When baseball gathered in St. Louis for the All-Star Game last July, the spectacle to honor the best players in the game evolved, appropriately, into a love-in for just one man. Albert Pujols -- the homer-hitting hero of the Gateway City who would later admit that he had to keep from getting emotional at the tsunami of affection that washed over him every time his name was announced -- was the biggest attraction all week, more than the game itself, more than any of his decorated fellow stars, even more than the President of the United States, who threw out the first ball to him before the game.
More than any politician, Pujols knows a little something about landslide victories, having won the All-Star voting this year by more than half a million votes (the second time he's been the leading vote-getter), won two previous MVP votes by comfortable margins, and now being honored as the National League Most Valuable Player award on Tuesday by unanimous vote. That baseball's final award of the season was also its most anti-climactic was altogether appropriate. Pujols dominated the ballots just as he dominated opposing pitchers all year long, and was rewarded with his third NL MVP, and the first unanimous winner since Barry Bonds in 2004.
For all its historical significance -- he is only the 15th unanimous winner of an MVP award, and only the sixth in the NL -- even the unanimous vote somehow fails to fully encapsulate just how spectacular Pujols was this year. He led the league in home runs, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS+, and total bases, all while batting .327 and walking (a career high 115 times) nearly twice as often as he struck out. He thrived despite a revolving door of cleanup hitters batting behind him -- seven in all until the arrival of Matt Holliday for the final two months of the regular season, which is why Pujols was intentionally walked 44 times, also the most in baseball.
As obvious as it was by season's end that Pujols was destined for the MVP, it seems as just as obvious that he will be the runaway favorite again next spring to win a fourth, which would join him with Bonds as only the second player with more than three MVPs. In fact, just as Bonds took ownership of the award earlier in the decade, winning it four consecutive times from 2001-04, this award is now almost the exclusive property of Pujols. He has now won it in consecutive years and has never once finished outside the top nine of the voting and only once outside the top four. There is nothing to suggest that will change anytime soon. He has finished in the top 10 in the NL in batting average and slugging percentage nine times, home runs and RBIs eight times, on-base percentage seven times. His 162-game averages for his career are .334/.427/.628 with 42 home runs, 129 RBIs, 94 walks, 124 runs scored, a 1.055 OPS and 374 total bases. In other words, those numbers suggest that if Pujols even continues to have what is for him an average season, it will be so much better than what anyone else is likely to produce that he figures to need lots of additional mantle space to hold all the MVP trophies that are headed his way in the years to come.
It is no longer worthwhile to compare Pujols to anyone else in the present game, and historical comparisons are always fun but misleading because of the changes -- some subtle, some dramatic -- that baseball has undergone over the years. The only true way to measure how good he has been is compare him to the only person who has ever been an accurate barometer for his unending string of exceptional play: himself.
For starters, it's worth admitting that this is a mostly fruitless gesture. Looking for flaws in his individual seasons is like looking for a stray brushstroke on a masterpiece. Even if you find one, does it really subtract from the overall beauty of the work? Each of his nine seasons has been brilliant and captivating in its own way, and grouped together they can be beautiful and illuminating, but individually they appear almost identical to the naked eye. Would you prefer 2001, when he batted .329/.403/.610 with 37 home runs, 130 RBI and 112 runs as a 21-year-old rookie, only the fourth rookie to bat .300 with at least 30 HRs, 100 RBI and 100 runs in baseball history? Or how about 2002, which was probably his worst all-around season, when he had career lows with a .314 average, .394 on-base percentage and .561 slugging percentage, numbers that still made him one of only 54 players ever to have a season like that while playing as many as 157 games. Or perhaps 2003, when he led the league in batting average, runs, hits, doubles and total bases while posting an OPS of 1.106 and still didn't win the MVP? Or maybe 2006, when he established career highs in home runs (49), RBI (137) and slugging percentage (.671) while winning his only Gold Glove award and leading the Cardinals to a World Series victory? Or should it be ...
You get the point. An attempt has been made here to quantify which of his nine seasons has been his best. This is not the most scientific, but it is telling, and it should help explain just how incredible Pujols has been throughout his career. Taking the 10 most prominent offensive statistics (runs, hits, home runs, RBI, walks, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS+ and total bases) and ranking them from best to worst, then assigning nine points for his best season in each category, eight points for second-best and so on, we get the following:
It would appear that, offensively at least, 2009 falls just short of '03 as his best year. But, at the risk of sounding like a game show announcer, that's not all. Pujols may have had his best defensive season ever in 2009 (setting a record for assists by a first baseman with 185), and he also tied his career high (from 2005) with 16 stolen bases, nine more than his next-best year. He made another All-Star team, won another Silver Slugger and powered the Cardinals to their sixth playoff appearance -- and fifth NL Central title -- in his nine seasons. And, oh yes, he did it while coming off one elbow surgery last offseason and while playing in enough pain that he required another elbow surgery shortly after this past season ended.
In the end, what does it matter? Not much, probably. Besides, being amazed by what he has already done isn't nearly as much fun as imagining what is still to come.