Miguel Cabrera, reigning American League Most Valuable Player Award and Triple Crown winner, is at the very least the best hitter in the AL and the best right-handed hitter in baseball. That's the floor. At worst, he is both of those things.
If you like Joey Votto more -- and that's a defensible stance -- then Cabrera falls short of being the best hitter in the game by a hair. And that's it. The Tigers slugger is either the best or second-best hitter in the game, the best in his league and the best from his side of the plate.
It's important to establish that before we go any further. There is no reasonable argument against Cabrera's position as a Hall of Fame-caliber hitter, one of the greatest right-handed hitters any of us has ever seen. He's that good, and nothing changes that.
As we marvel over another brilliant Cabrera season, though, it's worth looking back just a few years and appreciating an era that apparently just ended. Cabrera is chasing not just history, not just Ted Williams and Rogers Hornsby. His greatness should remind us of the greatness of another Hall of Fame-quality right-handed slugger: Albert Pujols.
As great as Cabrera is -- and again, he's ridiculously great -- Pujols was at least as good, and for longer. It's Pujols, not Cabrera, who is the greatest hitter since Barry Bonds, the greatest right-handed hitter since the days of Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Frank Robinson. That's not to say that Cabrera couldn't yet pass him. That notion gets a little more believable every day. But it's going to be difficult.
In short, Cabrera needs to have about 3 1/2 more seasons at the level he's maintained over the past three-plus years to match Pujols' peak. And he needs more than that to catch the Angels star in some career stats.
Again, this says very little about Cabrera and an enormous amount about Pujols.
Cabrera is an absurdly great hitter. It's not hyperbole to say that if he never takes another at-bat, he'd have a great Hall of Fame case -- maybe not quite a shoo-in, but an excellent argument. And yet, right now, even in decline, Pujols holds several advantages over Cabrera, and he's only three years older (which raises questions about Cabrera's decline phase, given that Pujols appears to have begun his already).
Pujols has a lifetime slash line of .323/.412/.603 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage), for an OPS+ of 166. OPS+ is an excellent quick-and-dirty method for comparing players in different seasons or ballparks, because it adjusts for the player's home ballpark and other contextual factors. Cabrera's lifetime line stands at .320/.397/.565, for an OPS+ of 153. All stats, by the way, are entering Saturday's games, and a 100 OPS+ is average.
Counting stats? Pujols has 483 home runs, Cabrera 335 -- an advantage of 148 for Pujols, putting him more than three seasons ahead. If Cabrera hits 35 more this year, and 45 in each of the next two years, he'd still enter his age-33 season with fewer homers than Pujols had at the beginning of his age-33 campaign.
Pujols stands at 1,463 RBIs and Cabrera 1,180. That's one where Cabrera could be even or better by the time he's Pujols' age. Pujols has 1,402 runs, Cabrera 1,000. Again, that's more than three seasons' worth of advantage, even assuming Cabrera doesn't begin declining in his 30s as Pujols did.
And decline is not so far-fetched. Pujols had two of his best seasons at 28 and 29, a great, great season at 30, and started falling at 31. We think of guys this good as immortal, immune to aging, but if Pujols isn't, then nobody is. Cabrera turns 30 this year, and he's not in the same shape Pujols was at 30. It's hard to imagine him hitting .250 in three years, but we'd all have said the same thing about Pujols three years ago.
In fact, there's another worthwhile angle here. This is Cabrera's age-30 season; last year was his age 29 season. So, one way to compare the two sluggers is to look at them through their age-29 seasons, the latest season that both have completed. Once again, advantage: Pujols.
At the end of 2009, Pujols' age-29 season, he had a .334/.427/.628 slash line, a 172 OPS+, and 366 home runs. He had scored 1,071 runs and driven in 1,112. At that same point in his career, which is to say entering this year, Cabrera stood at .318/.395/.561, for a 151 OPS+. He had 321 homers, 1,123 RBIs and 961 runs. Thus, Cabrera would need to obliterate Pujols' age-30 through 32 seasons to catch up to where Pujols is now. It's possible, but it will be tough.
It's their peaks that may be most illustrative, though. And, again, Pujols has an advantage.
Since the start of the 2010 season, a stretch of a little more than 3 1/4 seasons, Cabrera has hit at a level above anything from the rest of his career. During that time, he has a .340/.424/.614 line, good for a 177 OPS+. He's hit 126 homers, a little more than 38 per season. That's his peak. That's the best Miguel Cabrera has ever been over a lengthy stretch. And all credit to him, it's stunningly great. There is, again, no taking away from that.
But Pujols did basically the same thing -- for twice as long.
For a seven-year span, from 2003-09, Pujols hit .337/.435/640. That's a 178 OPS+, with a slightly lower batting average but higher on-base and slugging percentages (in a somewhat higher-offense era). He hit 295 home runs, an average of 42 per year. That is to say, as of now, Pujols' peak is twice as long as Cabrera's, and every bit as good, if not better.
It's not that Cabrera is anything but great. He's magnificent, a joy to watch hit and very likely bound for the Hall of Fame. We should relish the chance to watch him play. But we should also take a moment to allow his greatness to illuminate that of Pujols as well.
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach.