Baseball superlatives are hardly ever unanimous, but it’s hard to find a dissenter when someone mentions that Albert Pujols is the best player in the game today.
Why is it hard to argue against that sentiment, you may ask? As an incredibly small sample size, take his 2011 season, which was, statistically, the worst of his career.
Pujols hit .299/.366/.541 with 37 home runs and 99 RBIs (his first season ever below 100) in 579 at-bats. For those of you without a calculator, his OPS was .906, good for 10th in the National League. Even if you didn’t see any of his other stat lines from his other 10 seasons in the MLB, you’d have to infer that he is a special hitter based on his “worst” (and really, it’s not even close) season.
The story of the summer will be where Pujols decides to sign and how much richer he becomes. Newly appointed Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein would love to park Albert at first base in Wrigley for the foreseeable future.
The team with the deepest pockets in the league, the Washington Nationals, is rumored to be hatching a plan to make Pujols a (cue the Dr. Evil voice) $300 million man. Will he take the bait?
Sources indicated that the Cardinals tried to extend their franchise first basemen in February before he hit free agency with an eight-year-deal worth upwards of $200 million — a deal that Pujols and his agent, Dan Lozano, balked at.
Once in recent memory has the so-called “best player in the game” hit free agency — when Alex Rodriguez garnered the richest contract in sports history with his 10-year, $275 million deal from the New York Yankees, beating the old record (set by himself).
In a day and age when exorbitant sports contracts are handed out without much recourse (see: Lockout, NBA), one must wonder if it will be worth it to tie up that much money for that many years to one player.
The Yankees aren’t exactly getting burned by the Rodriguez contract since money is no concern to them, but would you want to have paid $31 million last season for 373 at-bats and a .276/.362/.461 stat line? No, I didn’t think so.
But in Pujols’ case, you have to figure that if he gets at least 500 at-bats a season, he is going to produce at an incredibly high level. He’s had a healthy career to this point, evidenced in a microcosm by breaking his left wrist last season and returning to play after only 15 days.
Plus (thinly veiled shot at A-Rod), there have never been any allegations of performance-enhancing drugs at any point in Pujols’ career.
In fact, saying that Pujols produces at an incredibly high level is an insulting understatement. His career numbers in 11 MLB seasons are downright crazy.
Ozzie Guillen recently called him “one of the greatest right-handed hitters of all time.” In this instance, the dangerously insane Ozzie is absolutely right. Taking Pujols’ career numbers and comparing them to another man considered the greatest right-handed hitter of all time, Henry Aaron, proves this.
In their first 11 seasons, Pujols has the edge in batting average (.328 over .320), RBIs (1,329 over 1,216), OPS (1.037 over .943) and, amazingly, home runs (445 over 366). Oh, and did I mention that Pujols has 198 fewer at-bats?
Now, of course, everyone knows that Aaron went on to produce like this for another nine seasons or so and shatter records, which is why every casual baseball fan knows the name “Hammerin’ Hank.”
If Pujols continues on his path of destruction, he will become the Aaron of this generation. If he averages just 170 hits a season (something he has done every season so far), he will reach 3,000 hits in 2017, probably even sooner. And if he averages 35 home runs a year (a total he’s reached in every season except for 2002 and 2007), he’ll pass Aaron’s 755 home runs in about nine seasons.
Outside of Busch Memorial Stadium in St. Louis, Mo., stands a bronze statue of a man Cardinal fans call the best baseball player of all time, Stan Musial. Despite its aesthetic shortcomings (“too bulky,” “looks nothing like him,” etc.), fans recognize that a player as impactful and as polarizing as “The Man” deserves to have such an honor bestowed upon him.
Musial played 22 seasons in the MLB, all of them in St. Louis. He is a statistical pillar, gaining 3,630 hits in his career, more than anyone who has ever played the game except for three guys named Rose, Cobb, and Aaron. There were 14 seasons where Musial had 500-plus at-bats and never during those seasons did he hit below .310, even hitting .376 in 1947. Those 14 seasons, by the way, were consecutive.
The inscription on Musial’s statue reads: “Here stands baseball’s perfect warrior. Here stands baseball’s perfect knight.” If Cardinal fans have their way, the statue of “The Man” would be scooted over a few feet around the year 2025 to make room for another (hopefully better crafted) statue.
Crouched low in his batting stance and leering straight ahead, gripping his bat tight, would stand a slightly larger (not implying anything, Cardinal fans) statue of not a knight, but a “Machine,” the best right-handed power hitter of all time.