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 Beltre, Al Oliver, Alan Trammell, Albert Belle, Allie Reynolds, Barry Bonds, Barry Larkin, Bert Blyleven, Billy Martin, Bobby Grich, Cecil Travis, Chipper Jones, Closers, Curt Flood, Dan Quisenberry, Darrell Evans, Dave Parker, Dick Allen, Don Mattingly,Don Newcombe, George Steinbrenner, George Van Haltren, Gus Greenlee, Harold Baines, Harry Dalton, Jack Morris, Jim Edmonds, Joe Carter, Joe Posnanski, John Smoltz, Juan Gonzalez, Keith Hernandez, Ken Caminiti, Larry Walker,Manny Ramirez, Maury Wills, Mel Harder, Moises Alou, Pete Browning,Phil Cavarretta, Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar, Rocky Colavito,Roger Maris, Ron Guidry, Ron Santo, Smoky Joe Wood, Steve Garvey,Ted Simmons, Thurman Munson, Tim Raines, Tony Oliva, Will Clark