To some, it’s a straightforward statement of fact, to be uttered with the same matter-of-fact tone as other American standards: Rex Ryan sure likes to talk . . . I just don’t know where the stock market is going . . . My bracket is a disaster.
Pujols, 31, is in the middle of his powerful prime. Since arriving in the majors a decade ago, he has amassed an average of 41 home runs and 123 RBIs per year. To repeat: That is his average season. Few fans would argue with the statement that he’s the best pure hitter in the game today.
But is he the best all-around player, too?
The answer there has far-reaching implications, beginning, most obviously, with Pujols’ bank account. As you may have heard, the St. Louis first baseman is set to become a free agent after this season. Rest assured, his representatives are already preparing to make the case that Pujols is the greatest player and most virtuous man in uniform today. Argue that point successfully, and Alex Rodriguez’s $275 million deal may fall from its place atop the all-time list.
But what if Pujols is viewed as merely one of the best, as opposed to THE best, by the time he hits free agency? How much might that cost him? Twenty million? Thirty million? More?
The financial questions will be answered in due time. For now, let’s focus on the debate itself, less than 10 days from the start of a new season. The NFL has Manning vs. Brady. The NBA has Kobe vs. LeBron. The NHL has Crosby vs. Ovechkin.
We have Albert vs. Everyone Else.
And it’s closer than you think.
“If Albert’s the best,” said Tony La Russa, his manager for the last decade, “he’s the best by a little bit.”
“Pujols is at the top of that list,” said Florida’s Josh Johnson, the reigning National League ERA champion, “but guys seem like they’re getting closer and closer, maturing a little more.”
Over the past several days, I asked the same question of players, managers, scouts and executives from both leagues: Who is the best player in baseball? In all, the panel included more than 30 people in the game today. And I was amazed that more people didn’t immediately say, “Pujols,” with a furrowed brow and what-a-dumb-question glare.
But a majority of players did pick Pujols — particularly those who play in the NL.
“I don’t think there’s any question at all, from what I’ve seen,” said Adam Wainwright, a St. Louis teammate and injured 20-game winner. “I haven’t seen some of the AL guys in person every day, but in the NL, I don’t think I’m being too biased in saying he’s the best. No one brings to an at-bat, every day, what Albert Pujols brings. Lance Berkman said it best: You have 162 games, and 600 at-bats for the big guys, and Albert Pujols doesn’t give one at-bat away. Not giving one at-bat away is impossible — for everyone but Albert.”
Toronto slugger Jose Bautista also answered, “Albert Pujols.” And he didn’t hesitate. “The consistency is what sets him apart,” said Bautista, who outhomered Pujols last year, 54 to 42. “He’s not consistent with good years — he’s consistent with GREAT years. He’s a great defender, a Gold Glover. And another thing people don’t realize is he’s such a good baserunner.”
And yet, there wasn’t a clear consensus among Bautista’s teammates, when I interviewed them in separate conversations on Sunday. Outfielder Corey Patterson named Ichiro Suzuki and Josh Hamilton. Adam Lind mentioned the same two players. Ricky Romero, the Jays’ Opening Day starter, went with Pujols and Miguel Cabrera. Veteran catcher Jose Molina picked Pujols.
Rays outfielder Johnny Damon, who has played with many of baseball’s brightest stars over the past 10 years, identified two former New York teammates: Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano.
Russell Martin, a National Leaguer for five years before signing with the Yankees, chose Cano, one of his new teammates. Tampa Bay catcher Kelly Shoppach acknowledged that Pujols is the game’s finest hitter, but said Evan Longoria or Josh Hamilton is the best all-around player, when factoring in defense. “For me,” Shoppach said, “impact positions matter.”
Meanwhile, one scout offered a three-part answer: Last year, he would have said Joe Mauer. Now, he believes it’s Colorado shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. One year from now, after a season of wearing out the Wall, he wonders if the answer might be Adrian Gonzalez.
Of course, I had to ask Pujols himself. His answer: Miguel Cabrera.
“I like his swing, his work ethic,” Pujols said. “He works really hard. The consistency he has.”
(See, folks? He’s modest, too.)
To be clear, I didn’t distribute ballots to every big leaguer in a highly scientific study. Scouts and players have biases in favor of players they like or watch most often. This won’t be mistaken for a Gallup poll. But I spoke with enough people to come away thinking that Pujols isn’t necessarily an automatic choice.
“There’s no clear-cut Michael Jordan in the game right now,” one scout said, and yet Pujols is still the closest thing to it. As with Jordan during his 1990s heyday, Pujols faces new challengers every year. So far, at least, Pujols has demonstrated that he has Jordan-esque staying power. Other players might dazzle the fans for a month or surpass his skills in a given area. But no one has outperformed him on a consistent basis.
“Every month,” Astros left-hander J.A. Happ said, “it seems like there’s a guy who goes off.”
We can turn to advanced statistical analysis as an arbiter on the question, but those numbers don’t give us a clear answer, either. Last year, for example, FanGraphs.com said the top three players in baseball (as determined by Wins Above Replacement) were Hamilton, Cincinnati’s Joey Votto and Pujols, in that order.
Baseball-Reference.com also calculates WAR. Last year, that site had Pujols at No. 3, too. But there, he was behind Longoria and Cleveland’s Shin-Soo Choo.
And yet, FanGraphs.com also tells us that Pujols was the most valuable big leaguer from 2001 through 2010, barely ahead of Alex Rodriguez.
All of that is open to interpretation. I agree that Pujols was baseball’s best player over the past decade. But what if Votto continues to outperform Pujols, as he did last year? For how much longer would Pujols hold the title before the perception changes? How quickly could Pujols become the second-best first baseman . . . in his own division?
A-Rod is a fascinating case study in how quickly the champ can lose his title belt. When he signed that $275 million contract after the 2007 season, many media reports described him as “the best player in baseball,” in a manner similar to Pujols now. The irony is that — statistically, at least – A-Rod ceased being the No. 1 player in baseball almost immediately after signing the deal.
There have been injuries. There were the steroid revelations. (To be fair, there was also the World Series title.) In his final season before signing the deal, A-Rod won the American League MVP award. Since then, he has finished eighth, 10th and 15th in the voting.
Over those three seasons, he ranked 18th in Wins Above Replacement, according to FanGraphs.com.
It’s difficult to pinpoint when the Rodriguez-Pujols changeover occurred, but it absolutely happened, even if A-Rod has looked terrific this spring. Now, the question is how long Pujols will remain on top. If we agree that baseball is in the midst of a run-prevention renaissance, then perhaps top defenders at up-the-middle positions (such as Mauer and Tulowitzki) will be able to eclipse Pujols more quickly than in another era. Pujols is indeed an excellent defender at first base. But it’s easier to be a game-changing force on the middle of the diamond.
“If Albert played short, or catcher, or center, would he be even greater than he is?” La Russa said. “Yeah, he’d be a little greater. But when you play first base like he plays it, it’s usually underestimated how important that can be.”
In the end, perhaps the best perspective on this question came from a scout I spoke with earlier this week. When I asked him how long Pujols could remain ahead of the pack, he extended his right hand, holding his thumb and index finger about a sixteenth of an inch apart.
“The elite players in this league,” he told me, “are this much better than everyone else.”
Then he pinched the air.
“Once you slip just a little bit — physically, mentally — you lose that,” he said. “The playing field levels. You might get one more contract based on your name, but that’s it. It can happen that quickly.”