Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Slotting Pujols

Way back in 2001, a plucky young writer named Bill James published his magnum opus, his 1,000 page classic New Historical Baseball Abstract. In it, he traipses across baseball history, providing vignettes and anecdotes about the players and events that tickle his fancy. He also spends a good two-thirds of the book explaining his new analytical tool (win shares) and using it to rank the best 100 players at each position.

The Common Man's buddy Bill brought this all up last week, in his examination of Jeff Bagwell (who comes in at #4 among 1B) and Frank Thomas (#10) and comes to the conclusion that Bagwell was the better all around player (which was James' conclusion as well).

This prompted some confusion for The Common Man, who couldn't mentally get past Jeff Bagwell as the 4th best 1B ever. In the comment section, he wrote, "I love me some Bill James, but we've got to be able to find four better 1B than Jeff Bagwell, can't we? I can't quite wrap my mind around him being an inner circle HOF guy." Bill responded and effectively challenged that, pointing out a lack of candidates to unseat Bags. Gehrig and Foxx are obvious. James puts McGwire at #3 (Bagwell probably moved past him with three good years after the publication of the book). After Bagwell, James has Eddie Murray at #5, Johnny Mize (6, much more reasonable than The Common Man figured, after looking back). Harmon Killebrew was #7, Hank Greenberg is 8, and Willie McCovey is 9. Nobody really stands out as better than Bagwell.

But before anybody on that list really settles down and gets too comfortable, let's talk about this Albert Pujols guy who was not yet a twinkle in Bill James' eye in 2000-2001. Indeed, in 2001, Pujols was unanimously voted the NL Rookie of the Year, and excelled as a four-corners super sub (though he played 161 games) for Tony LaRussa's Cardinals. Two MVPs, four silver sluggers, a gold glove and seven all star appearances later, Pujols is 29 and enjoying his best season yet. His OPS+ is a Bondsian 198. He's homering every 13.5 plate appearances (16 in 216). His defense seems to have taken a hit so far this year, but Albert hasn't ever given back runs in the field in his career and isn't likely to across a full season at age 29. His career hitting numbers .335/.427/.626, 351 2B, 335 HR, 1019 RBI, 989 R, and 1588 hits are incredible for just 8+ years in, not even accounting for his career 171 OPS+. Yesterday, Matt Waters and Rob Neyer ran through their All-'00s team, and Pujols was prominently displayed. Neyer wrote "Pujols has absolutely zero competition, and must be the easiest choice here." Indeed, if he had the requisite 10 years, Pujols would probably be a shoe-in for the Hall, despite playing in an extreme offensive era, particularly because the stain of PED use has yet to touch his golden reputation (though, admittedly, you never know).

So, at this point, the question for The Common Man becomes, where does Pujols belong on James' list? Assuming that no one else is added from this era (yet, though Morneau, Ortiz, Howard, Fielder, Helton, Giambi, Konerko, Thome, Delgado, and Teixeira may have something to say about it already), where can we safely slot Pujols among the greatest of all time?

It's pretty clear to The Common Man that Pujols should already be in the top 12. Given the troubles with assessing 19th century players (which The Common Man has gone into before, he would err on the side of caution with players like Cap Anson (who is #11 for James). And Don Mattingly (#12, James' worst choice in the book), with respect, is not fit to carry Albert's jock. Given the defensive upgrade, and the peak value, and the fact that Pujols has created about 65% of the runs in 55% of the plate appearances as Thomas has, Albert probably edges ahead of The Big Hurt at #10.

McCovey's three best seasons ('68-'71) stack up with the best of Pujols' work very nicely. That said, the body of Pujols' work outside of those years is far less impressive. Stretch has an OPS+ of 146 before those three years, and 126 after. Pujols' lowest single season OPS+ is 151. The sheer dominance of Albert is too much to ignore here (note, Thomas probably also shoots past McCovey).

Hank Greenberg, at #8, is a tougher case. His counting stats (1628 H, 331 HR, 379 2B, 1276 RBI, 1051 R) are remarkably similar to Pujols' (see above). And Greenberg suffers from losing four years in his early 30s to military service. Just because he's 29 though, and still going, and is already marginally ahead of Greenberg, The Common Man's gotta push Albert up past him.

It pains The Common Man to say this, but in terms of peak value (and not even thinking about defense), Albert Pujols is already light years ahead of Harmon Killebrew (James' #7). Partial though The Common Man is to Harmon's plight, and cognizant of his adventures at 3B and LF (which drag down his overall contribution to his team and for which he shouldn't be blamed (Harmon was about as good a LF as a post...or Delmon Young, but the Twins kept looking for ways to create at bats for Rich Reese, among others), Pujols has been a far more complete player, and elite player, than Harmon ever was (The Common Man will now go scourge his back with his Twins-flail).

Johnny Mize is a tough call too. His peak is comparable to Pujols, but it's shorter and not easily bunched together. That said, Mize missed his 30-32 seasons to WWII, which would have presumably extended that peak, helped his overall counting stats, and raised his OPS+. We don't have advanced defensive stats for Mize, but his reputation preceeds him, as one of the sweetest fielders ever around the bag. It's probably fitting that, until Pujols does more to assert himself, he stays right about here. Call him #6b, and Mize #6a.

There's little doubt that Pujols will move past The [Original] Big Cat soon, perhaps by the end of the year. And depending on how you feel about Mark McGwire, he could be sneaking up on #4 as well. Eddie Murray probably is safe for another season or two, which means that Bagwell's ok for now. But with, presumably, 5 more prime or just-off-prime seasons left to go, and maybe another 3-5 beyond that, it's likely that Pujols will move into the top 3 all time before he's done. Whether he's actually able to push aside the twin colossuses of Gehrig and Foxx will be fun to watch.


Bill said...

Nice analysis.
For whatever it's worth, career WARP3:
Bagwell: 97.2
Murray: 96.4
Pujols (through 2008): 85.3
Mize: 80.2
McGwire: 79.9
Killebrew: 70.9

I think you're just about right on, but if he stays healthy (which seems like an increasingly bigger "if" these days), by the end of this season, he'll be clearly past Mize and locked in on Bags and Murray.

tHeMARksMiTh said...

Darn it, Bill. I was going to bring that up. Anyway, Pujols has the second-highest career OPS+ of any first baseman with Lou Gehrig just ahead of him (179 to 171). Foxx, McGwire, and Mize are about 10 or so points less. In terms of ISO, McGwire leads all first basemen with Howard second. Pujols is tied for fourth with Hank Greenberg and Gehrig just ahead. I have a hard time not putting him in at least the top 3 now.

Bill said...

The reason I think Pujols and Mize stay close is, as TCM points out, he missed what figured to be three of his best years defending our country. A WARP3 of 100 would be a pretty conservative estimate if you give him those years back. I do think they probably both come out ahead of McGwire when you factor in defense (though Mac had an excellent rep, deserved or not, in his early years).

Also, the OPS+ is impressive, but the guys you're comparing him against have all had their decline phases already. My internet is moving too slowly to do the comparison now, but if you compared Pujols to some of these guys through age 28 or 30 or 31, they'd match up a lot better (Foxx's, for example, was 170 through age 31).

The Common Man said...

The Common Man also thinks sustained excellence over a long period should play a role here. Pujols is crazy good, but if he was hit by a bus tomorrow he comes out as having eight-plus excellent seasons.

That's great, don't get me wrong, and if The Common Man were picking one first baseman from the past 50 years to have on his team, he'd pick Pujols hands down. But in terms of assessing the greatest first basemen of all time, that longevity does need to be considered. Bagwell and Mize played 15 years each, Murray 21. You just can't elevate Pujols past them without another full season or so of Pujols-esque incredibleness, especially when as Bill said, Mize lost so much time to Uncle Sam. He'll get there though, don't fret.

lar said...

Through 1998, Frank Thomas had played in 1,236 games, only 50 fewer than Pujols is at today. Thomas's OPS+ at the time was 174. (and that includes a poor 1998 from Thomas)

I know I've said this before, so I apologize, but I just can't allow myself to put Pujols so high up right now only because, 10 years ago, we could've written this same exact article and put Frank Thomas's name in place of Albert's.

I agree that Pujols is one of the greatest first-basemen of all time, and I really, really want to put him at the top of these lists, but Frank Thomas has taught me to be wary. Until Pujols shows us that a Frank Thomas-like rapid decline (due to injuries or whatever) is not in the cards, we need to keep him on the outside of these lists because, 10 years from now, we might be discussing Pujols in the same way we're discussing Frank today.

It's just a warning to be cautious...

The Common Man said...

That's totally fair, Lar. It really is. And I would entirely agree with you. For me, the difference between the two comes down to athleticism. Thomas has always had the look of a linebacker or tightend. Muscular, thick, and imposing. And he was always limited to first base because that's where he could do the least damage

Pujols, on the other hand, has demonstrated an ability to play around the diamond, and has been an asset at first base. As such, I think his contributions have surpassed Thomas through this stage, and his outlook going forward is brighter, as he'll better maintain his flexibility and stay healthier (he's shown a good ability to stay in the lineup thusfar, after all, even when he is hurt.