Cardinals: Albert Pujols and the unbreakable double play milestone
Albert Pujols has accomplished just about everything a player can accomplish in MLB. He is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, one of the greatest St. Louis Cardinals of all time and is going to finish his career in the top five in both home runs and RBI.
It is no secret that Pujols has put together a truly decorated career, but there is one record that he has that is not talked about. That Pujols, the man with 662 home runs and 2,100 runs batted in, is one double play away from becoming the first player in MLB history to ground into 400 double plays. Using his GIDP rate from the last three seasons (3.07%) we can estimate that Pujols will finish the 2021 season having grounded into 413 double plays.
This could be Pujols’ last season in the big leagues, although his agent did refute a retirement claim made by his wife on Instagram in February.
Cal Ripken Jr. was the previous all-time leader in double plays with 350, a mark that Pujols officially passed on August 4, 2017, against the Oakland Athletics. It was as lackluster as a historic moment could be.
Only 10 players in MLB history have grounded into 300 double plays while Pujols is about to pass 400. In fact, there is another active player in Miguel Cabrera who isn’t far behind Ripken’s total either. Cabrera has grounded into 321 double plays, which is 37 more than the next highest active player on the list, Robinson Cano.
Even with three more guaranteed years under contract, Cabrera is unlikely to hit the 400 mark. Cabrera needs to average 26.3 double plays in each of the next three seasons. He has not hit into that many double plays since 2016 and his double-play rate the last three seasons is 2.88%.
That means that Cabrera, at his recent pace, would need another 2,743 plate appearances just to reach 400. It is not happening.
Can anyone ever top Albert Pujols in double plays?
If we look at league trends, the answer to this question is a likely no. Due to the increase in both home runs and strikeouts, grounding into double plays is not as likely as it once was. Double play rates are lower than they were in Pujols’ prime with the Cardinals and they continue to shrink each year.
Double-play rates since 2016:
- 2016: 2.01%
- 2017: 2.05%
- 2018: 1.87%
- 2019: 1.86%
- 2020: 1.86%
Those numbers are significantly down from the last five seasons of the previous decade, also known as Pujols’ prime.
Double-play rates from 2005-2009:
- 2005: 2.10%
- 2006: 2.10%
- 2007: 2.11%
- 2008: 2.07%
- 2009: 2.03%
The double-play rate started to dwindle down towards the end of the decade into the 2010s. Overall, the 2010s saw a substantial decrease in double plays from the decade before. The double-play rate from 2010-2019 was 1.97%. From 2000-2009 it was 2.04%. That may not seem that significant, but that is the difference of approximately 134 double plays grounded into per season.
MLB is cracking down on foreign substances, deadened the baseball prior to the 2021 season and is tinkering with rules in MiLB that limit the shift. These all could return double-play numbers back to what they once were, but the hitting philosophy of maximizing launch angle is likely not going to change.
But is there anyone that even has a chance of hitting 400, let alone breaking Albert Pujols’ eventual tally?
Using Sport-Reference’s Stathead tool (which was used for all statistics in this article), we ranked every active player with at least 50 double plays by their career double-play rate. Albert Pujols, at 3.22%, ranks fifth.
So the four ahead of Albert Pujols have a chance, right? Well, perhaps not.
Yadier Molina is next on the list with a 3.34% double-play rate and 261 double plays. At his current rate, Molina would need 4,161 more plate appearances to reach 400 double plays. That is 153 fewer plate appearances than he has had since 2012. Cross him off the list.
Andrelton Simmons is next on the list with a 3.36% double-play rate and 144 double plays. He needs 256 double plays, which at his current rate, would take 7,619 plate appearances. From 2013 to 2019 he averaged 567 plate appearances per season. Can the 30-year-old Simmons play another 13 seasons? Probably not.
Salvador Perez is next with a 3.37% double-play rate and 131 double plays. Perez is in the exact same boat as Simmons. He is already 30 years old and would need just shy of 8,000 more plate appearances. He is not even at 4,000 for his career.
Finally, the active player with the highest double-play rate, perhaps our last chance, is Wilson Ramos. Ramos needs another 264 double plays and has ground into them at a 3.75% rate. That is significantly higher than anyone else in the league but he too is out of time. The 33-year-old would need another 7,040 plate appearances while only having 3,623 plate appearances thus far in his career.
Albert Pujols reaching 400 double plays will be right next to Joe DiMaggio hitting safely in 56 consecutive games, or Cy Young recording a staggering 511 wins. This is an unbreakable record, right? At least with the way that the league is trending and the other active leaders, it appears that way.
However, there is one player who could eventually join Albert Pujols in the 400 double play club. Someone who has a lot of career left ahead of them and a lot of double plays to ground into.
Enter Manny Machado.
Machado is 19th among active players in double plays with 141. His 2.83% double-play rate is 18th among active players. Based on his career rate, Machado would need 9,152 plate appearances to get to 400. From 2015 to 2019, Machado averaged 693.8 plate appearances per season, meaning he would have to play another 13.2 seasons.
That is doable. Machado is still only 28 years old and is under contract for another eight seasons with the Padres alone. Machado would have to play into his age 41 season, which is what Albert Pujols is entering into this season.
Machado is not quite what Pujols was in the 2000s but he is one of the league’s biggest superstars and best hitters. There is a path for Machado to play another five years after his contract expires, especially when the universal DH eventually comes into play.
But it might not even take that long. Machado is going in the opposite direction from the rest of the league. Double-play rates are falling and Machado’s is rising. Over the last three seasons, Machado’s double-play rate has ballooned to 3.63%.
If he continues to ground into double plays at a rate of 3.6% then Machado would only need 7,194 plate appearances, or 10.4 seasons played at his current plate appearance rate. He would only need to play through his age 38 season, not his age 41 season.
Nelson Cruz and Albert Pujols are both over the age of 40 and Cruz is contributing at an elite level as a DH. Machado is definitely a big enough superstar to still contribute enough at 38 years old, so unless he wants to hang it up early, it is a no-brainer that he will play long enough.
So for at least the next 10 years, Albert Pujols will be the only member of the exclusive 400 double play club. And if Manny Machado cannot reach it then it will be hard-pressed to imagine anyone reaching it again.
While no player wants to ground into a double play, being able to record this many double plays is simply indicative of the long and lasting legacy that Albert Pujols will eventually leave behind when he hangs it up.
Keep an eye out for that historic first double play of the season.