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Whenever watching Albert Pujols play, I uneasily consider which Pujols younger fans will remember. After all, the 39-year-old had two distinct MLB careers.

Will it be the St. Louis Cardinals version of Pujols, who was arguably baseball’s best hitter for a decade? Or does the less productive model now wearing a Los Angeles Angels uniform eclipse the memories of that brilliant era in St. Louis?

I’m hoping it’s the former.

Yes, I’m being nostalgic about an aging player. But strolling down memory lane is worth it when discussing a player of Pujols’ stature.

Best Of The Best

In 11 campaigns with the Cardinals, Pujols was NL Rookie of the Year and a three-time NL MVP. He also won a batting title and six Silver Sluggers and earned a pair of Gold Gloves at first base. That’s an impressive collection of hardware.

Even if you ignore the accolades, Albert’s stat line places him in rarefied air occupied by the very best to play baseball since World War II. Only one player delivered more value (based on bWAR) than Pujols during his first 11 campaigns – Willie Mays.

Here’s how the Angels slugger compares to Mays and other all-time greats.

Best First 11 Yrs In A Career Since WWII
bWAR PA 2B HR AVG OBP SLG
OPS+
Willie Mays 87.5 6666 301 368 .315 .390 .588 159
Albert Pujols 86.6 7433 455 445 .328 .420 .617 170
Mickey Mantle 84.8 6697 241 374 .308 .425 .579 175
Barry Bonds 83.6 6713 333 334 .288 .404 .548 161
Hank Aaron 80.6 7216 351 366 .320 .376 .567 157
Mike Schmidt 74.2 6223 253 349 .265 .382 .536 150
Eddie Mathews 74.0 7124 248 399 .282 .386 .543 152
Wade Boggs 71.9
7323
422
85
.338
.428
.462
142
Frank Robinson 71.5 7088 352 373 .304 .391 .562 154
Alex Rodriguez 71.2 6385 309 381 .305 .381 .574 143

Clearly, Pujols’ early résumé places him among the elite. But I went a step further to demonstrate his greatness by contrasting the native of the Dominican Republic to contemporaries from his debut decade.

To provide a relatively even comparison, I focused on players with 5,000-plus plate appearances during 2001-10 and then identified the players with the highest bWAR.

Included below are a Hall of Famer, others destined for Cooperstown, and several very recognizable names.

Most Valuable Position Players (2001-2010)
bWAR PA 2B HR AVG OBP SLG OPS+
Albert Pujols 81.4 6782 426 408 .331 .426 .624 172
Alex Rodriguez 71.4 6691 280 424 .299 .394 .577 150
Ichiro Suzuki 54.7 7339 258 90 .331 .376 .430 117
Carlos Beltran 51.2 5933 304 251 .283 .366 .509 125
Scott Rolen 48.0 5367 333 195 .284 .367 .492 124
Chipper Jones 47.3 5582 289 247 .308 .412 .536 146
Lance Berkman 45.7 6313 352 302 .297 .412 .547 147
Adrian Beltre 45.0 6115 331 236 .275 .325 .467 110
Todd Helton 44.5 6187 390 226 .321 .428 .539 139
Derek Jeter 41.3 6983 315 156 .310 .380 .445 117

Today’s version of Pujols is best known for his still potent home run power. During his heyday though, he was adept at reaching base.

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Albert tied Ichiro Suzuki for highest batting average. Additionally, he trailed only Todd Helton in the more significant category – on base percentage (OBP).

In the power department, Pujols didn’t disappoint. He hit the most doubles and registered the highest slugging percentage in MLB between 2001-10. Only Álex Rodríguez clobbered more home runs.

Now that we’ve brushed up on the early history of Albert Pujols, let’s consider the second career alluded to at the onset.

Albert Pujols: Act II

After the 2011 season, Pujols left St. Louis signing a 10-year/$240 million deal to join the Angels. Shortly thereafter, the wheels began wobbling for the player known as “The Machine” when injuries and age-regression began taking root.

Albert Pujols’ Two Careers
Yrs Ages PA 2B
HR AVG OBP SLG OPS+
bWAR
2001-11 21-31 7433 455 445 .328 .420 .617 170 86.6
2012-18 32-38 4253 184 188 .260 .315 .453 113 12.7

Pujols’ power bat continued to deliver averaging 29 home runs between 2012-16. However, the 10-time All-Star’s .300 OBP over the last three seasons is a far cry from the production provided in a Redbirds uniform.

Since 100 OPS+ is always the average, Pujols’ 113 OPS+ suggests he’s been 13-percent better than the league-average hitter. That sounds encouraging on the surface, although it’s substantially lower than his 170 OPS+ during his first 11 seasons.

Conventional stats don’t paint a great picture either. Between 2012-18, non-pitchers averaged a .257/.323/.414 slash-line. That closely resembles Albert’s overall production with the Halos.

Do you remember the 10 players with the best first 11 seasons illustrated earlier? This time, they’re sorted by bWAR through their next seven campaigns.

How All-Time Greats Have Aged
Years 1-11 Years 12-18
Barry Bonds 83.6 60.6
Willie Mays 87.5 55.5
Hank Aaron 80.6 51.4
Alex Rodriguez 71.2 44.6
Mike Schmidt 74.2 32.6
Frank Robinson 71.5 31.4
Mickey Mantle 84.8 25.5
Eddie Mathews 74.0 22.7
Wade Boggs 71.9 19.5
Albert Pujols 86.6 12.7

As you can see, Albert isn’t a front-runner this go around. In fact, he ranks at the bottom with his value is well below what other all-time greats delivered during the second half of their respective careers.

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Albert Isn’t Alone

Okay, Pujols’ performance dramatically declined during his age 32-38 seasons. But every player, great or otherwise, confronts age-related regression at some point. There must be Hall of Famers who had significant drop-offs later in their careers, right?

Yes, there have been.

The following illustrates the 10 Hall of Famer position players with the lowest bWAR during their age 32-38 seasons since 1947.

Note: Catchers and players who didn’t reach their age-38 campaign or have 3,000-plus plate appearances were omitted.

Hall of Famers Who Struggled In Their Twilight
bWAR PA HR AVG OBP SLG
OPS+
Andre Dawson 18.5 4018 187 .283 .325 .497 121
Willie McCovey 16.9 3008 152 .256 .387 .496 147
Tim Raines 16.7 3104 63 .291 .384 .428 117
Tony Perez 15.5 4222 138 .275 .334 .455 117
Eddie Murray 14.3 4406 153 .275 .345 .445 119
Reggie Jackson 13.9 3764 190 .260 .350 .481 130
Lou Brock 13.3 4465 29 .302 .359 .393 110
Harold Baines 13.2 3487 134 .295 .377 .478 128
Albert Pujols 12.7 4253 188 .260 .315 .453 113
Ernie Banks 10.8 4194 162 .259 .307 .441 107
Ken Griffey Jr. 5.8 3006 151 .267 .355 .497 118

Everyone on our list possessed an above average OPS+, but all were providing significantly less value by the time they reached the wrong side of 30. Two players stick out to me more than the rest.

Harold Baines was a controversial selection by the Veteran’s Committee late last year. Baines never enjoyed the same elite-level success as Pujols, but the newly-minted Hall of Famer did have a higher OPS+ than Pujols and a similar bWAR to Albert’s tally.

Conversely, Ken Griffey Jr. received a then-record percentage of Hall of Fame votes from writers. Yet, his production numbers decreased significantly as a 30-something.

Much like Junior, Pujols’ past achievements have already cemented his status as a first ballot Hall of Famer. Remember, he’s one of only four members in the 3,000-hit/600 home run club along with Hank Aaron, Álex Rodríguez, and Willie Mays.

Looking Ahead

With Pujols’ contract running through his age-41 season in 2021, it’s plausible we’ll be watching him continue to play – and regress – for several more years.

My hope is a richly deserved Hall of Fame legacy won’t become a casualty of this extended stay.

That would be a shame.