Rogers Hornsby once said that “guys who can field you can shake out of any old tree. Find me guys who can hit.” This was a somewhat self-serving comment for the Rajah, who could hit with nearly anyone—over .400 three times and a lifetime 175 OPS+—but he wasn’t much for fielding.
On the other hand, Hornsby was probably right; in a pinch almost any Major League team could find someone capable of manning a position competently. But finding someone who can hit well enough for his bat to carry the load is a good deal tougher.
Despite this, great hitters are sometimes taken for granted. Alex Rodriguez led American League third-baseman in OPS+ and RBIs and was second in home runs. Yet there was a large segment of Yankees fans happy to scream from the rooftops about what a disappointment he was.
Which brings me to Albert Pujols. There are any number of ways to measure Pujols’ greatness—and I’ve got some words to play with here, so I’ll get to them—but one of the simplest is Pujols’ OPS since entering the league. Pujols has posted an OPS over 1.000 in all but two seasons, and one of those missed only after Pujols had an 0-for-5 on the last day of the season to drop him .003 below the number. Even in an inflated offensive era, that is no small feat.
Now it must be said that Pujols is hardly underappreciated. Despite not even having played enough seasons to qualify for the Hall of Fame, he has still accumulated more MVP support than all but 10 players in baseball history, finishing outside of the top four only once in eight years.
But then, sportswriter voting is a notoriously unsure thing, as evidenced by Jim Rice entering the Hall of Fame, and Tim Raines outside looking in, which is just deplorable. (Sorry, sorry, rant over.) So perhaps Pujols is just getting the benefit of the doubt from the scribes.
Well, no. Since his debut, Pujols leads the league in OPS, batting average, OPS+ (by 12 points, 12!), extra-base hits, slugging percentage and doubles. (As in all cases, rate statistics are based on a minimum of at least 1,000 games played.) He is second in home runs to Alex Rodriguez and second in on-base percentage to Coors Field-aided Todd Helton.
Since he entered the League, Pujols has three of the 10 highest OPS+ seasons, excluding those posted by Barry Bonds.
In fact, except for stolen bases (45th in that list, with 45 exactly appropriately enough) there is no major offensive statistic on which Pujols does not rank brilliantly. He has more runs than Ichiro, and is second to the Mariners outfielder in hits. For the traditionally minded, Pujols is also second in RBIs.
So we have pretty well established that among his contemporaries, Pujols is an absolute monster. But what about his place in baseball history? There are a variety of ways to do this, so let’s start by looking at a raw total like home runs. Among all players, Pujols’ 319 home runs are second only to Ralph Kiner’s 329 for a player in the first eight years of their career. (Of course, Kiner only hit 40 the rest of his career, so Pujols should try to avoid that particular fate.)
Despite playing in a comparatively lower average era, Pujols’ .334 average is twelfth all-time for players in their first eight seasons. The only player above him on the batting average list with a better OPS is Ted Williams, maybe the greatest hitter of all-time. The only players with a better OPS in general are Williams and Frank Thomas.
But Pujols is impressive not only for his accomplishments through eight seasons, but also for the age at which he accomplished it. Through age 28, Pujols is sixth all-time in home runs. That may not seem too impressive, but it is even more so given that Pujols did not debut until age 21. To find another player on the list who debuted at age 21, one must go all the way to Adam Dunn in 12, 62 home runs behind Pujols.
Speaking only of those seasons for players between ages 21 and 28, Pujols is third in home runs (behind A-Rod and Jimmie Foxx), 10th in batting average (with Stan Musial representing the most modern player in front of him) and third in OPS (behind Lou Gehrig and Foxx).
Finally, while it is not a perfect statistic for cross-era adjustments, OPS+ reflects well on Pujols as well. Through his first eight seasons, his 170 OPS+ puts him eighth all-time, the same place he holds among the list of all players through age 28. Pujols drops to ninth among all players in career history ages 21-28.
Pujols is more than just consistency; however, he also has two of the 20th highest OPS+ seasons by a player his age since World War II.
Just in case you didn’t get a sense of how impressive that is—and it’s plenty impressive—consider that only 215 players have managed to reach 1,000 games between age 21 and 28. The only other player even close to Pujols in that department who played entirely after the second world war is Hank Aaron, and Aaron is 10 points below Pujols.
Now obviously the fact that Albert Pujols is a great hitter is not groundbreaking research, I will concede. Nonetheless, players of Pujols’ greatness do not come along very often. Pujols is among the greatest hitters who have ever played at this point in his career. He is not one to be taken for granted, and hopefully that is something not only Pujols’ own fans in St. Louis but also those around baseball.