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.

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