About three months back, Cardinal Nation generally and VEB specifically gnashed teeth over the listless slump that saw the Cardinals fall from postseason contention. This was the harbinger of the SBN fan confidence poll taking a plunge reminscent of the stock market from Monday to Black Tuesday and beyond. It was at this emotional point in the 2010 season that a member of the SBN sister site for the Reds showed up and proposed a question that proved incendiary at the time:
"Is Joey Votto better than Albert Pujols?"
The interaction started off in a tone that was civil enough, but quickly devolved. Nonetheless, I thought the question was an interesting one, and stowed it away for discussion at a later time--November, to be exact, when the BBWAA announce the winner of the National League MVP, an award which I expect Votto to win and Pujols to finish runner-up.
This discussion is not about who is more deserving of the 2010 National League MVP award between Votto and Pujols. This is not like 2006, where there is a clearcut, correct choice for MVP. This year, I don't know that either is more deserving than the other. I think Votto is just as deserving as Pujols, if we go by individual performance, and further believe it to be fair that Votto won the award, especially if we use team performance as the tiebreaker. Pujols's Cardinals flamed out in late summer against the league's worst, while Votto's Reds flamed out in the fall against the league's second-best. So, for this discussion, let us set aside the argument of who is the rightful winner of the 2010 National League MVP.
THE 2010 SEASON
Votto and Pujols put together very impressive statistical lines in 2010. On the backs of their baseball cards, the pair's 2010 seasons will be very similar. Votto slashed .324/.424/.600. Pujols slashed .312/.414/.596. Votto's BA was 12 points higher, OBP was 10 points higher, and SLG 4 points higher. Pujols clubbed 42 homers and Votto knocked 37 over the wall. Pujols had 183 hits to Votto's 177. Pujols scored 115 runs and Votto 106. Pujols had 118 RBI; Votto, 113. Pujols had 350 total bases and Votto had 328. Votto's OPS+ was 174 and Pujols's was 173. Votto had a .434 wOBA to Pujols's .420, a 14-point edge to Votto. In Fangraphs WAR, Votto had 7.5 and Pujols 7.2. In Baseball-Reference WAR, it was Pujols with a 7.2 to Votto's 6.2.
Okay, okay. So maybe not ALL of these stats will be on the backs of their baseball cards. But, you get the idea. Obviously, the 2010 stats are very close. The two thoroughbred first basemen ran neck-and-neck.
THE PARK-ADJUSTED 2010 SEASON
The final, raw numbers are extremely close, so close that they made me wonder how the pitcher-friendly confines of Busch Stadium compared to the homer-happy launching pad that is the Great American Ballpark. Statcorner has some very nice wOBA adjustments. One of those is wOBA adjusted for the player's home ballpark. Adjusting for home ballpark, according to Statcorner, Pujols had a wOBA of .437 while Votto had a wOBA of .426. It seems that Busch Stadium hurt Pujols more than the Great American Ballpark helped Votto--at least in 2010.
2010 IN THE PUJOLSIAN CONTEXT
Looking at Pujols's 2010 season in spreadsheet form (in my mother's basement), there is no denying it was a great season. He led the league in homers*, runs scored**, and runs batted in***. Pujols's 2010 wOBA ranked second in the National League and fifth in all of baseball. His WAR total places Pujols third, behind the likely American and National League Most Valueable Players. Pujols had a legitimately excellent season in 2010. Nonetheless, there was a frustration amongst the Cardinal faithful this season in watching him play. He was great but not otherworldly. And, fair or not, we've come to expect otherworldly. This is the Pujolsian Context. Pujols has been so otherworldly so often that anything less than otherworldly--even excellence--is somehow disappointing. What I think people sometimes lose track of, at least outside of the shadow of the Arch, is that, upon stepping onto a big-league field, all Pujols has done is be an offensive monster.
*Imagine if Pujols played his home games in the Great American Ballpark.
**Imagine if Pujols's teammates played their home games in the Great American Ballpark.
***Imagine if Pujols and his teammates played their home games in the Great American Ballpark.
In Pujols's first month as a big-leaguer, he posted a 1.171 OPS. His rookie year OPS was 1.013. In his sophomore season, his OPS fell to .955. It hasn't been lower than .997 in any subsequent season. In Pujols's rookie campaign, he also clubbed 37 dingers. He has never hit fewer than 32 in a season since. Pujols has been consistently excellent, and regularly ascends to an even higher level. This is why some were disappointed with Pujols's excellent 2010 statistics. Compared to Pujols's career, they aren't anything about which to write home. This helps to explain why it is that Cardinals fans can be dismissive of the suggestion that Votto is as good as Pujols.
For a baseline, let's begin with Pujols's average MLB season:
Comparing Votto's excellent 2010 to Pujols's career averages and we see that Votto's 2010 batting average is 7 points lower, Votto's 2010 OBP is 2 points lower, Votto's 2010 SLG is 24 points lower, Vott's 2010 wOBA is the same, 2010 Votto has 5 fewer homers, 15 fewer RBI, 17 fewer runs scored, and 58 more strikeouts. If one is willing to discount the strikeouts, Votto had a pretty Pujolsian season. But, where would it rank when compared to Pujols's individual seasons?
VOTTO'S 2010 AS COMPARED TO PUJOLS'S INDIVIDUAL SEASONS
To begin with, I have decided to use the one-stop offensive statistic: wOBA. (That way, if you don't care about things like BA, OBP, SLG, HR, RBI, R, H, or SO, you can skip the rest of this section.)
'03 Pujols: .462
'08 Pujols: .458
'09 Pujols: .449
'06 Pujols: .448
'04 Pujols: .439
'05 Pujols: .436
'10 Votto: .434
'01 Pujols: .421
'10 Pujols: .420
'07 Pujols: .414
'02 Pujols: .402
Albert Pujols has had 6 individual seasons with a wOBA higher than Votto's 2010 wOBA. Six. That's ridiculous.
Next, here are Pujols's individual season batting averages, from highest to lowest.
'03 Pujols: .359
'08 Pujols: .357
'06 Pujols: .331
'04 Pujols: .331
'05 Pujols: .330
'01 Pujols: .329
'09 Pujols: .327
'07 Pujols: .327
'10 Votto: .324
'02 Pujols: .314
'10 Pujols: .312
Pujols has had eight seasons in which he hit for a higher average than Votto did in 2010.
Next, here are Pujols's individual season home run totals, from highest to lowest.
'06 Pujols: 49
'09 Pujols: 47
'04 Pujols: 46
'03 Pujols: 43
'10 Pujols: 42
'05 Pujols: 41
'01 Pujols: 37
'08 Pujols: 37
'10 Votto: 37
'02 Pujols: 34
'07 Pujols: 32
Votto's 2010 total of 37 home runs would tie for the seventh-highest of Pujols career.*
*Imagine if Pujols played his home games at the Great American Ballpark.
You get the idea. Votto's 2010 OBP of .424 would be the seventh-highest of Pujols's career. Votto slugging .600 this season would rank as the eighth-highest of Pujols's career. Votto's 113 2010 RBI would rank tenth on the Pujols career RBI board. Votto's 106 runs scored? Eighth. The 177 hits that Votto compiled in 2010 would come in tied for tenth. The category in which Votto would rank first would be in strikeouts. Votto struck out 125 times in 2010. Pujols has never struck out more than 93 times in a season.
Votto's 2010 season was as good as Pujols's, if not better. Nonetheless, Votto's breakout performance is on par with a lesser season for Pujols (which 2010 was). Later this winter, the various projection systems will give us their forecasts for Votto and Pujols in 2011. I, for one, look forward to seeing them. Votto is entering his peak and Pujols is leaving his. The question of who will be better moving forward is an open one, with many factors weighing on Votto's side of the scale. That being said, ten consecutive years of Hall of Fame production suggest that Pujols will have a bounceback 2011. What we know about ballplayers' historically is that Votto very likely will improve as well. It will be a joy to watch these players and clubs duke it out in the National League Central next season: the greatest player in baseball against the rising star.