It seems that over the last 25 years or so, the term GOAT has been thrown around without any real regard to what it truly means to be in consideration for Greatest of All Time. The steroid era brought on MLB’s most illustrious stretch of power hitters. Guys were hitting 50, even 60 homers with regularity, all while accumulating career totals the likes we’ve never seen before.
Players like Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire became the only players in baseball history to post multiple 60 home run seasons. Barry Bonds crushed the all-time records in home runs, walks, and intentional walks. And the question of the legitimacy of such records became common conversations among analysts and experts.
In the middle of all of this, Albert Pujols made his debut as a 21-year-old OF/3B/1B back in 2001 and promptly put himself on a collision course to legitimate GHOAT (Greatest Hitter of all Time) status. In fact, in the 11 years with the St. Louis Cardinals that followed, Pujols put together one of perhaps the greatest statistical stretches in the history of the game.
When comparing how other MLB players fared in the first 11 seasons of their career, Pujols ranked…
- 1st in HR with 445
- 1st in 2B with 455
- 1st in R with 1,291
- 3rd in H with 2,073 — behind Al Simmons (2,188) and Hank Aaron (1,085)
- 3rd in RBI with 1,329 — behind Al Simmons (1,388) and Joe DiMaggio (1,344)
- 5th in OPS with 1.037 — behind Babe Ruth (1.195), Ted Williams (1.117), Jimmie Foxx (1.079), and Lou Gehrig (1.078)
In that stretch with the Cardinals, Pujols was easily the most feared hitter in the game. So much so, that through any player’s first 11 seasons, Pujols ranks first in intentional walks with 251. The next best hitter, Barry Bonds, posted 226.
What’s more, his presence at the plate was completely out of this world. In fact, in the integration era (1947-present), among all MLB hitters with at least 550 at bats, Pujols has 10 seasons in which he posted more walks than strikeouts. All of those seasons took place within his first 11 years as a big leaguer.
Unfortunately, in his 11th season, Albert Pujols began to show signs of decline and started to become injury prone. At that point in his career, Pujols went on to have his worst statistical season. By any other player’s measure, however, it was far from bad.
In fact, by the end of 2011, his final season in St. Louis, Pujols finished with a .299 BA, a .906 OPS, 37 HR, and 99 RBI. This stat line was good enough to place him fifth in the 2011 NL MVP voting, which would serve as his fourth consecutive top five finish.
Upon becoming a free agent, the Los Angeles Angels promptly snatched him up and signed him to a 10-year, $240MM deal. It would be only the third $200MM contract in the history of baseball. The other two both belonged to Alex Rodriguez, who signed a $252MM deal ahead of the 2001 season and a $275MM deal ahead of the 2008 season.
Since then, though still great, Pujols hasn’t been quite the same. In eight seasons with the Angels, he has not aged especially well. The once-perennial 40 HR, 120 RBI, 1.000 oPS hitter has been relegated to 20-25 HR, 90 RBI, and an OPS hovering around .750.
And now, as we enter the final phase of his illustrious career, a time in which he could officially establish himself as perhaps the greatest ever, the unthinkable happens. A worldwide pandemic shuts down major American professional sports and limits the season to a fraction of games.
Entering the 2020 MLB season, before the COVID pandemic shut down sports and the world, Pujols had two years left on his deal. That would’ve been a potential 324 games until his career likely wrapped up.
At this point, Pujols has already established himself as one of the greatest hitters of all time, but the greatest hitter of all time he was not… at least not yet.
Currently, here is where Pujols ranks all-time:
- 17th in R (1,831)
- 15th in H (3,205)
- 6th in HR (657)
- 5th in RBI (2,076)
He is one of only three players to have at least 3,000 hits, 600 homers, and 2,000 RBI. The other two? Hank Aaron and Alex Rodriguez.
The only player to cross the 700 HR mark in this exclusive two-man club? The aforementioned Aaron.
Now, these numbers alone put Albert Pujols on a direct path to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and he’ll forever be remembered by baseball fans like us as the greatest hitter in a generation. Unfortunately, however, the pandemic will rob Pujols of approximately 108 games and potentially the title of the GHOAT. Here’s why:
Not since Barry Bonds has a player reached the exclusive 700 HR club. Before that, only Babe Ruth and Aaron had reached the mark. For Pujols, he’s just 43 homers away from that mark, and had the pandemic not shortened the season from 162 to 60 games, Pujols would have had a decent shot of getting there.
Over the last two seasons, Albert Pujols has played in 248 games and hit 42 home runs. That approximates to one in every six games. If Pujols was given the full 324 games (two complete seasons), he could potentially add another 54 home runs, thereby exceeding the 700 HR mark.
In reaching the 700 home run club, Pujols would become only the second player in the entire history of MLB to record at least 3,000 H, 2,000 RBI, and 700 HR. The other player? The GOAT, Mr. Henry Aaron.
Because of the extended hiatus, however, if Pujols is to continue on a pace of one dinger every six games, and with only a potential 222 games left this regular season and the next, he is on pace to hit about 37 more. He’d be seven short of 700.
Now, let’s say that Pujols pulls it off and reaches the illustrious mark. What separates him from Aaron? The number of championships, and in that regard Pujols has the edge.
In his career, Albert Pujols has appeared in three World Series, winning two of them. Conversely, Aaron only won one World Series as a member of the Milwaukee Braves in 1957. For the rest of his career, he’d only appear in two more postseason series.
To this point, you might be wondering if two seasons in a distinguished career really matters. The difference between those lofty numbers I’ve detailed and where Pujols stands are so minuscule, would it really negatively impact how people view him as a player?
I would argue that in the near future, probably not. In the long run, however, Pujols might suffer a similar fate to that of Hank Aaron in the eyes of plenty of casual baseball fans.
Recently, I engaged in a conversation with another baseball enthusiast in which Aaron was called a compiler. A great player in his own right, but not the quality of player Babe Ruth or Barry Bonds were in their time.
Upon bringing up his stat sheet, the person I was speaking with promptly changed their minds. Seeing the numbers first hand demonstrated just how dominant Hank Aaron was for a 12-year stretch at the start of his career. More impressively, however, was how he remained relevant through a stretch that spanned three decades.
Just think about how many players fizzle out after only a few years of dominance. Jason Giambi, Ryan Howard, and Albert Belle are great examples, to name a few. They’re all great players in their own right, but several notches beneath the likes of Aaron and Pujols.
Finally, when trying to determine a hitter’s greatness, many will turn to one stat; a number that fans have been conditioned to recite from memory because they seem so out of reach.
- Barry Bonds’ 762 career home runs
- Pete Rose’s 4,562 career hits
- Rickey Henderson’s 1,406 stolen bases
- Cal Ripken’s 2,632 consecutive games played
Few can stand out because of their greatness across the board. And if we sift through these hitters like miners use a sieve to separate the gold from the dirt, Albert Pujols is perhaps one in a handful of gold quality ballplayers in the history of the game. Unfortunately, it appears the COVID-19 pandemic might have prevented him from becoming the greatest hitter ever.
Featured image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)