Thursday, October 02, 2008

Rare bird: Cardinals' Pujols put up another amazing season

By Joe Posnanski
October 1, 2008

One thing that has always baffled me is how baseball scouts missed on Albert Pujols. The baffling part is not that Pujols was a 13th round pick in the 1999 amateur draft -- hey, there are quite a few late-round success stories in baseball. Jim Thome was a 13th round pick too. Ryne Sandberg went in the 20th. Heck, Mike Piazza lasted until the 62nd.

Albert Pujols finished 2008 with a .357 average, 37 HRs and 116 RBIs

There's a difference though: It took Thome, Sandberg and Piazza years to grow into stars. Pujols, though, was like a Lean Cuisine Superstar -- pop him in the microwave and a few minutes later you had a piping hot batting machine. Barely 18 months after Pujols was passed over at least 10 times by every team in baseball*, he showed up at St. Louis Cardinals spring training ready to dominate. Tony La Russa talked every day about being in awe of the guy. And Pujols went on to one of the greatest rookie seasons in baseball history.

*The Kansas City Royals actually picked SEVENTEEN players ahead of Pujols in '99 even though Pujols, the player of the generation, played high school and college ball IN KANSAS CITY. True, it might not be fair to single out one team for missing Pujols -- they all have scouts in every territory. But let's face it: The Royals had the star who might have changed their fortunes down the street, and they whiffed. You know that line, "God helps those that help themselves?" Well, um, yeah.**

**By the way, that line, 'God helps those that help themselves," is not, as most people think, from the Bible. It's from Poor Richard's Almanack, by Benjamin Franklin. Yes, we're a full-service operation here.

That's why the Pujols miss baffles me. Sure, baseball scouting is imprecise. Heck, life is imprecise -- politicians didn't see the financial crisis coming and fantasy football gurus didn't see the Tom Brady crisis coming. But Pujols, based on the timeline we have here, played one year of minor league baseball and promptly dominated Major League Baseball. I'm thinking a scout or two might have noticed that sort of breathtaking, just-add-water talent when Pujols was bashing baseballs for Maple Woods Community College in Kansas City (and, according to legend, not striking out once the entire year).

Perhaps there were once genuine grounds for debate about Pujols' talent. Not anymore. He is, in my mind, the best player in baseball, and I don't think that anyone approaches him. OPS+ is a pretty good statistic -- it takes a player's OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) and compares it to the rest of the league. A 100 OPS+ is exactly average.

Over the last five years, here are the Top 5 players in OPS+.

1. Albert Pujols, 173

2. David Ortiz, 154

3. Chipper Jones, 153

4. Alex Rodriguez, 153

5. Manny Ramirez, 152.

So, well, that's not especially close. OK, so you can look at runs created, Bill James' invention that basically measures how many runs a player, um, you know, created:

1. Albert Pujols, 756

2. Alex Rodriguez, 682

3. David Ortiz, 671

4. Lance Berkman, 646

5. Mark Teixeira, 627.

So, that's not really all that close either. Maybe you're old school. Maybe you don't like these newfangled statistics. Maybe you prefer batting average.

1. Albert Pujols, .335

2. Ichiro Suzuki, .332

3. Vladimir Guerrero, .323

4. Matt Holiday, .319

5. Todd Helton, .315.

And so on. He has the best on-base percentage the last five years. He has the highest slugging percentage the last five years. He has the most total bases, the most extra base hits, the most times on base. And this year, despite missing a few games, he probably had his greatest offensive season. With offense down all around baseball, the guy hit .357, walked 104 times (while striking out 54), banged 44 doubles and 37 homers, scored 100 and drove in 116. There are any number of advanced stats -- Value Over Replacement Player, Equivalent Average, Isolated Power, Offensive Win Percentage and so on -- that show Pujols was the Usain Bolt of baseball this year.

Pujols is so good you would not expect anyone to miss it. And yet, it seems, people do. When Sports Illustrated's Jon Heyman asked 20 anonymous front office executives this summer to name the player they would build a team around, one (1!) chose Pujols. Heck, when you totaled up the execs' ballots, Pujols received only one more point than Joba Chamberlain. Yes, many of those decision-makers probably disqualified Pujols because he's not young (and many still think he's not even as young as he says). Still, GMs apparently have more respect for other veterans such as A-Rod and Chase Utley.

Over the last couple of weeks, I asked five baseball executives and scouts to name the best player in baseball -- nothing official, just an informal poll. One did say Albert Pujols. Three said A-Rod and a fifth offered Grady Sizemore. Those are perfectly fine choices. The interesting part is that when I brought up Pujols, TWO of them said: "Oh yeah, I didn't really think about him."

That seems to be a trend: Many baseball fans just don't seem to think about him. Pujols' greatness is so easily apparent -- he hits, he walks, he hits for power, he plays outstanding defense at first base, he makes winning plays just about every day and his teammates will tell story after story after story about how Pujols helped them with their swing, taught them a curveball, cured their sciatica, introduced them to their wives.

And maybe that gets to the heart of why he's sometimes overlooked. Maybe he's so good it's boring. Maybe Pujols' greatness, like a plane landing safely, doesn't make the news. There's no doubt that A-Rod is so much more human, you can see his mood swings, you can read about his crises, you can boo his salary and marvel at the way he flicks the bat out there and send the ball soaring. Sizemore and Curtis Granderson and Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran play a more exciting style, they play more significant defensive positions, they can wow you with their power and speed and the way they chase down fly balls in the gap or grounders in the hole. Ryan Howard and Ryan Braun and maybe even Ryan Ludwick -- lots of Ryans -- may hit with more power. Dustin Pedroia and Chase Utley and Joe Mauer may win more hearts with their scrappiness.

But Pujols is simply better than any of them.

This year, before the madness of the playoffs began, I decided to watch Pujols closely the final weekend, with the Cardinals out of the playoff hunt, with the only thing as stake being what John Updike, in describing the greatness of Ted Williams, called the "tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill."

On Thursday, Pujols went three-for-three with a walk, two runs, a homer and four RBIs in a victory over Arizona.

On Friday, he went three-for-three with two walks, two runs, a homer and two RBIs in a victory over Cincinnati.

On Saturday, he only managed one hit, but it was a homer, as the Cards beat the Reds again.

And on Sunday, he went one for two with a walk, a double, an RBI, and that was before he was pulled in the third inning. The Cardinals won again.

What did it mean? Not much. And everything. The baseball playoffs begin without Pujols again, which is too bad. This time of year I always find myself thinking about that moment in the NLCS in 2005, ninth inning, Houston up by two, their unhittable closer Brad Lidge on the mound, Pujols at the plate. And it wasn't just that Pujols hit the enormous game-winning home run -- great, good and mediocre have hit clutch home runs -- it was that with Pujols, you figured he would.

It's funny, Pujols' team didn't make the playoffs this season, and because of that there seem to be some who would not vote for him as MVP. What a shame. There are even a few who would vote for Brad Lidge, who had such a nice comeback year for Philadelphia (and even retired Pujols two of the three times they faced each other). Seems a bit odd. I've seen that match-up. I know how it turns out.

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