Baseball BeatJune 01, 2004
Prince Albert
By Rich Lederer

"It's not what you did last year. It's what youre going to do this year. That's more important."

--Albert Pujols

Barry Bonds. Roger Clemens. Alex Rodriguez. Randy Johnson. Mike Piazza. Greg Maddux. Sammy Sosa. Pedro Martinez. Ken Griffey Jr.

Baseball's royalty. The kings, bishops, dukes, earls, knights, and lords of the game. At the risk of being early, I believe it's time to add Albert Pujols to the House of Bud. Prince Albert.

Jose Alberto Pujols is the only player in baseball history to hit .300 with 30 homers, 100 runs, and 100 RBI in each of his first three seasons, and he is on pace this year to make it four in a row. That's right, no one--not Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, nor Bonds--has ever begun their career with such heady stats.

Although Albert is not thought of first and foremost as a home run hitter, his 114 four baggers in 2001-2003 tied Ralph Kiner's major league record for most homers by a player in his first three years. Furthermore, with six dingers in his last ten games, Pujols is now leading the majors in home runs this season with 15.

Season Totals:

 G   AB   R   H  2B  3B  HR  RBI  BB  SO  SB   BA  OBP  SLG   OPS 
49  188  45  57  15   0  15   35  33  14   2 .303 .404 .622 1.027

Projected Totals:

  G  AB   R   H  2B  3B  HR  RBI  BB  SO  SB   BA  OBP  SLG   OPS
162 622 149 188  50   0  50  116 109  46   7 .303 .404 .622 1.027

Check out Albert's projected walks and strikeouts. 109 BB and 46 SO is phenomenal. In fact, no player has ever hit 50 HR in a single season while drawing 100 walks and striking out fewer than 50 times. But forget the walks. Pujols would become the second player ever to hit 50 or more home runs while striking out less than 50 times in a season. The only other player to achieve such a combination is Johnny Mize, who hit 51 HR while K'ing just 42 times in 1947 for the New York Giants. Based on his current projections, Pujols could also join Mize as the only players among those with 50 or more homers to go yard more often than striking out.

Speaking of walks and strikeouts, Prince Albert has increased his BB and decreased his SO totals every year of his career and is once again on pace to shatter his high for base on balls and his low for whiffs this year. He has accomplished this streak while reducing the number of pitches per plate appearance each season--a testament to the fact that the Cardinals slugger is as aggressive as ever early in the count but disciplined enough to take a walk when the opposing pitcher tries to work him outside the strike zone.

How good is Albert Pujols? Well, would you believe it if I told you his seasonal lows thus far in his career have been as follows?

Runs      112
Hits      185
2B        40
HR        34
RBI       124
BB        69
BA        .314
OBP       .394
SLG       .561
OPS+      155

There have been baseball players who could hit for a higher average, slug more home runs, or draw more walks. But very few who could do all three and at such a young age. The Pujols concoction is one part DiMaggio, one part Williams, and one part Musial.

According to Baseball-Reference.com, The Yankee Clipper has been the most comparable hitter at the ages of 21, 22, and 23, and he had the most similar career totals through the age of 23.

               H     R    HR   RBI    AVG    OBP    SLG
DiMaggio     615   412   107   432   .331   .384   .610
Pujols       591   367   114   381   .334   .412   .613

Teddy Ballgame was the only player other than Pujols to hit .300 with an OBP of .400 and a SLG of .600 through age 23.

                 AVG      OBP      SLG    
Williams        .356     .481     .642   
Pujols          .334     .412     .613

Relative to the league averages, Stan the Man and Pujols arguably had numbers that were the most alike in terms of batting average, isolated power, walks, and strikeouts through age 23. (The numbers below are expressed as ratios to the league averages.)

                 AVG      ISO       BB       SO     
Musial           130      193      152       57
Pujols           125      170      132       75
For those who don't believe that Pujols turned 24 in January and, therefore, are inclined to discount his accomplishments to date, I suggest they pay attention to the following tables (the first is comprised of players with career .300+ BA, .400+ OBP, and .600+ SLG and the second is a list of the top ten career Adjusted OPS+, both of which are irrespective of age):
                      AVG      OBA      SLG    
Ruth                 .342     .474     .690   
Williams             .344     .482     .634   
Gehrig               .340     .447     .632   
Helton               .337     .425     .616   
Foxx                 .325     .428     .609   
Pujols               .334     .412     .613   
Greenberg            .313     .412     .605

That's pretty exclusive company. Unlike Todd Helton, Pujols has never had the luxury of playing in an extreme hitters' ballpark. The others--Ruth, Williams, Gehrig, Foxx, and Hank Greenberg--are simply the pantheon of baseball sluggers.

ADJUSTED OPS+
 
1 Ruth          207  
2 Williams      190  
3 Bonds         179  
  Gehrig        179  
5 Hornsby       175  
6 Mantle        172  
7 Brouthers     170  
  Jackson       170 
9 Cobb          167 
  Pujols        167

Pujols once again finds himself among the creme de la creme. The best hitters of all time adjusted for era and ballpark effects.

The young slugger attributes the questions surrounding his age to stereotypes about Dominican players but says he is not bothered by the criticism. It's possible that Pujols was older than the reported age of 16 when his family moved from Santo Domingo to New York City in 1996. Let's say he was really 18. If so, that would make him 26 today (rather than 24). But I think there is as much reason to believe Pujols' stated age as not.

In any event, the family relocated to Independence, Missouri where Albert made a name for himself as a star shortstop on his high school baseball team. Pujols played baseball at Maple Woods Community College in Kansas City before he was drafted in the 13th round and signed by the St. Louis Cardinals for $60,000 at the end of the summer in 1999. He played one season in the minors in 2000 (with all but three games at the Single-A level) and then made a monumental jump to the big leagues after an impressive showing in the Arizona Fall League and Grapefruit League.

The 6'3", 225-pound slugger was named the National League Rookie of the Year in 2001. Pujols set the N.L. rookie records for RBI (130), extra-base hits (88), and total bases (360). Albert followed up his freshman campaign with similarly outstanding seasons in 2002 and 2003. Last year, Pujols joined Rogers Hornsby as the only players in Cardinals history to record 40 homers and 200 hits in the same season.

Unfortunately, Pujols has had the misfortune of playing in the shadow of Bonds during a period in which the latter has pieced together perhaps the best three-year stretch in baseball history. If not for Bonds, Pujols would have won the MVP Award in each of the past two seasons.

In early 2004, Pujols and the Cardinals agreed on a seven-year, $100 million contract--the largest ever bestowed upon a ballplayer of his age. But if there was ever an athlete who was "money in the bank", it's the Prince of St. Louis.

Pujols is as reliable and dependable as they come. He has played at least 157 games in each of his first three seasons and has yet to miss a game this year. Tony LaRussa, who called Pujols "the best player I've ever had" two years ago, has written Pujols' name in the lineup at first base and in the number three slot in the order every game so far in 2004.

Pujols is the type of player who shows up for work with his lunch box every day from April to September, including weekends and holidays. He goes out there daily and does what he is paid to do as quietly, consistently, and efficiently as anyone in the game. Albert reminds me of Tim Duncan and Jerry Rice in his workmanlike preparation and attitude. Fittingly, he performs off Broadway in the heartland of America.

Not surprisingly, the Cardinals are getting their money's worth this year. The tall, muscular right-handed hitter is not only leading the majors in home runs but he is also leading in runs scored (45), ranks seventh in BB (33), eighth in OPS (1.027), and ninth in SLG (.622). The man can flat out rake. Pujols is ripping lefties to the tune of a .438 BA and a 1.338 OPS, and he is hitting .315/1.147 on the road.

Through the Memorial Day weekend, the third baseman-outfielder turned first baseman has put up the following career totals in just 3 1/3 seasons:

  G   AB   R   H  2B  3B  HR  RBI  BB  SO  SB   BA  OBP  SLG   OPS
524 1955 411 646 152   7 129  414 252 241  10 .330 .411 .613 1.024

His seasonal averages (per 162 games) are as follows:

  G   AB   R   H  2B  3B  HR  RBI  BB  SO  SB   BA  OBP  SLG   OPS 
162  604 127 200  47   2  40  128  78  75   3 .330 .411 .613 1.024

If Pujols can maintain his current level of performance for the next 8-10 years, he will go down in baseball history alongside Aaron, DiMaggio, Foxx, Hornsby, Mays, Robinson, and Honus Wagner as one of the greatest right-handed hitters of all time. His numbers have been that princely.

Comments

I still think he's a robot of some sort....what he does is simply not human....

I like when a player I write about goes 5-3-5-3 with two doubles and a home run the very next game.

Great article. No one has done the 300 30 100 100 trick even two times to start a career.

Thanks, Frank.

I know there are some who will dismiss the significance of the 100 R and 100 RBI as being team dependent, but how many players have even started their careers with a .300 BA and 30 HR multiple times?

I think the danger in looking at Pujols is assuming that because he's young he's going to get better.

He may not.

Frank Thomas is a great example of a young player who started great, and stayed at nearly that exact same level of greatness for nearly a decade. Between his rookie year in '90 at age 22 until age 30 in '98, Thomas' EqA hovered between .354 and .365 every year except for the strike shortened '94 season.

I'm still not convinced Pujols is a better player at this stage of his career than Frank Thomas was.

Jurgen - I don't think Pujols has to keep getting better to warrant greatness. Rather, Albert just needs to maintain a level of play similar to that of 2001-2004 for another 8-10 years and he will go down as one of the all-time best hitters.

Being compared to Thomas is an honor in my mind. I consider The Big Hurt a first-ballot HOFer.

Rich--

That wasn't meant to "diss" Pujols (or Big Frank).

Obviously, if Pujols keeps up this same level of production he'll go down, along with Thomas, as one of the greats.

But I can't help but think people will somehow be disappointed if, like Thomas, he doesn't get better.

Ahh, I understand, Jurgen. We're definitely on the same page here. You're right, people have short memories. ESPN ran a poll last year and the vast majority of respondents didn't think Thomas was worthy of the Hall of Fame. Of course, those same voters didn't think Griffey was deserving either. I wonder what those same people would say now?