When you ask somebody “who is the greatest hitter in the history of baseball?” the answer will normally vary. The old school mentality of batting average puts the focus on guys such as Wade Boggs, Ty Cobb, Rod Carew, Tony Gwynn and Pete Rose. All five of these generational talents were exceptional hitters. They won batting title after batting title, known for the elite hand-eye coordination and beloved for their grit. The traditional generation that goes by pure statistics will go Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth or Honus Wagner. Perhaps, they like the stick of dynamite middle infielder who can do a little bit of everything: The Derek Jeter’s and Robin Yount’s of the world. If you love the homerun ball then Reggie Jackson, Jim Thome and Jeff Bagwell are regular go-to answers. Some would take the word “hitter” and take it as overall offensive performance, adding Tim Raines and Rickey Henderson to the discussion. A more modern baseball fan would love to add Adrian Beltre, Ichiro Suzuki and Miguel Cabrera. Straight statistics would add Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Rafael Palmiero to the equation at hand.
All of these are great players. Unfortunately, all of them have their flaws. Outside of the final three, all of them are either in Cooperstown or will be upon eligibility. No doubt this is the standard for what it means to be a hitter. If you look at the first group, that is the absolute epitome of contact. Boggs may be the most professional at bat in the history of baseball, while Carew converted bad pitches into base knocks like it was his religion. Pete Rose is even the all-time hit leader for Major League Baseball. They are indisputably the best contact hitters of all-time, unfortunately they all lacked power and none of them took their walks. It’s a very one dimensional way of hitting. Players such as Lou Gehrig and Ted Williams were the cream of their crop, unfortunately they all played in a league prior to Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey integrating the game of baseball, as well as doing it in a time where pitchers didn’t have nearly the velocity that the modern era has or even the types of secondary pitches. Add in the travel, baseball has only gotten more difficult. Players such as Robin Yount did every aspect of the game well, but none of it truly, historically great for a long stretch. The homerun ball may be sexy, and Tom Glavine can vouch that chicks dig it, but it’s just as one dimensional as contact. If we went by homeruns dictating who the best players were, then Logan Forsythe has had a better Major League career than Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith, while Dave Kingman would’ve waltzed into the Hallowed Halls of Cooperstown. Most of Rickey’s value stems from his stolen bases, which changes the question. Were Suzuki, Beltre and Miggy ever the best hitters in the game at any point? If not, how can they be the greatest ever? As for Bonds, Palmiero and A-Rod, they used steroids to compile their statistics.
Ask yourself this question: what is the goal of a hitter? For me, the goal of hitting is to get on base, to drive in runs and to be able to hit for power when needed. I also look at more than just hits and homeruns or the numbers on the statline, because the more you walk, not only are you on base more, but you also drove the pitch count up. I’d much rather have a nine pitch walk to leadoff an inning than a two pitch flare off of the end of the bat, even if the former doesn’t show up in the batting average. The more pitches a pitcher is forced to throw, the quicker his stuff flattens, the quicker he exits a ballgame and the more stuff the hitter on deck gets to see before his at bat. For players without steroid suspicion, that narrows down our field a lot more. I think of hitters such as George Brett, Larry Walker, Mike Trout, Henry Aaron, Willie Mays and Edgar Martinez. But to me, there is one that separates himself from the rest: Albert Pujols.
During his game against the Astros on 8/2, Pujols absolutely smashed a grandslam, making him just three shy from passing the great Willie Mays for sole possession of the number five all-time spot. It was career homerun number 658 for the 40 year old slugger,
As you can see, Pujols has the clutch factor. So, let’s go down that road first: it has been historic postseason dominance for Albert Pujols.
He’s tied with MLB Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson with three homeruns in a single World Series game, a game where he had three other hits in what may be the most dominant game at the plate in the history of the MLB postseason. In 77 postseason games, his statline is .323/.431/.599. He has 19 postseason homeruns, two World Series championships and he was the 2004 NLCS MVP when the Cardinals made their surprise postseason run. Despite how far we are removed from the unprecedented run of the Pujols Cardinals, there’s no doubt The Machine was the cog that kept the overall machine running.
With the bases loaded, Albert Pujols has fifteen grand slams (only twelve players ever have more). In 295 plate appearances with the bases loaded, he has come through more often than not, sporting a .309 batting average. With RISP, he has 3439 plate appearances, hitting to an astounding 1.001 OPS. Hitting with RISP means there’s a runner on second or third base when you’re in the batters box. This has been good enough to get Albert to fourth all-time on the runs batted in list, as the grand slam puts him at 2080. He is one of only five players in history to drive in over 2000 runs at the Major League level, the others being Hank Aaron (2297), Babe Ruth (2214), Alex Rodriguez (2086) and Cap Anson (2075). All, except Rodriguez who suffered from steroid abuse and Albert, have a plaque in Cooperstown. He is six RBI away from being top three all-time. It’s worth noting that Albert’s contract ends after the 2021 season, and we aren’t sure as to whether or not he’ll keep playing. If he does, he’ll absolutely have a chance to chase Hank Aaron for that number one spot.
By all means, his counting stats are GOAT worthy. There are only nine players with 600 or more homeruns. Only four, including Pujols, have 600 or more homeruns and 3000 or more hits. One of them is Babe Ruth, who played pre-integration. Another is Alex Rodriguez, who as mentioned previously, was suspended for PEDs. The only other player to cleanly hit 600 homeruns and collect 3000 hits is Hank Aaron. Albert has three seasons of 100 walks, but zero seasons of 100 strikeouts. In fact, he has more walks (1324) than he does Ks (1282) after 20 years in the Show, in an era where strikeouts are more prevalent than any time before him. His tremendous contact rate is up there with any hitter in MLB history, and he grinds out his at bats as much as any hitter in MLB history. The 10x MLB All-Star has a .299 lifetime batting average, which means a good season this year can push him back over the .300 lifetime benchmark. He has 3,206 hits, which is more than contact oriented hitters such as Wade Boggs, Rod Carew, Lou Brock, Craig Biggio and Robin Yount. He realistically will retire top ten in total basehits, doing so against the best pitching imaginable, while also hitting for historic power. If you’re more analytically minded, his .926 lifetime OPS is one of the greatest ever. Since 2001, the highest league average OPS is .768 (set in 2006). He has been almost .200 OPS points better than the rest of the league on average his entire career. His BBRef WAR is over 100. Only 21 career long position players, including Albert, have a WAR that high.
Albert’s 658 Big Fly’s came across 424 different pitchers, the second most total pitchers taken deep by a single hitter ever, only behind Pirates and Giants legend Barry Bonds 449. Only one player in MLB currently other than Pujols (Cabrera, 480) has at least 424 lifetime homeruns. There are only nine active Major League players to homer against all 30 clubs: Pujols, Edwin Encarnacion, Josh Donaldson, JD Martinez, Russell Martin, Miguel Cabrera, Shin Soo Choo, Jay Bruce and Albert’s current teammate Justin Upton. Chris Iannetta would be the tenth, but he was just designated for assignment by the New York Yankees yesterday.
Albert is one of only seven players to hit 200 homeruns in both the American League and the National League.
Pujols’ main dominance came within his first ten seasons, when he was a Cardinal. To put into a vacuum:
He was drafted as a bigger shortstop in the thirteenth round, with every team passing on him due to questions regarding his age, and the fact he had been playing for a random community college in Kansas City. Two years later, he was one of the best players in the game, coming up as a utility man due to Mark McGwire still playing 1st base at Busch. Man, did every team that pass him up miss out? Earlier this year, MLB did an article reflecting on his greatness much as I am now, but specifically on the first ten years, even interviewing players such as Hall of Fame great Jeff Bagwell for the piece; which can be found here. During his Cardinals tenure, his 445 HR and 455 doubles were the most in all of baseball. Per David Adler, during a players first 11 seasons, 445 is the most, beating Hall of Fame Braves’ third baseman Eddie Mathews 399. The double total is tied with Todd Helton for the most. His 915 XBH are far more than the runner up, Hank Aaaron, at 726.
During his Cardinals run, they not only won multiple championships, but Albert won three MVPs, as well as finishing second four times (twice to Barry Bonds, once to Ryan Howard and Joey Votto, respectively). There has never been a more dominant ten year peak in baseball.
My one argument for greatest hitter is Hank Aaron, and I was even asked who I’d take between the two on my team first in one of my Facebook “Ask Me Anything” sessions recently. I’m torn, as a Braves fan who adores Hammerin’ Hank, but I’d honestly don’t know between the two. The two have identical statlines, seeing as Hank’s is .305/.374/.555 with a .928 OPS and Albert’s is .299/.378/.548 with a .926 OPS. Aaron was a better defender, but Pujols won a lot more and was far and away the best in the game at one time. I’m going to give the nod to Pujols solely because Aaron didn’t see 100 mph regularly and it’s now a fixture in the game. I think Albert was a more dominant player while Aaron was a more consistent player. Aaron also struck out more.
All in all, there is only one player who’s up there in every offensive statistic, is known for his contact, while also being one of the greatest power hitters and run produces ever, that also did it cleanly and against the hardest pitching imaginable. Albert Pujols is my greatest hitter of all-time, after great deliberation, and we witness history every at bat. Will somebody like Mike Trout take him over? I find it extremely likely with how dominant Trout is, but right now, his mentor is the King for me. For baseball fans, he is our Tom Brady. He is our Sidney Crosby. He is our LeBron James. He is The Machine.
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