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A look back at prodigy-era Albert Pujols

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Young sluggers are emerging across baseball, and they’re great. But they aren’t Albert Pujols.

St Louis Cardinals v San Francisco Giants
One of the finest players you’ll ever seen, with Barry Bonds
Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

The biggest individual story in Major League Baseball in the first half of 2017 was, without a doubt, New York Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge. Judge, a good-not-great prospect entering 2017 (Baseball America ranked him as the sixth-best Yankees prospect, and #90 overall) with a lackluster ninety-five plate appearances in 2016 (.179/.263/.345, good for a 63 wRC+ and a sub-replacement level season), was the most valuable player in either league in the first half.

It certainly helped that default best-player-in-baseball Mike Trout has been on the Disabled List since late May, but Judge’s 196 wRC+ is higher than any full season of Trout’s career (Trout’s 2017 wRC+ is an astonishing 207, but even if he played at his normal, Troutian pace since his injury, it would be lower than Judge’s at this point). While Judge doesn’t have Mike Trout’s overall game, he has been above-average defensively (he still hasn’t played enough to jump to too many conclusions, and I haven’t watched him enough to know what he is, but it beats having terrible fielding metrics) and he’s even been efficient at stealing bases, converting six of eight attempts.

That, and the whole “rookie who has hit 30 home runs by the All-Star Break” thing, makes Judge a fascinating figure, and perhaps worthy for the greatest Yankees/Red Sox outfielder bar argument, along with Mookie Betts, since Ted Williams versus Joe DiMaggio (the irony being that now the Yankees have the more offensively oriented of the two while the Red Sox have the jack of all trades).

But Aaron Judge is older than one might expect such a slugging wunderkind to be. He is actually, at 25, older than his aforementioned Red Sox counterpart Betts by nearly half a year. Before his 25th birthday on April 26, Aaron Judge had accumulated 162 plate appearances, with ten home runs and a 99 wRC+.

Albert Pujols, before his 25th birthday on January 16, 2005, had 2728 plate appearances. He had hit 160 home runs and sported a wRC+ of 166, producing exactly 30 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement. Through his first four seasons, Albert Pujols had already eclipsed the career production of notable, good players such as Shawn Green, Kevin Youkilis, and Terry Pendleton.

“Prime Albert Pujols was a very good baseball player” is hardly a stunning revelation, and I am acutely aware of this, but that Albert Pujols was a great young player is almost overlooked, in a weird way. Perhaps this was because he never seemed young—he was immediately great (in his first month in Major League Baseball, at age 21, Pujols had a wRC+ of 198 and he never really looked back), and while his defense and base running were passable, neither were flashy in the same way as wunderkinds such as Trout or Ken Griffey Jr. were. He always handled himself with the quiet dignity of a veteran, even when he was in his very early twenties.

(To be clear, this is entirely unrelated to the silly, baseless conspiracy theories which have floated for years that Albert Pujols is lying about his age. While Pujols did look older than 21 in 2001, he looks basically the same, besides having a goatee, in 2017. And if he was actually 26 or whatever in 2001, nothing about his subsequent aging curve tracks with typical baseball career paths from that point forward. This theory was always asinine.)

I was 12 when Albert Pujols made his debut. A few years later, newcomers to Major League Baseball felt like my peers, but at the time, Pujols simply felt like an adult. It never dawned on me that I was actually closer in age to Albert Pujols than Pujols was to Jim Edmonds. And to people reading this who are around my age or younger, Albert Pujols probably never felt like a kid to you in the same way that Mike Trout did, or even that the older Aaron Judge did.

But in 2001, a lesser season for Albert Pujols by the preposterous standards which he would come to set, the St. Louis Cardinals rookie burst on the scene with astonishing ferocity. Although he was hardly assured of a roster spot entering Spring Training (the conventional wisdom that Bobby Bonilla getting hurt was the only thing that brought Pujols to St. Louis is a bit overstated, but Pujols was still a lowly-drafted player less than two years removed from playing at a community college with only three career games played above A-ball), he played in 161 MLB games, hitting 37 home runs, good for a 159 wRC+. His positional versatility made him extraordinarily valuable—Pujols started over 30 games each at first base, third base, left field, and right field.

And with 7.2 fWAR, Pujols has the 8th most valuable age-21 season of the World Series era. Only 2013 Mike Trout, who now leads the age group with 10.5 fWAR, has been better since. Of the five eligible players ahead of Pujols (excluding Trout and the permanently banned Joe Jackson), four are now in the Hall of Fame—Rogers Hornsby, Jimmie Foxx, Eddie Mathews, and Rickey Henderson.

In 2002, Pujols moved on a mostly full-time basis to left field, which diminished his defensive value. It was also the worst season offensively of his first decade in St. Louis, and easily his worst overall season by fWAR until 2011, his final season as a Cardinal. And yet, despite this step back, his 5.4 fWAR has been eclipsed by just ten 22 year-old position players since: Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Corey Seager, Manny Machado, Jason Heyward, Francisco Lindor, David Wright, Evan Longoria, Grady Sizemore, and Giancarlo Stanton. While Sizemore’s career was derailed by injury and Heyward has taken a significant step back offensively in his first two seasons with the Chicago Cubs, this is an extraordinary list of baseball talent, and it’s one that Pujols joined at his low point.

2003 was the best season of Albert Pujols’s career by fWAR, a season perhaps not celebrated enough locally because the Cardinals failed to make the postseason, and perhaps not celebrated enough nationally because Barry Bonds was, once again, challenging our collective ability to comprehend his accomplishments (Pujols ran into the unfortunate buzzsaw in his first four seasons which was Peak Barry Bonds when it came to MVP voting). No player, not even Mike Trout during another typically glorious Mike Trout season in 2015, has surpassed the 9.5 fWAR of Pujols since. Only seven players, all of them Hall of Famers (Ted Williams, Ty Cobb, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Cal Ripken, Eddie Collins, Arky Vaughan) have had such accomplished seasons as 23 year-old position players in the World Series era.

By fWAR, 2004 was only the fifth-best season of Albert Pujols’s career. It was a year filled with transcendent individual seasons in the National League—it was the one where Barry Bonds had a .609 on-base percentage and Pujols was third on his own team (sixth in the NL) by fWAR. And yet only two 24 year-olds have surpassed 2004 Pujols since—2016 Kris Bryant and 2007 David Wright.

Each of the first four Albert Pujols seasons were a standout in his age group. Particularly today, with extensively developed minor league systems and college baseball as a viable option for players, guys as young as Albert Pujols was during those years that I didn’t even think of him as being exceptionally young are a rarity. Albert Pujols was the 9th greatest position player in MLB history from ages 21 through 24: all six players above him who are eligible for the Hall of Fame (again, Trout and Jackson being the exceptions) are there. And while some of the players, notably Arky Vaughan, weren’t quite able to keep up their early paces throughout their careers (while still managing Hall of Fame careers), Albert Pujols kept it up.

Pujols ranks 17th in position player fWAR through age 24, and 9th since World War II. Bryce Harper has a chance this year to pass him, and Manny Machado (who turned 25 last week and has a bit of an unfair advantage here, as he barely made the age cutoff for 2017 as his age-24 season) has a much more outside chance at it as well.

Observing what a prodigy Albert Pujols was is not meant to diminish the accomplishments of anyone—not Harper, not Trout, not Judge. It is simply to note that Albert Pujols was a phenomenon of the highest order, and that he should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer because he was able to parlay an incredible start into a long and prosperous career, eventually succumbing to the effects of age in terms of being an elite player but not before carving out a very high spot on the St. Louis Cardinals pantheon.