Player of the century? So far, it’s Pujols

May 20th, 2020

Mike Trout was the Player of the Decade, without question, hands down, either as an MVP or MVP contender just about every single year. If he is blessed with good health, he may be discussed some day with Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle at his best and Hank Aaron as one of the greatest all-around players of all time, even without much of a postseason resume. So far he has played just three postseason games in his career, with one hit, a home run.

But he’s not the Player of the Century, as much of a force of nature as he’s been. At least not yet. His teammate is.

Given how his last few years with the Angels have gone, it’s easy to forget just how good Pujols was in the first 15 years of the millennium. Here are just the appetizers for him if or when he enters a shortened 20th season in the big leagues sometime this summer, the second-to-last season of the 10-year deal he signed with the Angels when he left the Cardinals as a free agent following their World Series triumph in 2011: He has 656 home runs, 2,075 RBIs and 14 100-RBI seasons and three MVP Awards (2005, '08, '09) and has been a World Series champion twice and won an NL Rookie of the Year Award (2001). And he once hit three home runs in a World Series game (2011), same as Reggie had in ’77.

When he went over the 100-game mark for Wins Above Replacement, he became only the 21st position player to do that. He once had seven straight seasons with at least eight Wins Above Replacement. That is Ruthian stuff right there. It is too easy now, with the 40-year-old Pujols not the hitter and player he once was, to forget what he was in a lengthy and fairly glorious prime. It shouldn’t be.

Without question, an abbreviated 2020 season would hurt his chances of joining Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds in the 700-home run club, but he still has a chance of making it, though probably not for another year or two. He is even talking these days about perhaps playing past the end of his contract after the 2021 season if he is blessed with good health.

This is something he said, in Spanish, to Alden Gonzalez of ESPN a few weeks ago:

"[Next season] is my last year under contract, but that doesn't mean I can't keep playing. I haven't closed that door. I'm taking it day by day, year by year, but you haven't heard from my mouth that I'm going to retire next year ...”

With all of the talk lately about Michael Jordan because of “The Last Dance,” Pujols brings to mind another basketball immortal, because of excellence and longevity and even grace, and that is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who isn’t discussed nearly often enough when we discuss the biggest legends of American sports. Kareem won six NBA titles, the same as Michael did. He was a six-time MVP. He scored more points than anybody in history and didn’t retire until he was 42. And, oh by the way, he won three NCAA titles when he was at UCLA. He was built to last, the same as Pujols.

Again: We know that Trout’s WAR does everything except give off a beam of light. He really is the Willie Mays of this baseball generation. The only thing he can’t do in baseball is somehow surround himself with enough good players to get himself to a World Series someday. Even Mays made it to four World Series in his career, the first in 1951 with the New York Giants and the last in '73 with the New York Mets. By the way? He only ended up with one career home run in October. Think about that, even taking into consideration that Trout could play into his 40s the way The Say Hey Kid did:

Right now, Mays and Trout have a combined total of two postseason home runs.

Of course you’d rather watch Trout at his best than have watched Pujols at his very best. It doesn’t change the fact that across this baseball century, starting in ’01, Pujols has been something to see. Even last season, at the age of 39, he still managed to hit 23 home runs for the Angels and knock in 93. As slow as he is, if and when he does start the ’20 season, he will start it with a lifetime batting average of .300. As a hitter, he has been so much more than just home runs. He is fourth on the all-time RBI list, just 200 or so behind the great Aaron, who is still the all-time leader and might always be.

“I don't get caught up into memories,” Pujols said once in Spring Training. “It's a new season. Hopefully, we can make new memories. You don't get caught up in that stuff. You have to make sure that you move on.”

He just kept going, the way Hank Aaron did. Aaron, of course, has 755 career home runs and 2,297 RBIs and a lifetime batting average of .305. He just kept going, into his 40s. Aaron played 3,298 games in the big leagues. Pujols still has a great chance, even if it is just an 82-game season this time, to make it to 3,000 himself. Only three times in his 19 seasons has Pujols had fewer than 600 plate appearances.

When you add it all up, Trout may turn out to be the best all-around baseball player of this entire century. He has already put eight amazing full seasons into the books. He’s just not the player of this century. Not yet. That title belongs to the guy still DH-ing for the Angels, or playing first.