January 20, 2004
This is the time of year when there is a serious lull in the way of baseball news. We are far enough away from the next season starting that there isn't any news related to that, and we are far enough into the off-season that almost all of the big-name free agents have been snatched up.
It's around this time that otherwise unimportant happenings suddenly turn into front page "news." The following front page story from a few days ago on ESPN.com is a good example:
Pujols to Cardinals: I want long-term contract
ST. LOUIS -- Albert Pujols wants a long-term contract from the St. Louis Cardinals, and he doesn't plan to give them a bargain.
"What do you mean?" Pujols said Sunday at the team's annual winter fanfest. "This is business. There's no break here."
"You try to get what you deserve and that's what I want. I've taken care of my business in the field the last three years and hopefully I get treated respectfully, that's all I ask for."
In other words, the entire story is based upon the fact that Albert Pujols, a 24-year-old player who is three seasons away from being a free agent, expects to be paid fair market value on any contract extension he signs with the Cardinals.
The story is not about Pujols saying he doesn't want to play for St. Louis or that he wants to be traded or that he is going to holdout until they meet his contract demands. No, it is a player saying that he would like to sign a contract extension for a price that he sees as fair.
Shocking, I know. I'm surprised it wasn't "breaking news" all over the country.
Anyway, in the midst of all the non-news, I started thinking about just how amazing Pujols has been in his first three seasons. Just look at these numbers...
YEAR G AVG OBP SLG HR 2B RBI RUN
2001 161 .329 .403 .610 37 47 130 112
2002 157 .314 .394 .561 34 40 127 118
2003 157 .359 .439 .667 43 51 124 137
TOTAL 475 .334 .412 .613 114 138 381 367
Those are incredible numbers. Add in the fact that Pujols has done all that at the ages of 21, 22 and 23 and...well, it is simply an extraordinary start to a career.
Ah, but exactly how extraordinary a start, you ask? Well, let's take a look...
2003 was Pujols' "age-23" season. Let's compare some of his numbers thus far to other great hitters in baseball history, through age-23.
HOME RUNS THROUGH AGE-23
Eddie Mathews 153
Mel Ott 153
Alex Rodriguez 148
Frank Robinson 134
Ken Griffey Jr. 132
Ted Williams 127
Orlando Cepeda 122
Juan Gonzalez 121
Mickey Mantle 121
Jimmie Foxx 116
Andruw Jones 116
Johnny Bench 114
ALBERT PUJOLS 114
Jose Canseco 111
Hank Aaron 110
How's that for company?
Eddie Mathews had a very interesting career, in that he started so fast and so well, but was essentially done being a dominant player by the time he was 31. As you can see on the above list, Mathews ties for the most homers ever through the age of 23. He also hit a total of 399 homers through age-30, which ranks fourth all-time. Mathews then hit just 113 homers after the age of 30 and retired after hitting .212/.281/.385 in 52 at bats with the Tigers in 1968, at the age of 36.
Here's another interesting factoid... The player with the most career homers through the age of 30 in the history of baseball? Ken Griffey Jr., with 438. He'll be 34 next season and has "only" 481 homers now, which you would think shows just how quickly someone can lose all their steam in pursuit of Hank Aaron. On the other hand, Griffey is still tied for third all-time in homers through age-33 with...none other than Hank Aaron.
DOUBLES THROUGH AGE-23
Ken Griffey Jr. 170
Cesar Cedeno 164
Alex Rodriguez 160
Mel Ott 159
Vada Pinson 156
Ty Cobb 154
Ted Williams 154
Buddy Lewis 149
Robin Yount 144
ALBERT PUJOLS 138
Joe Medwick 138
Al Kaline 137
Orlando Cepeda 137
Freddy Lindstrom 135
Stan Musial 135
Pujols is even higher up on the doubles list than he is for homers, tying for 10th all-time. That Griffey kid shows up at the top of the list, but Eddie Mathews, who hit more than 30 doubles in a season just once in his entire career, is absent from the top-15.
It also should be noted that Alex Rodriguez shows up at #3 on both lists. Rodriguez is the all-time leader in homers through the age of 27, with 345.
RUNS CREATED ABOVE AVERAGE THROUGH AGE-23
Ted Williams 407
Ty Cobb 318
Joe Jackson 295
Mel Ott 279
Mickey Mantle 260
Jimmie Foxx 230
Eddie Mathews 224
Stan Musial 216
Arky Vaughan 212
ALBERT PUJOLS 206
Mike Tiernan 197
Ken Griffey Jr. 195
Sherry Magee 183
Joe Kelley 181
Pete Browning 180
Runs Created Above Average (RCAA) is a Lee Sinins stat that shows how good someone was offensively, compared to the average hitter in the league, and adjusted for home ballpark.
The first thing that pops out at me is just how amazing Ted Williams was. He pretty much laps the field in this stat, with more RCAA than the 10th and 11th ranked guys of all-time combined. Williams ranks "just" 6th on the homers list and 7th on the doubles list, mostly because he took such an incredible amount of walks (495 in his first four seasons).
To Pujols' credit, he is able to rank 10th on the RCAA list through age-23 despite only playing in 475 games. Williams played in 586 games by the time he was 23 and, among the players ahead of Pujols on the list, only Stan Musial played in fewer games (455).
I heard some talk last year from people wondering if Pujols' first two seasons were the best start to a career of all-time and certainly after what he did in 2003 there is even more talk about his first three seasons.
That said, if you want to try to judge the start of someone's career, I think it is probably smart to do so by age and not number of seasons. After all, if Pujols has three great years by the time he's 23 and Ted Williams has four, isn't Williams off to a better start? I suppose it's debatable.
For those of you who want to debate it and feel like "start of a career" applies to number of seasons, let's take a look at how Phat Albert and The Splendid Splinter compare, after three seasons each:
G AVG OBP SLG GPA RCAA
Williams 436 .356 .475 .640 .374 285
Pujols 475 .334 .412 .613 .339 206
I love Pujols, but even if we're only looking at their first three seasons and not what they did through age-23, Ted Williams simply blows him away. He's got him beat by 35 points of GPA and he's got 79 more RCAA, despite playing 39 fewer games.
That's no knock on Pujols, of course. What he has done is simply amazing and his first three seasons are among the greatest in baseball history. It's just that, in addition to being so great, they also give us a chance to once again notice just how extraordinary Ted Williams was.
Finally, here's a little something to chew on, in case you're not quite convinced of the greatness of Ted Williams...
Albert Pujols' incredible 2003 season - .359/.439/.667 with 43 homers, 51 doubles, 124 RBIs, 137 runs - was good for a 189 OPS+. Ted Williams had an OPS+ of at least 189 in the following seasons (500+ plate appearances):
And that's despite missing all of 1943, 1944 and 1945, plus the majority of 1952 and 1953, serving in the military.
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