runs and [95] RBI.

“The thing is, people are expecting you to hit .330 every year, .340 every year, .360. I don’t think that’s fair. But I know what I can do in this game when I’m healthy.”

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Pujols had knee surgery after his first season with the Angels, sat out the final two months of his second season because of an injury to his left foot, and had surgery on his right foot last November. He is primarily a designated hitter these days, and his ability to beat out an infield hit is all but gone.

“My focus is to try to stay healthy as much as I can,” Pujols said. “People don’t know what you go through on a daily basis to get through the season.

“This year, I was supposed to miss six months. I tried to push myself, and I was back on the field in three and a half months. There were a couple injuries that I could have easily said, ‘I’ll put myself on the DL for a month or two, don’t worry about it.’

“But I believe that I have a big responsibility. That’s representing this organization well, and the fans that come and pay us, and pay for us to play the game, and for my teammates. I don’t like to come out of a game. That’s not how I was raised in this game.”

To the question of whether Pujols can maintain his current level of production for another five years, Angels Manager Mike Scioscia offers a quick retort.

“He’s done this not being 100%,” Scioscia said. “He’s maintained it banged up. So, as you would project, you would say, ‘Is his health going to get better?’ It might.

“But this is a guy that plays at 75% and does what most guys do at 100%. His numbers are terrific this year. He’s still a very, very dangerous hitter.”

Pujols ranks third in the major leagues with 84 RBIs, a statistic that has diminished in relevance amid the rise of sabermetrics but is not entirely devoid of importance. Runs win games, after all, and he is batting .314 with runners in scoring position, with a .937 OPS.

He is on pace to finish with 125 RBI, for the fifth time in his career. The first four times, he finished among the top four in MVP voting. He won’t come close this year, but this might be the best sign of how he well he endures along his descent from greatness: according to the OPS+ statistic, he is having the worst season of his career, but he remains comfortably above the league average.

Pujols is 36. He is three months older than Mark Teixeira, who announced Friday that he would retire at the end of the season.

“My body couldn’t do it anymore,” Teixeira said at a news conference.

Pujols proceeds onward, and upward. He is on pace to finish with 31 home runs this season. If he does, he would need to average 22 home runs over the final five years of his contract to reach 700, well within striking range of Ruth’s 714.

“I don’t like to get caught up in numbers, because I’m still playing,” Pujols said. “That’s the mentality that I have. If I start looking at numbers, and what I’ve done, I think it’s going to take me away from my goal, which is winning and getting championship rings. I think people should respect that.

“This is your job. If you take this for granted, you’re going to lose your job. When you’re comfortable, that’s when trouble comes, and you start not really caring about things. For me, I’m going to have plenty of time, when my contract is done and when I decide to walk away from this game, to think about the things I’ve done in this game.

“Why have the hassle and the headache? This head is already stressed enough. So I try not to think about that, when it comes to numbers and who’s next and who am I passing? I think I will enjoy that more by the time I’m done. Then I can look back and say, ‘Wow, that’s pretty crazy.’ ”

He does allow himself a small moment of appreciation. Once he passes Mark McGwire for 10th place on the all-time list, all but one of the nine men above him would have played at least 21 seasons. Pujols is in his 16th.

“To be able accomplish those things in such a short time is pretty amazing,” he said. “I give all the glory and the credit to the Lord. If it wouldn’t be for him, I wouldn’t be standing up here.”

Pujols got to the World Series three times with the Cardinals. He hasn’t given up on the Angels.

“I don’t think there’s any owner in the league that wants to win more than Arte,” Pujols said. “There’s no manager in the league that wants to win more than Scioscia.”

In the meantime, the Angels will be happy to celebrate Pujols’ milestones. If you’re looking for buyer’s remorse, you won’t find it in the executive suite in Anaheim.

“We are proud and fortunate to have Albert Pujols wear an Angels uniform,” Carpino said. “We were proud of that the day he signed, we are proud of it today, and we will be proud of it through 2021.”

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

Twitter: @BillShaikin


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