While I was sitting in Minute Maid Park for a very enjoyable four hours last Friday night watching the Astros beat the Cardinals 6-5 in 13 innings, I came to the realization, perhaps a little late, that Albert Pujols is the best hitter I’ve ever seen. This covers a lot of territory since I’ve been around long enough to have personally watched Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Mike Schmidt, Ken Griffey, Jr., Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and at least 50 other current and future Hall-of-Fame hitters.
Among the eight players listed above, Pujols ranks second in batting average (.333) to Williams, fourth in on base percentage (.413) and second in slugging average (.624), again to Williams. His career slugging average is third on the all-time list behind Ruth, Williams and Gehrig. His 1.037 OPS entering this season ranks behind only Williams and Bonds among players who have played in the last 50 years.
Pujols has more walks than strikeouts for his career and only Williams and Bonds on the list above have a higher ratio of walks to strikeouts. And Pujols, at age 25, has not yet reached what should be the most productive years of his career (age 27-31).
Despite his impressive credentials, Pujols has not yet won an MVP Award. Bonds has won in each of the four seasons that Pujols has been in the major leagues. Twice Pujols has been the runner-up and the other two times he finished third and fourth. With Bonds out of the picture this year, he may again be denied as Andruw Jones has apparently replaced Derrek Lee as the popular choice for the award. Pujols should finish no worse than third, his fifth straight year in the top four.
Pujols has been remarkably consistent in his first four years in the major leagues. In his worst season (2002), he batted .314 with an on-base percentage of .394 and a slugging average of .561. In every other season, he has batted at least .329 with an on-base percentage over .400 and a slugging average over .600. He is doing it again this year with figures of .334, .430 and .617 as of September 6. In each of his 4 seasons, he has had at least 40 doubles, 34 home runs, 112 runs and 123 RBIs. He should exceed each of these figures again this year.
The numbers, impressive as they are, do not tell the whole story on Pujols. He is an imposing figure at the plate (6’ 3”’, 225 pounds) and pitchers have yet to expose any weaknesses. He makes necessary adjustments and is rarely fooled twice in a row by the same pitch. In the two games I saw at Minute Maid last weekend, he was 5 for 10 with an intentional walk and no strikeouts. In one at-bat, Roger Clemens made him look bad with a splitter but, with two strikes, Pujols reached out and drilled the next one into center field for a single.
A reasonable case can be made that Williams and Bonds have an edge on Pujols as a hitter, but he has a clear edge over the other top hitters of the last 40 years. Williams’s first five seasons were even better than what Pujols has done but Bonds didn’t come close to matching what Pujols has accomplished in his first 5 years. Pujols’ game includes more than his hitting ability. He is a smart, aggressive base runner and a sure handed first baseman that has also played well at other corner positions in the infield and outfield.
It’s possible that Pujols will not be able to maintain his early level of production throughout his career. However, there are certainly no indications that this will be the case. Griffey was also frequently mentioned as a potential all-time great in the early years of his career before he was sidetracked by injuries and the same thing could happen to Pujols. Another less likely possibility is that Pujols could turn out to be older than his listed age which would presumably shorten the rest of his career. This has been speculated because of Pujols’ remarkable maturity at an early age and also because Dominicans have a reputation for floating birthdays and even floating identities (Astros pitcher, Wandy Rodriguez, played his first few years as Eny Cabreja).
It’s risky to project a player’s career accomplishments early in his career. However, in the case of Pujols it was obvious as early as his third season that he was an exceptional talent with a makeup that would allow him to get the most from this talent. If anything, he has enhanced this perception in the last two years. When his career is over, he should have a good chance to be included in the short list of the all-time greats.
Bill Gilbert is a long-time baseball observer, writer and SABR member based in Austin, Texas.