Clickbait headlines are detestable, but it was too difficult to resist. So the premise of the article is that Albert Pujols has been the best player this century, but he could be overtaken this season.
Since Opening Day 2000, Pujols is the game’s top run-scorer having crossed home plate 1,773 times. He is also the home run leader with 633 homers (which puts him sixth all-time) and, almost incomprehensibly, he has 266 more RBI this century than second-place David Ortiz.
The three-time MVP has his place in Cooperstown assured, yet he could lose the top spot as Player of the Century as early as June this season.
Pujols was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the lowly 13th round of the 1999 MLB Amateur Draft. He did not appear on top-100 prospects lists the following spring; no-one was predicting a Hall of Fame career.
He debuted as a 21-year-old in April 2001, playing the outfield for the Cardinals in their season-opening series in Colorado. He went 1-for-9 with two strikeouts and was also caught stealing. It was an inauspicious start.
In the fourth game of his big league career, he went 3-for-5 with a double and his first MLB home run. The legend had started.
Over the remainder of the season, Pujols posted 1.025 OPS while hitting .332 AVG with 37 home runs. He collected the NL Rookie of the Year and finished fourth in MVP voting.
In the next ten years, he hit .328 AVG with 1.039 OPS and averaged 41 home runs with 120 RBI. Pujols finished in the top-3 of MVP voting eight times.
He enjoyed many spectacular appearances in Redbirds’ colours, but few were as memorable as July 20, 2004.
Having already driven in the Cardinals only run of the game in his first at-bat, Pujols came to the plate at the top of the third inning with his team trailing 7-1 against arch rivals, Chicago Cubs.
He drove the ball into the crowd and then almost single-handedly pegged the Cubs back to 8-8 before delivering his third home run of his 5-for-5 day to give the Cardinals a 10-8 lead.
After 11 years in the majors, Pujols signed a 10-year, $240 million contract with the Angels to take his legacy to Anaheim.
Although there was an inevitable decline in production, Pujols still averaged 29 home runs and 98 RBI in the first five years of his contract on the west coast.
When you see Pujols ground into another double-play (something that he has done over 100 times during the last five seasons) and drag his unathletic physique towards first base, that it is difficult to accept that he is one of the greatest players in history.
So who will overtake him as Player of the Century?
But first, a quick WAR refresher – WAR (wins above replacement) is an attempt to simplify a player’s contributions in all facets of the game into a single figure of how many more wins he is worth compared to a replacement-level player at the same position.
There are three versions of WAR (Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus and Baseball Reference) which all use slightly different calculations, but for ease of comparison, we have only used Fangraphs in this article.
This season Trout could overtake Craig Biggio, Edgar Martinez and even Manny Ramirez in career-WAR. If he produces another stellar campaign, it is possible that Trout will have accumulated more career-WAR than the iconic Derek Jeter. That will make for interesting discussions prior to Jeter’s inevitable first-ballot accession to the Hall of Fame in 2020.
However, with a margin of 23.5 WAR between them, there is no way that Trout can overtake Pujols this season.
So if it is not Trout, who is it?
Everyone’s favourite third baseman, Adrian Beltre is a bridgeable 7.8 WAR behind Pujols. Although unlikely, it was possible that the charismatic 39-year-old could claim the top spot had he not decided to hang up his batting gloves.
Beltre leaves the game with 477 home runs and a career .819 OPS while playing magnificent defence at the hot corner.
So if not Trout or Beltre, who is it?
Tigers’ talismanic first baseman Miguel Cabrera is second behind Pujols in WAR among active players.
The Venezuelan has 465 home runs with 1,635 RBI and 1,388 runs. In fact, the only active player with more runs, home runs or RBI than Cabrera is Pujols. And no-one, not even Trout or Joey Votto, has a better batting average than Cabrera’s career .316 AVG.
Yet Cabrera is 17.5 WAR behind Pujols, so even with a repeat of a 44 home run, 100+ RBI season, he cannot claim the top spot.
So if not Trout or Beltre or Cabrera, who will overtake Pujols this season to become the Player of the Century?
Currently, second place on the Player of the Century list is Alex Rodriguez. He trails Pujols in runs and home runs since 2000, but has better stats over the course of his career.
The difference between Rodriguez and Pujols in their WAR this century is a mere 0.2.
Not even Hollywood could create a script which has the Yankees adding Rodriguez to their roster in June as a pre-wedding present and then A-Rod slugging a couple of home runs in the #LondonSeries.
But the 0.2 WAR can be bridged by another method.
There has always been speculation about Pujols’ age, and he fuelled the debate by admitting that, as a teenager, he remembers “hitting a home run off Octavio Dotel who was three or four years older”. Dotel is 45, so either Pujols misspoke, or he is significantly older than his MLB age. Maybe Pujols has just turned 42 years old.
Age is taking its toll. Over the last two seasons combined, Pujols has registered -2.1 WAR while posting an atrocious .287 OBP. Another negative-WAR season will see the great Dominican slip below A-Rod as the Player of the Century.
Of course, it is possible that Pujols has fully recovered from the plantar fasciitis that has dogged him for the last few seasons, and he can carry his Spring Training form (1.156 OPS) into the regular season.
It is not easy to turn his back on the millions he is owed by the Angels, but surely the two parties could come up with an arrangement for early retirement. Pujols could quit while he is ahead and leave the game with some dignity intact, while simultaneously boosting the Angels chances of getting Mike Trout to the World Series. After all, the two main choices for designated hitter in Anaheim this season are Pujols and Shohei Ohtani.