Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Albert Pujols

Claim to fame: Let’s be clear. This isn’t a column about whether Albert Pujols will eventually have a plaque in Cooperstown. This much is almost certain already. At 31, 11 seasons into a storied career, and currently the hottest thing on the free agent market, Pujols looks on track to one day rank as a legend. Heck, even today, he wouldn’t look too out of place at first base in an all-time dream lineup. I might take him over Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, or Hank Greenberg, and Foxx and Rogers Hornsby look like Pujols’ main competition for the title of best right handed hitter in baseball history.

If he stays healthy and plays until he’s 40, Pujols has a chance at some ridiculous numbers: 800 home runs, 4,000 hits, and Babe Ruth’s lifetime WAR record of 190. This week’s post, however, is about if Pujols doesn’t play until that point. Unlikely as the following scenario is, I’ll ask: What if Pujols were to retire today? Would his accomplishments thus far be enough for Cooperstown?

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Pujols is an active player and won’t be eligible for consideration for Cooperstown from the Baseball Writers Association of America until five years after his retirement. Thus, the soonest he could be voted on as a Hall of Fame candidate is the fall of 2016. More likely if Pujols plays a full career, he’ll appear on his first and probably only Cooperstown ballot sometime around 2025.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Yes, Pujols belongs if he plays a full career. And yes, even at this point, he’s probably done more than enough to merit a plaque. He could pull a Sandy Koufax and retire tomorrow, and as it was with the Dodger legend in 1972, Pujols would probably still be a first ballot Hall of Famer. Whether it’s his three National League Most Valuable Player awards, his 88.7 lifetime WAR that ranks second-best among active players, or the fact that he shatters every Hall of Fame metric listed on Baseball-Reference.com, Pujols boasts an impressive resume for Cooperstown. He’s precocious as the 14-year-old who finds their way into attending Harvard.

As I noted when I did one of these columns on Smoky Joe Wood awhile back, players have definitely been enshrined before with truncated careers. Ross Youngs and Addie Joss each earned plaques decades after dying not long past their 30th birthdays. Kirby Puckett retired at 35 in 1995 due to glaucoma but easily made Cooperstown as a first ballot selection with the writers in 2001. And besides Koufax, fellow virtuoso hurlers Dizzy Dean, Rube Waddell, and Don Drysdale, among others, were all done early and got their plaques. Pujols ranks as at least a peer with everyone of the men listed above. Really, he probably ranks as the best of that bunch.

Have their been exceptions? Certainly. Besides Wood, Denny McLain, and Roger Maris, there’s hard-drinking Deadball Era great Mike Donlin who hit .333 lifetime with a 144 OPS+ but walked away from baseball in 1907 at 28 to perform vaudeville with his new wife. He returned after a season, but was never the same player and later peaked at about three percent of the writers vote for Cooperstown. Statistically, though, Pujols ranks far beyond Donlin already, and even if he spurns the St. Louis Cardinals next year in favor of vaudeville or whatever its modern equivalent is, a Hall of Fame plaque is Pujols’ to lose.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.

Others in this series: Adrian BeltreAl OliverAlan TrammellAlbert BelleAllie ReynoldsBarry BondsBarry LarkinBert BlylevenBilly MartinBobby GrichCecil TravisChipper JonesClosersCurt FloodDan QuisenberryDarrell EvansDave ParkerDick AllenDon Mattingly,Don NewcombeGeorge SteinbrennerGeorge Van Haltren, Gus GreenleeHarold BainesHarry DaltonJack MorrisJim EdmondsJoe CarterJoe PosnanskiJohn SmoltzJuan GonzalezKeith HernandezKen CaminitiLarry Walker,Manny RamirezMaury WillsMel HarderMoises AlouPete Browning,Phil CavarrettaRafael PalmeiroRoberto AlomarRocky Colavito,Roger MarisRon GuidryRon SantoSmoky Joe WoodSteve Garvey,Ted SimmonsThurman MunsonTim RainesTony OlivaWill Clark

El Hombre vs. The Man

Stan Musial retired in 1963, having just concluded his then-record 20th consecutive all-star season, a surefire Hall of Famer and all-time great. In 21 Major League seasons, all in St. Louis, Musial amassed 3,630 hits, a .331 batting average, 475 homeruns, and three MVP trophies. He was and still is the undisputed greatest Cardinal of all-time.

But today, almost 50 years after Musial’s last game, another St. Louis slugger is threatening Stan’s title. Albert Pujols is 31 years old (or so he says) and already one of the most accomplished players in baseball history. The first-baseman has matched Musial’s MVP total, and, according to baseballreference.com, Pujols’s career WAR of 88.7 ties him with Carl Yastrzemski for 42nd all-time.

But Pujols is a free-agent this off-season, and we can all agree that it’s loads of fun to transpose his face onto opposing teams’ uniforms. Rumor has landed him everywhere from Chicago to Miami, yet consensus remains that the Dominican-born Missouri native will remain under the Gateway Arch’s shadow. Were Pujols to leave St. Louis, he would sacrifice the opportunity to ascend the list of Cardinals legends and surpass Musial as the storied franchise’s greatest player ever.

11 seasons into his Major League career, Pujols’s numbers are strikingly Musial-like. After Stan the Man’s 11th full season in the majors (1953), he boasted a lifetime OPS+ of 172, 3,746 total bases and a WAR of 89.6. Pujols, to this point, owns an OPS+ of 170, 3,893 total bases and a WAR of 88.7. Statistically, the two are, through 11 seasons, essentially identical.

But, upon closer examination, Musial’s early-career numbers aren’t quite as impressive as they appear. While many of his contemporaries missed three seasons to World War II service, Musial fought for only one. The absence of Major League star-power on the mound helped fuel some of Stan’s most productive seasons. He topped the league in OPS+ in both 1943 and 44, winning an MVP and padding his career stats with two years of sub-standard competition. Numbers he accrued during this time period can’t be taken at face value.

And while we’ve examined the pair through the first 11 seasons of their respective careers, Pujols is two years younger than Musial was at that point (if, of course, Pujols’s reported age is to be believed). And while Pujols’s statistics regressed slightly in 2011, a strong second half suggests that he should bounce back with a typical MVP-caliber campaign in 2012. Musial followed the aforementioned 11-season start to his career with an exceptional 1954, before falling off marginally in ’55 and ’56, bouncing back to finish 2nd in the NL MVP voting in ’57 and declining steadily from there. The second half of his career was productive but not other-worldly (he was no Barry Bonds), and there’s no reason to believe Pujols can’t follow a comparable pattern. Barring injury or unforeseen decline, Pujols should remain on his Musial-like pace.

So Pujols will, regardless of location, retire with extraordinary career totals. If he remains in St. Louis he could very well end up the greatest player in Cardinals history. If he spurns common expectation and leaves town, he’ll have to settle for being one of the ten or fifteen best players of all-time. Assuming that he stays in St. Louis, Stan the Man better look out; El Hombre is on a historic pace.

The Forgotten Canadian

I recently came across a book about a subject which I must admit hasn’t always been near and dear to my heart despite my heritage.  It was about Canadians who have played in the major leagues, focusing mainly on Larry Walker, but covering a history that dates back to the 1800’s.

There was one name there which especially caught my eye, a player I had forgotten about but one I consider to be one of the best to have come out of Canada.  What to my mind made this player all the more remarkable was not only that he came from Canada, but where in Canada he came from.

Terry Puhl played 15 seasons in the major leagues and was a mainstay of the Houston Astros from 1977 until his retirement with the Kansas City royals in 1991.  His career stats include a .280 batting average,  62 homeruns and 435 RBI.  Not remarkable or eye popping perhaps but when taken in the context of the times, much better than average.

In those days, visits by scouts to hockey mad Canada were either few and far between, or subject to more skepticism than visits around the USA.  Certainly this attitude was justified.  The baseball season in Canada is much shorter than the USA or countries in the warmer climes.  Competent baseball coaches in Canada were seldom found and Canadian kids blossomed a couple of years later if at all compared to those in other countries.  The warmer regions of Canada are in British Columbia and southern Ontario and even those seasons are relatively short.

For a kid coming out of Melville, Saskatchewan, the odds must have seemed greater than impossible.  At the risk of generalizing, the prairies of Saskatchewan are cold and the winters are long.  Ideal for hockey, not so good for baseball.  How could a kid from this place even dream about being a professional baseball player?

After signing with the Astros in 1973, Puhl came up to stay in July 1977.  He immediately became the Astros regular left fielder and batted .301 in 60 games.   The next season he became the sole Houston representative to the All-Star game and in the 1980 championship playoffs he batted a then record .526.  As of 2010, Puhl owned the ninth best lifetime fielding percentage of any major league outfielder.

He played a quiet and seemingly unassuming outfield throughout his career with a consistency matched by few other players.  He was a table setter on a Houston team which featured speed and defense over power due to the dimensions of the Astrodome.  But he was not a slap and run hitter, typical of Houston and much of the astro turf era. He hit doubles and triples.  He was steady and consistent. He hit .372 in postseason play.

In 1994, Puhl was elected to the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of fame and in 1995 he was elected to the Canadian Baseball hall of Fame. In 2007 he was hired as the baseball coach at University of Houston-Victoria where he has compiled a record of 96-44.

His overall numbers are those of an average to good major league player.  But those numbers are all the more remarkable when one considers the era he came from the place he came from and his quiet, it’s all about the team demeanor.   He would probably not appreciate this mention.  He probably just loves the game we all love.

But as a fellow Canadian who tried his best but was never good enough or really had the chance in those olden days, I always did and still admire his style of play and his accomplishments.  What I found even more remarkable is that he made it at all.

Pete Runnels Makes My Top Fifty

In my last blog, I identified Mickey Vernon as one of my choices for Baseball Past and Present’s Second Annual “Fifty Best Players Not in the Hall of Fame” voting.

While I was researching Vernon, I realized that his Washington Senators’ teammate from 1951 to 1955, Pete Runnels, was a solid if not spectacular player, too. And since Runnels never received even a single vote for the Hall, I’m including him just because.

There’s not a team in the Major Leagues that would not jump at the chance to sign a Runnels-type player. One of the most consistent hitters from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, Runnels won two batting titles for the Boston Red Sox (1960 and 1962) who acquired him in a trade from the Senators for Albie Pearson and Norm Zauchin. During Runnels’ 1960 batting title season (.320), he knocked in only 35 runs—hard to do given that his 169 hits included 33 for extra bases. Runnels barely missed out on a third title (1958) when on the season’s final day in Washington against his old Senators, he went 0-4 while the eventual winner, Ted Williams, got two hits.

Always the gentleman, Runnels later said:

I enjoyed Ted’s 1958 catching me [for the batting crown] on the final day more than the later titles of 1960 and 1962 because of the great competition. Wasn’t he capable?


Still, Runnels was quick to attribute his success as a Red Sox to Williams who taught him to slap the balls into infield holes and slice line drives off Fenway Park’s Green Monster. In five Red Sox seasons, Runnels averaged .320 and never hit less than .314. A master at bat control, he was a notorious singles hitter who had one of the game’s best eyes and compiled an outstanding 1.35 walk-to-strikeout ratio (844-to-627). Altogether Runnels batted over .300 six times, once with the Senators, five with the Red Sox.

Runnels, who played all four infield positions with above average skill and appeared in three All Star games, finished his career with a .291 average. After his last two seasons with the HoustonColt .45s, Runnels returned to coach the Red Sox (1965-1966). Then when Boston fired manager Billy Herman, Runnels was tapped as the Red Sox new pilot to manage the last 16 games. Retired from baseball, Runnels returned to his Pasadena, Texas home to open a sporting goods store.Runnels attended Rice Institute (now Rice University) and served in the U.S. Marines (1945-1948). In 1991, at age 63, Runnels  died from a heart attack he suffered in Houston.  The Boston Red Sox induced Runnels into its Hall of Fame in 2004.

Any player/Any era: Pedro Martinez

What he did: On the surface, Pedro Martinez’s 2000 season is impressive enough: 18-6 record, 1.74 ERA, 284 strikeouts, and the best WHIP of all-time, 0.737. Of course he was the American League Cy Young, and Martinez even finished fifth in MVP voting. Usually, these kinds of years for pitchers come during times that favor them, the Deadball Era, the pitching Golden Age of the 1960s, and such. But Martinez did his thing at the height of the Steroid Era when offense reigned supreme. His ERA+ was an almost-comical 291, courtesy of an AL average ERA of 4.91.

In 1931, Lefty Grove dominated in similar circumstances, overcoming one of the greatest offensive years in baseball history. This was the season the Yankees scored 1,067 runs and still finished second, where Babe Ruth had an OPS+ of 218 and didn’t come close to winning MVP. That went to Grove who finished 31-4 with a 2.06 ERA, leading most major statistical categories for pitchers, and taking his Philadelphia Athletics to the World Series. If he’d been in a pitcher’s era, there’s no telling what Grove might have done. And given the similarities between Grove and Martinez, both men temperamental, brilliant flamethrowers, it makes me wonder how Martinez might have fared in his place.

Era he might have thrived in: We’re putting Martinez on the last great team Connie Mack managed before the Great Depression forced him to scuttle his dynasty. The ’31 A’s boasted the likes of Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, and Mickey Cochrane, went 107-45 in the regular season, and then took the Gashouse Gang St. Louis Cardinals to seven games in the World Series. I don’t know if Martinez could have filled in for Grove’s 31 wins, given that he pitched more than 200 innings just seven times in his career. In most other departments, though, Martinez would be a dominant force in 1931.

Why: First off, I ran Martinez’s 2000 numbers through the stat converter on Baseball-Reference.com. With the A’s in 1931, his stats convert to a 19-3 record with a 1.83 ERA and 264 strikeouts. I’ll admit I don’t always trust the B-R converter for pitching stats, and in this case, it has Martinez throwing just 202 innings in a year that Grove had to throw 288 (which later contributed to him blowing out his arm and becoming a junkballer his last several seasons.) That being said, a lot of things still seem to favor Martinez thriving in 1931, assuming of course we suspend disbelief about his dark skin keeping him from playing in the majors prior to 1947.

He’d have a great team, an iconic, underrated one in historical terms, really. He’d have a legendary manager who guided Hall of Fame pitchers like Rube Waddell, Chief Bender, and Grove and who loved to use his hurlers for both starting and relief. Martinez thrived in both capacities through the course of his career. And in the ’30s, Martinez would be pitching in a time where a young flamethrower didn’t need a complex repertoire of pitches. Really, before Grove hurt his arm, he was a thrower more than he was a pitcher, someone who could just chuck fastballs. Martinez could do likewise. Would it be enough to silence the bats of men like Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Charlie Gehringer and others? I don’t know. But it might be enough to secure a Hall of Fame plaque for Martinez who in his own era doesn’t quite seem a lock for Cooperstown.

Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.

Others in this series: Al SimmonsAlbert PujolsBabe RuthBad News Rockies,Barry BondsBilly BeaneBilly MartinBob CaruthersBob FellerBob Watson,Bobby VeachCarl MaysCharles Victory FaustChris von der Ahe,Denny McLainDom DiMaggioDon DrysdaleEddie LopatFrank HowardFritz MaiselGavvy CravathGeorge CaseGeorge WeissHarmon KillebrewHarry WalkerHome Run BakerHonus WagnerHugh CaseyIchiro SuzukiJack ClarkJackie RobinsonJim AbbottJimmy WynnJoe DiMaggioJoe PosnanskiJohnny AntonelliJohnny FrederickJosh HamiltonKen Griffey Jr.Lefty GroveLefty O’DoulMajor League (1989 film),Matty AlouMichael JordanMonte IrvinNate ColbertPaul DerringerPee Wee ReesePete RosePrince FielderRalph KinerRick AnkielRickey Henderson,Roberto ClementeRogers HornsbySam CrawfordSam Thompson,Sandy KoufaxSatchel PaigeShoeless Joe JacksonStan MusialTed WilliamsThe Meusel BrothersTy CobbVada PinsonWally BunkerWill ClarkWillie Mays

One Vote for Mickey Vernon

Preparing my ballot for Baseball: Past and Present’s annual 50 Best Players Not in the Hall of Fame project, I put on the top of my list Dwight Eisenhower’s favorite Washington Senators player, Mickey Vernon.

Here’s how Vernon became Ike’s #1. On Opening Day 1954 Vernon walloped a two-run homer off New York Yankees’ pitcher Allie Reynolds that won the game for the Senators, 5-4, in the bottom of the 10th. After he touched home plate, Vernon was grabbed by a man he mistook for an overly zealous fan. But it was a Secret Service agent who escorted Vernon to the president’s box where Eisenhower told him, “Nice going.”

In 14 full seasons (measured by 400 at bats or more), Vernon batted over .335 twice, over .300 five times and over .290 nine times. He had two outstanding seasons: 1946 when he won his first batting title with a .353 average and 1953 when he won his second (.337) edging out Cleveland’s Al Rosen by .001 Vernon’s career high in home runs came in 1954 with 20.

Vernon’s final season was unusual. In 1960, he spent most of the year as the Pittsburgh Pirates’ first base coach. But the Pirates, in need of a left-handed pinch hitter for the stretch drive, activated Vernon in September.  In eight plate appearances, Vernon managed only one hit and returned to the coach’s box where he remained for the World Series.

During his 20-season career, Vernon played for the Cleveland Indians, the Milwaukee Braves and the Boston Red Sox as well as the Senators and Pirates. Vernon also managed the expansion Senators from 1961-1963.

In addition to his two batting titles, Vernon was a 7 time All Star, led the league in doubles three times, participated in 2,044 double plays, the most in major league history, and fielded .990, an astonishing average.

But for a miscommunication, Vernon could have notched a sixth .300 season. In 1941, the Senators’ final three games were in New York. Coming into the series, Vernon was hitting .302 and manager Bucky Harris offered to sit him. But Vernon declined. By Sunday, his average had dipped to .299. Yankees’ third baseman Red Rolfe pulled Vernon aside in the runway and told him to lay down a bunt. “I’ll be back on my heels,” Rolfe said. The game was inconsequential since the Yankees had wrapped up the pennant weeks earlier.

In Vernon’s first three at-bats, the Senators had men on base so he had no bunt opportunity. But in his last at bat and needing the one hit, Vernon looked down the third base line where, as he had promised, Rolfe was playing deep. Vernon, feeling certain that .300 was a lock, put down his bunt. Rolfe didn’t make a play. But catcher Bill Dickey, remembered Vernon:

…came charging out, picked up the ball and threw me out. We had forgotten about him and I ended up with .299.


The Mickey Vernon Sports Museum in Chadds Ford, PA honors Vernon’s career and military service. Vernon. a U.S. Navy World War II veteran, died in 2008 from stroke complications.