(originally posted on the Bill James Online forums)
This is something that I’ve been pondering since the start of this season, and now that Pujols was finally given his second MVP, I figured I might as well share the thought with others.
Before I go on, I should state that this comparison was probably most apt one year ago, after Pujols’ 7th season, but it’s too late for that now. Plus, him having his second MVP award does help the comparison in one way…
Frank Thomas‘ first full year in the majors was 1991. Albert Pujols‘ was 2001. So, in 1998 Thomas was finishing his 8th big league year and, in 2008, Pujols was finishing his 8th. At the time ten years ago, Frank Thomas had two MVP awards (won back-to-back) and was considered one of the best hitters of all time and a sure-fire hall of fame player. Albert Pujols, today, has two MVP awards and is considered by many to be the obvious best player in baseball, having had probably the most successful start to a career in a long time.
So, the question I wonder about is, is Albert Pujols today the equivalent of Frank Thomas from 10 years ago?
Before we take a look at the stats, I’ll say that the reason I’ve always pondered this question is because of an article I read back then. In the 1998 Sporting News Baseball Yearbook, previewing the ’98 season, there was an article asking whether Frank Thomas was the greatest hitter ever, and it compared his first 7 years to the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Rogers Hornsby, and Al Simmons. The article went on to say that, of the 8 players they were comparing, 4 went on to have even more productive careers, and the other 4 declined quickly. “Which way would Thomas go?” was the end question. (You can see their comparisons here.)
We all know what happened after that. Injuries and attitude derailed the Big Hurt and made him a questionable commodity for a number of years, until he popped back up in Oakland and Toronto as a contributing DH. Can or will the same thing happen to Pujols? And, even if it did, would we think higher of him than we think of Thomas?
Here’s a quick comparison of their respective numbers over their first eight years – and remember what I said, this comparison was more apt after 7 years, not 8, because that 8th year is when Thomas started declining.
Looking at the spreadsheet and seeing all that yellow in Pujols columns, it seems pretty easy to say that he had the better start to his career. But, if you look again, you’ll notice that Thomas tends to lead in batting average, on base percentage and, most importantly, OPS+. Which, of course, means that those additional extra-base hits and home runs that Pujols has (and, thus, higher slugging), aren’t as impressive when compared to the era he’s playing in. But does that mean either one is better?
By the stats alone, I think it’s easy to go one way or the other (though I tend to lean in Pujols’ favor). However, we know that Pujols has a gold glove (and should have more, though we *must* ignore the “shoulds”) and a world series ring. Thomas was, by almost all accounts, a lackluster defender, if that, and was never able to take his team to the series (he wasn’t on the World Series winning roster in 2005).
I know that this isn’t really a very constructive comparison, as there is nothing that anyone can do about the future. And I also know that Pujols could just as easily turn into Lou Gehrig (like in Dave Fleming’s article [over] on Bill James Online) as he could turn into Frank Thomas. Still, I think most people feel pretty safe predicting that Pujols will be remembered as one of the best of all time because he’s been performing at such a high level for so long, but it seems important to remember that we all felt the same way about Thomas only 10 years ago. And I think you’d be pretty hard-pressed to find someone claiming the Big Hurt is one of the all-time greats.
I imagine a lot of people will read this and bring up a lot of good points why Albert won’t turn into Frank, and I will believe every single one of them. But I’ll also believe all the arguments in the other direction, where one brings up Albert’s scary brush with Tommy John surgery or something else. In either case, I’m rooting for Pujols because I want to say that I was able to watch the greatest first baseman of all-time play for many years. I like the way the guy plays, and I hope nothing but the best. I just think it’s important to remember just how certain we were about Thomas back in the day too, and that didn’t quite turn out as we hoped.