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|
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)|
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.
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|
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|
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.
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
|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.
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.