When Albert Pujols and the Cardinals visited Wrigley Field last week, Cubs pitcher Drew Smyly was among those who paid tribute.
The Sun-Times’ Maddie Lee quoted Smyly as saying, “He’s the GOAT. He’s one of the greatest of all time.”
After homering Monday, Pujols is six home runs shy of joining Barry Bonds (762), Hank Aaron (755) and Babe Ruth in the 700-homer club.
No doubt, Pujols is an elite player, destined to be an inner-circle Hall of Famer. But how would you go about measuring GOATs — while excluding any bygone Wrigley jinxes?
Conditions change so dramatically over time that no one pretends you could just pluck Babe Ruth out of the 1920s and have him dominate the 2020s. Likewise, if you took a modern player as a child and raised him without access to modern diets, sports medicine, training methods and equipment, he’d emerge a different player.
Using metrics such as the Fangraphs or Baseball-Reference version of WAR, Baseball Prospectus’ WARP or Bill James’ Win Shares frames the question as “How high did a player rise above the competition of his own time?”
By Fangraphs’ WAR, the all-time leader remains Ruth, whose 180.8 breaks down to 168.4 as a position player and 12.4 in his early years as a pitcher. Using replacement-level players would be expected to yield about 180 fewer victories than Ruth’s teams had.
Bonds is close to the position player portion at 164.4, with Willie Mays next at 149.9.
Among position players, Pujols is 28th at 88. That’s nothing to sneeze at, even if it doesn’t reach GOAT territory. The highest fWAR among players with lengthy Chicago tenures belongs to second baseman Eddie Collins, whose 120.5 fWAR includes 64.6 with the White Sox from 1915 to ’26. Only three other Chicagoans surpass 70, led by Cap Anson (92.1, with 81.8 as a Cub), Luke Appling (72.6, all with the Sox) and Ron Santo (70.9, with 71.9 as a Cub).
What if we ignored defense and weighed just the best hitters of all time by using weighted runs created plus?
Ruth leads there, too, at 197, followed by Ted Williams (188), with Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby and Bonds at 172. Pujols is at 141.
Pujols’ career was front-loaded. In his first term with the Cardinals from 2001 to ’11, he led baseball with 81.3 fWAR at 167 wRC+, then dropped dramatically after moving to the Angels.
How did others fare in their first 11 years? From 1914 to ’24, Ruth managed 79.4 as a hitter/position player despite not becoming a full-time outfielder till 1920. He added 12.3 as a pitcher in that time for a 91.7 total. In Ruth’s first 11 years as a full-time position player, his fWAR was 118.5, basically lapping the competition.
Bonds’ 81.8 from 1986 to ’96 was in the same ballpark as Pujols. Mays was at 73.4 for 1951-61, but he missed most of 1952 and all of ’53 while serving in the military.
In his first Cardinal term, Pujols put up numbers near the GOAT leaders. For a full career, “one of the greatest” is apt.