A Midsummer Night's Conversation With Bill James about ... Maybe, Just Maybe, The Most Perfect Player Who Ever Did Live

On the eve of the 2009 All-Star Game in the home city of Albert Pujols, the oracle of statistical analysis considers the St. Louis slugger's place in history
July 12, 2009

There are a million words that can be written about Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols, but we only have about 1,300 so we decided to concentrate on just one question: Is he off to the most perfect career start in the history of baseball? We should start by defining what we mean by "perfect," since that's not really a baseball word. Baseball, as every manager and announcer will tell you, is about failure.

But Bill, the baseball writer who's now a Red Sox senior adviser, came up with this concept about perfect careers. By perfect, we are talking about a career that—thanks to a blessed confluence of timing, luck and talent—meets, at minimum, these three criteria:

1. It comprises brilliant full seasons from Day One in the big leagues. This is extremely rare, as most great players will play a partial season or two before their careers really get going. Frank Thomas, for example, was instantly great and is an excellent early-career comparison for Pujols, but he was called up midseason and played only 60 games his first year. Lou Gehrig played 23 games over two seasons before getting called up for good. Ty Cobb played parts of two seasons before becoming a regular in 1907.

2. It is not interrupted (by a war, a strike, injuries) or diminished by a factor out of the player's control, such as a lousy home park. This is probably an unfair requirement, but, hey, we are talking about a perfect career. Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams had tremendous careers, but theirs were interrupted by World War II, and Willie Mays's career was briefly put on hold by the Korean War. Joe Morgan's greatness was undercut by some rather ordinary numbers that were a consequence of playing seven seasons in Houston's Astrodome, one of the worst hitting parks in baseball history.

3. It should be made up of Hall of Fame--caliber seasons every single year.

Those three qualifications, of course, eliminate virtually every player in baseball history from having a career that's considered perfect. One player who is not eliminated, though, is Albert Pujols, who made the Cardinals out of spring training in 2001, had one of the greatest rookie seasons in baseball history—.329 average, 37 homers, 130 RBIs, 112 runs scored—and has been killing the ball ever since, right up through this season, in which he is making his most serious run at a Triple Crown. Through Sunday he had 31 homers (seven ahead of his closest pursuer), 82 RBIs (six ahead) and was hitting .336 (second in the league, 10 points off the pace).

Pujols has battled nagging injuries; nerve irritation in his right elbow has been a concern for seven years now. Still, he has exceeded 600 plate appearances every year and should again this season, his ninth. So far nothing has marred his career, other than the whispers—unsupported—about the use of performance-enhancing drugs that hound all the great players of his generation.

Finally, there is his consistent brilliance. His worst season? Maybe 2002, when he hit only .314 with 34 homers, 127 RBIs and 118 runs. "By my math," Bill says, "Albert would have to repeat his weakest season 11 times to make the Hall of Fame."

Bill: To the point of perfect careers: I started looking for players who had nine consecutive years as good as Albert's (or close to it) at the beginning of their careers. There are only two I come up with.

• Kid Nichols—like Pujols a Kansas Citian—was a 19th-century pitcher who had 10 outstanding seasons with the Boston Beaneaters at the start of his career, winning 297 and losing only 151.

• Paul Waner, the Hall of Fame outfielder, began his career with nine straight outstanding seasons (1926--34) for the Pirates. In his second season he hit .380, drove in 131 runs and had 237 hits. But in all honesty, some of his seasons were not quite up to Pujols's standard. In 1931 Waner hit .322 with six homers, 70 RBIs, 88 runs scored, 180 hits. It's a good year; it's not a Pujols-caliber season.

Joe: It really is rare for great hitters to be great in their first year. Only 30 Hall of Famers had 500 plate appearances in their first season. (Interestingly enough, one of those Hall of Famers is Sparky Anderson, who's in the Hall as a manager. Sparky had 527 plate appearances in his first year, with the Phillies ... and he never had a single at bat in the big leagues after that. One and done. Nobody else ever had a career like that.) And only a handful of those Hall of Famers—Williams, Waner, DiMaggio, Mays, Frank Robinson, Earl Averill, Eddie Murray, a few others—were complete players right from the start.

Bill: There are so few players who compare to Pujols from the start of a career that I thought we could modify our criteria just a bit and 1) look for players who had nine consecutive seasons as good as Pujols's at any point in their careers and 2) not insist that those nine seasons be as good as Albert's weakest season, just somewhere near that standard.

Even applying that looser standard, I find only 19 players in history who have had comparable strings of nine consecutive years. All 19 of those players are Hall of Famers with the exceptions of Barry Bonds, Pete Rose and Manny Ramirez. Of note:

• Starting in his second season, Henry Aaron had 17 consecutive outstanding years (1955--71), and he started that streak at age 21, the same age that Albert was in his rookie season.

• Honus Wagner had 13 consecutive seasons (1900--12) that clearly meet Pujols's standard.

• Ty Cobb had 13 consecutive dominant seasons (1907--19). Cobb had some outages, some missed games, but on the other hand he was playing at an even more dominant level than Albert (relative to his time), so he's pretty close. I'd say 1914, when he hit .368 but played only 98 games, would be a problem for Cobb advocates.

• Lou Gehrig had 12 consecutive seasons, from 1926 though '37, that match up to Pujols's standard. Gehrig might actually be the closest historical parallel to Pujols, in that he was a first baseman and a power hitter.

Joe: Aaron is the gold standard when it comes to consistency. Pujols, though, is gaining. And that seems to be what drives him: to be great every year. He has never batted lower than .314. Never hit fewer than 32 homers. Never driven in fewer than 103 runs. His career low on-base percentage is .394—that's his low—and to give you an idea about that, Cal Ripken Jr., Ryne Sandberg, Ernie Banks, Lou Brock and Jim Rice never once had an on-base percentage that high.

But one thing about Pujols's career is that it's like a Rockettes performance at Radio City—great show, perfect rhythm, but no one thing stands out. Every season kicks precisely as high as the one next to it. That's why this year is so much fun: Pujols has an excellent shot at winning the first Triple Crown since 1967. It should be noted that in addition to his current Triple Crown stats, Pujols leads the league in runs, walks, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and total bases. The last to win the Triple Crown and lead the league in all the rest of that? Williams in 1947.

Anyway, that's the beautiful thing about baseball numbers: Sure, they can deceive and they can mislead and they may not tell the whole story. But they can also tell you when you are watching true greatness.

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Gehrig, also a first baseman and power hitter, might be the closest historical parallel to Pujols.

PHOTOPhotograph by DAVID E. KLUTHOTHE BEST, AT HIS WORST If Pujols repeated his poorest season 11 times, James says, it would still add up to a surefire Hall of Fame induction. PHOTOED ZURGA/AP[See caption above] PHOTOJERRY COOKE COLLECTION/SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDSTURDY DOZEN Gehrig wasn't the instant smash that Pujols was, but he had 12 straight seasons that rival Pujols's best.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)