There is no greater honor for a baseball player than to be asked to spend a weekend in upstate New York five or more years after retirement. If invited, the player is being enshrined in baseball’s Hall of Fame, located in Cooperstown – a sleepy hamlet in the middle of nowhere with no appeal – except for the museum where baseball’s history, and greatest, are honored. While some future Hall of Famers are obvious – Miguel Cabrera might as well make his reservations at the Cooper Inn for five years hence on the day he announces his retirement – others will wait by the phone anxiously as the years tick by. And while young superstars like Mike Trout seem like sure things now, he still needs five more seasons in the majors before he is even eligible. In this series, Dave McCullough looks at the Hall of Fame resumes of active players eligible like Albert Pujols for enshrinement, and whether they should consider booking a room at the Cooper Inn.
Albert Pujols arrived in the major leagues at age 21, fully-formed, like he had been birthed from some immortal’s forehead out of a Greek myth. And like Athena, daughter of Zeus, there was nothing Pujols could not do. He played some right field, some left field, some third base, and some first base in a season where he played in 161 of a possible 162, winning the Rookie of the Year and finishing 4th in the MVP voting. He crushed 37 homers, 47 doubles, and while he was only 1-for-3 in stolen base attempts – no one really noticed the sole flaw in his game because the rest was so, so good.
Pujols eventually settled in at first base full-time, where he won a couple of Gold Gloves and proved to be a better-than-average defender. But he will sail into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot for his dominating offensive abilities. There was about a decade where you simply could not pitch to Albert Pujols. While racking up three MVP awards, 2001-2010 Pujols was as good as any hitter in the history of the game, non-Babe Ruth/Barry Bonds division. He hit between 32 and 47 homers, 177 and 212 hits, and 33 and 51 doubles per year while adding 69 to 115 walks, every year, like clockwork putting Pujols into lofty company on the all time leaderboards.
Since 2011, Pujols has not been otherworldly at the plate – he’s merely been above average to excellent. And though his numbers have absolutely declined from their very high watermarks early in his career, he is still performing in Anaheim at 36-years-old. Signed for five more years at very expensive salaries (AAV of $28 million), there is some concern that the first baseman might be on the decline. 2016 is on track to be the worst offensive season of his career – but his worst is still better than a whole host of other guys’ best. Several more seasons like this – or worse – will see him over 660 homers (he currently has 585) and 2,000 runs batted in (1,799 now). The batting average is going to continue to decline and he may end up under .300 for his career if he continues to make contact at the rates of the past few seasons. But he’s also going to reach 3,000 hits – currently 2,794 – and that’ll be several “automatic” milestones triggered.
Fans watching the best player in baseball – Mike Trout – may not fully appreciate that Pujols at his peak was notching offensive seasons far superior to Trout’s current performance. Please understand – Trout is the very best player in baseball, and he is about to rack up five consecutive seasons of amazing numbers. However, Pujols did it for twice as long – and not-quite twice as well. Trout’s best season was a 176 OPS+ in 2015. Pujols has five seasons over 176; his 192 in 2008 is astonishingly good, while the 189 in 2009 features a slash line of .327/442/.658 and the league lead in homers.
The next few years of contract fulfillment may not be kind to Pujols legacy. He earned every penny of that contract during his years in St. Louis, but Angels fans will have to endure his decline in their lineup. This season has been difficult, as injuries have begun to take their toll, but Pujols is far from an albatross the way Alex Rodriguez has become in New York. Hopefully, he is still a few seasons away from that fate.
Regardless of how rough these contract fulfillment years / decline phase numbers are, Albert Pujols is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. The career numbers, the dominant peak, the earned reputation – he has all the qualifications you could ask for in a candidate.
VERDICT: Book a room at the Cooper Inn, build a summer house – Albert can afford to do it all. Five years after he retires, Cardinal fans will lead the charge of baseball fans everywhere to enshrine the great Albert Pujols in the Hall of Fame.