No. 47: Albert Pujols
So, I did this sort of meaningless baseball thing — not for the first time and not for the last. Here’s what I did: I looked at the Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement leaders for every 10-year period. I have in the past looked at the leaders for every DECADE, which is a different thing. I could tell you that the WAR leader in the 1930s, for instance, was Lou Gehrig and for the 1970s it was Joe Morgan.
But what I did this time was look at EVERY 10-year period. So I looked at the leader from 1900-1909, from 1901-1910, from 1902-1911 and so on all the way to 2004-2013. That’s 105 different time periods, if you are scoring at home.
What you will find — or, anyway, what I will tell you — is that just 21 players in baseball history have been the best by WAR over any 10-year period. That’s fewer than I might have thought. It’s so few, in fact, that I’ll just list them all … here are the 21 players and I have included the second best player in WAR over those years as well (the years listed represent the FIRST year in the period, so, say, 1921-1922 would actually represent 1921-30 and 1922-31):
1900-1905 (6 times): Honus Wagner (ahead of Nap Lajoie and Ty Cobb).
1906-1910 5 times): Ty Cobb (ahead of Eddie Collins and Tris Speaker)
1911-1914 (4 times): Tris Speaker (ahead of Ty Cobb)
1915: Babe Ruth (ahead of Rogers Hornsby)
1916 (1 time): Rogers Hornsby (ahead of Ruth)
1917-1925 (10 times): Ruth (ahead of Hornsby and Lou Gehrig)
1926-1930 (5 times): Lou Gehrig (ahead of Ruth and Jimmie Foxx)
1931-1932 (2 times): Jimmie Foxx (ahead of Mel Ott)
1933-1936 (4 times): Mel Ott (ahead of Arky Vaughan and Joe DiMaggio)
1937 (1 time): Joe DiMaggio (ahead of Ott)
1938-1940 (3 times): Ted Williams (ahead of Lou Boudreau)
1941-1949 (9 times): Stan Musial (ahead of Williams, Jackie Robinson and Mickey Mantle)
1950-1953 (4 times): Mickey Mantle (ahead of Musial and Willie Mays)
1954-1962 (9 times): Willie Mays (ahead of Mantle and Henry Aaron)
1963-1964 (2 times): Henry Aaron (ahead of Roberto Clemente)
1965-1966 (2 times): Carl Yastrzemski (ahead Aaron and Joe Morgan)
1967-1971 (5 times): Joe Morgan (ahead of Johnny Bench and Mike Schmidt)
1972-1979 (8 times): Mike Schmidt (ahead of Morgan, George Brett, Gary Carter and Rickey Henderson)
1980-1984 (5 times): Rickey Henderson (ahead of Wade Boggs and Cal Ripken)
1985-1996 (12 times): Barry Bonds (ahead of Henderson, Cal Ripken, Ken Griffey, Jeff Bagwell, Alex Rodriguez)
1997-2000 (4 times): Alex Rodriguez (ahead of Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols)
2001-2004 (4 times): Albert Pujols (ahead of A-Rod and Chase Utley)
OK, a couple of thoughts before getting to the main point. Of the 21 players who have led in WAR for a 10-season period, only the last three — Bonds, A-Rod and Pujols — are not in the Hall of Fame. But beyond that, all the SECOND PLACE finishers are also in the Hall of Fame up to the more recent Jeff Bagwell, Ken Griffey (who will be elected soon) and Chase Utley.
Of course, I’m really bringing this up for one guy: Jeff Bagwell. By 10-year WAR he was TWICE the second-best player in the baseball, and both times he trailed only the incomparable, musclebound Barry Bonds. It’s simply absurd that he is not in the Hal of Fame.
My point in doing this was to try and get closer to this question: How many times in baseball history has there been someone who was not only the game’s best player but CLEARLY the game’s best player. And I don’t mean for a year or two or three, I’m talking about over a long stretch of time (I chose 10 years, obviously). How many times can you say, without much argument, that one player was over a 10-year span unquestionably the best player in baseball?
Well, from doing this, I can give you my opinion: It’s fewer than 21.
Let’s go backward, starting with A-Rod. Four times, A-Rod led a 10-year period in WAR. But basically it’s all timing. The four years he led, happened to cover time after Bonds retired or did not play and before Albert Pujols was in the big leagues. In every period when Bonds or Pujols played every season, they topped A-Rod. In other words, I think Rodriguez was a great player, but I don’t think he was ever the best player in the game for a long stretch of time.
Rickey Henderson’s span as “greatest player” is also inconclusive. In addition to finding who led the league in WAR, I also looked at the gap. Ruth and Bonds and Schmidt and Musial were WAY ahead of everyone else. There can be little doubt of their superiority. But Henderson, great as he was, was just barely ahead of Cal Ripken in three of his years (in one year they were in a virtual tie). I don’t think WAR is exact enough to tell us with any degree of confidence that Henderson was a better player than Ripken in his prime — or Wade Boggs for that matter.
Yaz and Aaron and Clemente were all great, great players and you could make a fantastic argument for any one of them. Meaning, in my opinion, you cannot separate any of them.
The three times Mantle had the highest WAR were all before Willie Mays was an everyday player. Once Mays was in the game, WAR has him as a consistently better all-around player — from 1954 (Mays’ first 150-game season) to 1963, Mays was a full 10 wins ahead of Mantle. The gap widened from there.
I don’t think you could say with any real conviction that Jimmie Foxx, Mel Ott or Joe DiMaggio were conclusively better than one another. Hornsby did win one time period, but he clearly wasn’t the best player when Babe Ruth was around. And while I was impressed that Tris Speaker did have a higher WAR than Ty Cobb for four different time periods, the numbers were very close — again I don’t think Speaker was ever a clearly better player than Ty Cobb.
So, in my viewpoint, there have only been 11 everyday players since 1900 who were CLEARLY and ALMOST INARGUABLY the best players of their time:
1. Honus Wagner
2. Ty Cobb
3. Babe Ruth
4. Lou Gehrig
5. Ted Williams
6. Stan Musial
7. Willie Mays
8. Joe Morgan
9. Mike Schmidt
10. Barry Bonds
11. Albert Pujols
It is very difficult, almost impossible, to rank a player who is still active — especially one who is coming off his worst and most difficult season and still has a long and brutal-looking contract ahead. Still: That’s not bad company at all for Prince Albert.
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I recently did a story on Golden State’s Stephen Curry and one of the things that fascinated me most about him is that he doesn’t seem to use the doubters as motivation. If ANYONE has a nice long list of doubters to use as inspiration, it’s Steph Curry.
He was not recruited by almost anybody out of high school — even Virginia Tech, where his father and mother both starred athletically, was not interested. Everyone just kept saying he was too small, too frail, too one dimensional, too everything. After his glorious college career, when he led Davidson on a wonderful tournament run and led the NCAA in scoring and made America fell in love with him, many STILL thought he was too small, frail, one-dimensional to be a good NBA player .Even now when he’s one of the five or seven best players in the game (I think he has a case for No. 3) there were many who STILL doubt him. It’s his fate to be undervalued and I feel pretty certain that he’s aware of the slights and deals with them in his own way. But I’m also pretty certain the doubts clearly do not power his game. Instead, Joy does.
Motivation in sports fascinates me. Somewhere, somehow, every great athlete must find the reason to work much harder and believe more deeply than other people do. Natural talent can provide motivation, of course. But the motivation to stay in the batting cage a half hour longer, to take 100 more shots, to do five extra sets, to watch film way past midnight when it’s almost entirely clear there are no secrets left to glean — these often go beyond “Hey, I’m good at this game and I love playing it.”
Money? Fame? Parental approval? Competitive spirit? The fury to prove people wrong? It’s fun to guess at players’ motivations — especially when they give so few hints. For instance, when Tiger Woods came back from the tabloid scandal a few years ago, I wrote down a theory that I’ve come to believe more and more over the years: I don’t think Tiger Woods gets much motivation from doubters. He publicly has said he does. There have been commercials that hint he does. But I don’t think so.
I honestly believe Woods’ extraordinary dedication to the game of golf came from more positive places — from his father’s expectations and dreams, from the 18 major championships Jack Nicklaus hung in the sky and dared him to reach, from the obvious exhilaration he feels when the heat is turned up and the pressure is suffocating and the tournament is there to be won. Tiger Woods may not let us in but no one who has watched him play through the years can doubt how much he loves being in the hunt and how much he loves to win.
Think about it: Nobody doubted Tiger Woods. He was a golf prodigy. He was declared the future king of golf when he was 10 or 11. He won every junior and amateur title imaginable multiple times. His father instilled in him this belief that he would not only win golf tournaments, he would in his own way change the world. I don’t think Tiger Woods stood on a driving range, cracking golf ball after golf ball while thinking, “All those people who don’t believe in me — I’ll show them!” EVERYBODY believed in him. No, I think he stood on a driving range, cracking golf ball after golf ball, while thinking: “I’m going to the best golfer who ever lived.”
Well, hey, it’s just a theory.
With Albert Pujols, though, there is no need for theories. His motivation is obvious. I’ve never known an athlete so driven, so compelled, so hungry to prove the world wrong*.
*Maybe Tom Brady.
It was never easy for Pujols. When I wrote a bonus piece about him for Sports Illustrated, he told me of growing up in the Dominican Republic, an only child raised mostly by his grandmother and 10 aunts and uncles. His father, Bienvenido Pujols, had been a great softball player. One of Alberts’s deepest memories is of carrying his father home after games, when Bienvenido had too much to drink. “God made me older,” he would say.
Albert inhaled baseball. There were times his glove was a milk carton and the ball was a roll of tape. That’s how it was in the Dominican Republic but even there Pujols needed the game just a little bit more. When he came to America at 16, eventually settled in Independence, Mo., next to Kansas City, with his other grandmother, baseball was everything. He seemed to people around him a sullen boy, serious, generally unhappy. He did not speak English and did not seem interested in learning. Then, he did not seem interested in talking Spanish either. At his first high school baseball practice, coach David Fry tried to engage him in a conversation with an interpreter.
“Tell him that I am here to play baseball,” Pujols remembered saying. “Let’s go play. I’m not here to talk about anything.”
He remembers being confused and angry a lot. Lots of teenage boys are. On the baseball field, though, he destroyed Kansas City high school pitchers to the point where more or less everybody believed he was lying about his age. He HAD to be older. It’s a charge that has always followed Pujols, much to his disgust, just as there have been those who insist on whispering about steroid use without any proof at all.
But these were just the start of the doubts. People doubted his BASEBALL TALENT. People doubted his great power. They doubted his defense. They doubted his intelligence. They doubted his fitness. His senior year in high school, he was walked 55 of the 88 times he came to the plate. He hit eight home runs in the 33 times they pitched to him — roughly one out of four.
“I was a monster,” Pujols says, and yet the monster did not get drafted. At all. There have always been rumors that Pujols wanted too big a signing bonus and that was the reason teams passed on him for FIFTY ROUNDS — but let’s say it again: Albert Pujols was not drafted out of high school. An enraged Pujols went to Maple Woods Community College and in his one year hit .422 with 22 home runs and — it is said — did not strike out one time. That’s probably not true. But he certainly did not strike out much.
Then, only then, did the St. Louis Cardinals draft him. They took him in the 13th round.
All of this — not getting drafted, getting picked in the 13th round, getting sent to Low Class A (which he crushed), being told over and over that the extraordinary things he could do on a baseball diamond were not real — created twin engines within Pujols: Rage and faith. He funneled both into baseball. He sculpted his body into a giant muscle. He widened his stance and swung the bat a million times and worked relentlessly on his defense. in his moments away from the field, he gave his life over to God.
And when, after one year in the minor leagues, he was invited to spring training he saw it as his moment. The Cardinals liked Pujols by then but still intended that invitation to be an introduction, a chance for Pujols to get comfortable with big leaguers. They didn’t understand: He was not going to let them send him down. Within days, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa could not stop talking about him. He hit EVERYTHING. He played any position you asked. He hustled constantly, was driven constantly, played to win constantly. It took an injury to open up a spot for Pujols but, honestly, they would have had to find a way. Mark McGwire told La Russa that if he sent Pujols down it might be the worst decision of his career. La Russa knew.
That first year, Pujols hit .329 and slugged .610 as a rookie with 47 doubles and 37 home runs. It’s one of the greatest rookie seasons in baseball history. Put it this way: He created 141 runs. Only Ted Williams, in his legendary 1939 season, created more in a first season.
The next year, Pujols decided he wanted to strike out less. He struck out 93 times that first year. So he cut 24 strikeouts off, just like that, and has never struck out even 80 times in a season since.
The next year, Pujols wanted to regain some of his first season power. So he led the league with 51 doubles, hit 43 homers and slugged .667. For fun, he also hit .359, which led the league.
The next year, he basically had the same season — with three extra home runs. He led the Cardinals to a 105-win season and the pennant.
The next year, he wanted to add another element to his game. So he stole 16 out of 18 bases. He won the MVP. The Cardinals won 100 games and lost in the National League Championship Series, but not before Pujols hit a homer for the ages — a massive three-run shot off Brad Lidge with two outs in the ninth and the Cardinals trailing by two runs. People who were there will tell you: Never before in the history of mankind has so much sound gone so silent as quickly.
The next year, Pujols wanted to improve his defense. He won his first Gold Glove. He also hit 49 home runs and was clearly the best player in the league, though the MVP award went to Ryan Howard (who did hit 58 homers). And the Cardinals, despite a late-season near collapse, won the World Series.
The next year he had the closest thing he would have in the decade to a down season — he ONLY hit .327/.429/.568 with 321 total bases and, by the numbers, his best defensive season.
In 2008, he hit .357 and slugged .653 and won his second MVP. In 2009 he led the league in runs, homers, on-base percentage, slugging and total bases and won his third MVP. In 2010, he led the league in runs, RBIs and homers and finished second to Joey Votto in the MVP voting.
In 2011, he failed to hit .300 for the first time (he hit .299) and failed to get 100 RBIs for the first time (he got 99) and then hit hit .478 in the NLCS to lead the Cardinals to the World Series, where they beat Texas in seven games for the ages.
All the while, he remained utterly and completely driven, set off by the most trivial snub, sensitive to the most insignificant charges. He could be icy to the press and cliquish with teammates. It was as if he spent his days in a trance. I’ve told this story before — after I wrote that Sports Illustrated story about him (a story I was told he found fair) I went to St. Louis to write something else. We crossed paths in the clubhouse, I thought to say hello, and Pujols looked right through me without acknowledging me. The next day, our paths crossed in the clubhouse again. And again, he did not show even the slightest recognition or the slightest opening for an exchange. “Well,” I thought, “maybe he really didn’t like that story.” You can’t spend much time thinking about such things.
After the season, though, I saw him again at the St. Louis Cardinals Baseball Writers dinner. And he was like a completely different person. He saw me from across the room and waved happily like a little kid. He couldn’t wait to say hello and have a conversation. Weird, right? Only: No, it wasn’t weird at all. Pujols in the clubhouse, Pujols around a game, Pujols in the batter’s box, with a pitcher trying to embarrass him and people all around who doubt him — I think he’s different there. I think he hears voices. I think he feeds on doubt. The last two years in Anaheim, in my opinion, Pujols’ numbers have not gone down because of doubt or the big contract. I think they have gone down mostly because:
1. He’s now playing in a division with three extreme pitchers parks — his own home park being one of the most extreme.
2. He’s been injured.
3. He’s in his early 30s, which is when most players start the inevitable regression, and he’s still adjusting.
Now he says he’s healthy. He’s used to his team and park. He’s having a good spring. And the doubters are everywhere. It will be fascinating to see what he can do. Pujols is one of the 50 greatest players in baseball history — nothing will change that. How much higher can he climb on the list? That’s an open-ended question, one you have to believe he still wants to answer.