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September 23, 2010
Albert the Great
A couple of weeks ago, in talking about Jim Thome's shot at immortality Jay Jaffe dealt with a topic we all reliably love to bandy about, the Hall-worthiness of one candidate or another. Who doesn't like to go back and forth on whose ticket to Cooperstown is already punched, and who will have to settle for winding up in what we might call the Vada Pinson wing of less-worthy greatosity? As these things go as subject material, it's solid winter fare, reliably hearty and filling, the sort of stuff that leaves you milling through memories and switching over to the mind's eye, toward moments you treasure—Jim Thome, Terror of the Bronx in the '98 ALCS, does quite nicely for me.
However, we're in September, and the needs of the present outweigh the obligations to the past. When we get on the subject of all-time greatness and first base, I'm less interested in talking about those with one foot in their professional grave. Instead, I'd start any conversation with an acknowledgment that the bar for all-time greatness has been changed, changed forever, and changed by one of Thome's contemporaries no less. The standard has been changed forever by Albert Pujols.
Consider the top end of the table Jay ran then:
*BBWAA-elected Hall of Famer
The most impressive thing in that table certainly wasn't Thome, but it also wasn't Lou Gehrig. Instead, it's the fact that peak value at first base already belongs to Albert the Great. Since JAWS is calculated using a player's seven best seasons to calculate his peak, that number is never going to go down—the man has already set the all-time record for value at first base. If anything, do you really want to rule out the possibility that he might not improve upon it, considering that he's only just now finishing his age-30 season? Expanding the standard beyond seven seasons wouldn't hurt him—if his seventh-best season so far via WARP was in 2004, with 8.5, keep in mind his eighth-best was his rookie season in 2001. His WARP that year was 8.4.
Of course, there is career value. There was a point in time when I thought Mark McGwire could mount a challenge to the Iron Horse, but the limitations of his body, with or without or perhaps because of any betterment built by chemistry, made certain he'd not endure long enough to make it. Instead, from the recent past we can take up the cases of the Big Hurt and Jeff Bagwell, to argue for in Gehrig's place. Frank Thomas is a bit of a stretch, given the amount of time he spent at DH, but you can see the shape of a case for Bagwell for career value, if you favor present-day performance over that of the past.
But arguing the value of the present over the past isn't a favor we'll need to do for Pujols. Even if his pace slackens in the second decade of his career, how many years away is he from knocking Gehrig off of even that perch for all-time value three years? That was PECOTA's expectation before this season, in its 10-year forecast, projecting WARP tallies of 9.6 in 2011—boosting his peak value—and 8.7 in both 2012 and 2013.
That's a bit speculative, of course, but there are other reasons to take Pujols over the luckiest man on the face of the earth:
Of course, these tallies includes Gehrig's abbreviated decline and foreshortened career, compared to Pujols' first 10 years. If you lop off Gehrig's career after his first 10 seasons—carrying him through his tremendous 1934 campaign—you shave off 26 points of WARP2 without doing him any favors on defense, and you don't massively boost his TAv, since he was better than his career clip in two of his four full subsequent seasons. If anything, what the exercise suggests is that Pujols isn't just a little bit better, but that without even allowing that much for the more dynamic competitive ecology of today's game, he compares favorable to the Iron Horse. Barring any tragedy that interrupts his enjoying his 30s relatively normally, Pujols should end up being an insurmountable edge in career value over the rest of humanity, let alone Gehrig. I'll leave it to somebody else's great-grandchildren to fidget about asterisking a genemod Ken Griffey V in the far-off future.
This is without getting into all of the other, more dynamic reasons to prefer the performances of the present to those of the past. I admit, there was a time when I tried to uneasily straddle the line between the two. For a good chunk of my 20s, back in the days before we elected Bubba, I'd enjoy innumerable debates with friends on this very point, emptying one pitcher after another at Jimmy's Woodlawn Tap while trying to skate a balance between those guys in our circle who would generally put everyone on the same plane, and the one among us, Drew, who adopted the deliberately controversial position that, “the quality of play and players has never been better.”
This is essentially the NFL's sales pitch to this day, and that was a pretty tough sell in the late '80s, even among a crowd that was reading Bill James and Stephen Jay Gould and Pete Palmer and Craig Wright and everything else we could get our hands on, even the Elias books or the Bill Mazeroski pre-season guides. It's easy to wax nostalgic about that past, but I wouldn't—we simply knew a lot less then than we do now. It wasn't a golden age; at best it was the beginning of the end of common ignorance. Where I used to get in knock-down, drag-out arguments favoring Mark Grace over Randy Milligan with one friend—one of the few instances back then when I need cop to a kind word for a Cub—we can resolve these things a lot more easily.
More fundamentally, what we know now does a pretty good job of suggesting that Drew was right, then and now.* Integration, internationalization, a better distribution of talent across the industry in a world without the reserve clause... in the end, the reasons why the feats of the past need knocking off their perches are legion. But even without heavily discounting the numbers of Gehrig, or Dan Brouthers and Cap Anson for that matter, because of the anemic competitive balance of the game's more distant past, you still wind up with a fairly straightforward demonstration of Pujols' value.
* On the other hand, his other favorite observation, that everything evens out in the end, remains total rot. To borrow a phrase from Colin Wyers, seasons and lifetimes are too short for things to really "even out"—Aaron Hill isn't going to magically recover toward something closer to his career rates within 2010 by going 40-for-40, just because he's due for evening out. Time, as ever, is the enemy, one that Hill will not defeat this year. The best he can hope for is to do something more with next season's clean slate.