The 2014 MLB season is off to a flying start. Every team in the NL East is .500 or better. The Milwaukee Brewers boast the best record in baseball. Jose Abreu is crushing everything. Sonny Gray and Jose Fernandez are dazzling with their early success. Mike Trout is doing Mike Trout things with regularity.
And yet, with all this going on, it seems as though we’re overlooking something – or someone – very significant.
Albert Pujols entered the 2014 season needing just eight more home runs to join the still exclusive 500 home run club. Almost nobody talked about this.
When Pujols reached #499 and #500 in the same game, becoming the first player to ever hit those monumental home runs in the same game, there was some nationwide attention to the feat. But that, too, seemingly faded into nothingness.
Maybe it’s partly my ignorance that I haven’t been hearing or seeing a lot of Pujols coverage thus far this season. Maybe part of it is I’ve stopped going to ESPN all together to avoid constant NFL coverage, so I don’t even know if they talk about MLB at all anymore. Maybe part of it is that I’ve migrated towards sites like Fangraphs and Grantland for the majority of my baseball consumption, which focuses on much smaller, less recognizable feats of greatness than the power of Pujols.
I don’t know specifically what it is, but I have a feeling I’m not the only one who feels this way. So, let’s remember exactly who Albert Pujols is as a baseball player.
2013 has muddied our view of Pujols for unfair reasons. It was the first season in his new, massive contract with the Los Angeles Angels (EDIT: Pujols’s first year with the Angels was 2012, so this is his third year with the team) and he battled injuries for almost the season’s entirety. As a collective whole, fans thought Pujols – at age 33 – was over the hill.
What we don’t remember is that in 99 games last season, Pujols still hit .258/.330/.437 with 17 home runs, a 111 wRC+ and .179 ISO. While those are career lows for Pujols, more than half the teams in baseball would’ve been smitten with that type of production out of first base last season.
There’s also a very good reason why we were so disappointed in Albert Pujols’s 2013 season, and it’s because he was ridiculous and ungodly at the plate almost every year before. Over the last two seasons, we’ve fallen in love with every Miguel Cabrera does at the plate, but it was Pujols who was doing it first.
From 2003-2010, Pujols was worth at least 7.0 fWAR or more, and five times was better than 8.0 fWAR. 2013 is the only season in his career that he posted a wRC+ below 132. 2013 is also the only season in which Pujols posted an ISO lower than .200. Only four times in his career has Pujols posted a K% above 10%, and had 10 straight seasons of a BB% above 10% to begin his career. Pujols is also the active career leader in slugging percentage, OPS and OPS+. He’s won three MVPs, finished in the top three of MVP voting five other times in his career, was the 2001 NL Rookie of the Year, six Silver Sluggers and two Gold Gloves.
He’s also the third-youngest player to reach 500 home runs in his career, with only Alex Rodriguez and Jimmie Foxx doing the feat at younger ages. If Albert Pujols retired today, Baseball Reference’s JAWS metric that balances career metrics from all players across every generation, Pujols would finish as the second-best first baseman in the history of the game. Think about that. At age-34, Pujols has already posted a 78.0 JAWS, which ranks behind only Lou Gehrig’s 90.0.
We can even compare Pujols and Miguel Cabrera, if that’s fancy. According to Baseball Reference, an average 162 game season for Miguel Cabrera over the course of his career comes out to .320/.398/.565 with 35 home runs, 123 RBI and a 153 OPS+. Those are incredible career averages and hard to top, unless your Albert Pujols. Pujols comes out to .321/.409/.599 with 41 home runs, 124 RBI and a 165 OPS+, all of which include Pujols’s poor 2013 campaign. If you prefer wRC+ to OPS+, Cabrera is at 151 wRC+ while Pujols is 161 wRC+. Cabrera has eight seasons with a batting average better than .300. Pujols has 10.
My point here is that maybe we’ve taken Albert Pujols for granted ever since he signed with the Los Angeles Angels. Maybe we’ve forgotten slightly how great Pujols has been throughout his career and how amazing the entirety of his career has been to this point. We’re quick to throw the compliments at Miguel Cabrera, especially during this two-year stretch he’s been having.
But Albert Pujols has done all this before. I guess we need to remember that more often.