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May 5, 2006

The Prince Is Dead

Long Live the King

by Jonah Keri

Prince Albert seems a fitting name for the St. Louis Cardinals’ resident superstar. It’s a simple, regal name for a player who makes hitting look easy, whose presence at the plate inspires the kind of awe normally reserved for royalty.

But compare Albert Pujols’ performance in the first five years of his career to those of MLB’s other greats, and the name Prince starts to look inadequate. By the numbers, Pujols looks more like a king.

Pujols’ first five seasons rank among the top 10 performances in major league history by just about every advanced metric possible. BP’s Equivalent Average stat lets us compare hitters across all eras by adjusting for league and park effects and quality of competition. The result is then boiled down to a number that runs along the same scale as batting average. If a hitter nets a .350 EqA, he’s a superstar. If he puts up a .175, he shouldn't be in the big leagues.

Here, then, are the top 10 EqA producers for the first five years of a major league career, counting down from #10:

#10
                    5-Yr
Player          EqA    Years        Age     AVG/OBP/SLG    Yr-6 EqA, AVG/OBP/SLG
Joe DiMaggio   .330   1936-40     21-25   .343/.402/.623     .364, .357/.440/.643

Arguably the best comp for Pujols of anyone on the list. Joe DiMaggio played in an era which favored offense, especially power hitting, just as Pujols has. His raw rate statistics are just a shade below Pujols’. Both players’ first five seasons came from ages 21 to 25. DiMaggio enjoyed the best year of his career in Year 6, at age 26. Pujols is on pace to do the same (more on that in a bit).

The biggest similarity may lie in their strikeout-to-walk ratios. DiMaggio played in an era which featured far fewer strikeouts than today, but even by those standards, his batting eye was astounding. DiMaggio struck out more often than he walked in his rookie season, with 39 whiffs to 24 walks. Never again in his career did the Clipper ever fan more often than he jogged to first.

That feat is much rarer in today’s game. In his rookie season, Pujols struck out 93 times, while drawing 69 walks. Every year since he’s walked more than he’s struck out, so much so that he starts resembling a pitch-recognition machine like Wade Boggs--only with Jimmie Foxx-level power. So far this year Pujols has walked four times as often as he’s struck out, the kind of accomplishment only Barry Bonds can manage among today’s players.

#9
                     5-Yr
Player          EqA    Years        Age     AVG/OBP/SLG    Yr-6 EqA, AVG/OBP/SLG
Lou Gehrig     .334   1923-27     20-24   .333/.427/.625     .358, .374/.467/.648

Lou Gehrig’s fifth big league season--his third as a full-timer--was his best. You may have read about that year somewhere, when Gehrig hit .373 with a .474 on-base percentage and a .765 slugging average. Fans of more traditional numbers might note his 47 homers, 149 runs scored and 175 RBI. Gehrig wasn’t even the best player on his team that year--no surprise, given this was 1927, the most famous of Ruth's great seasons.

(This exercise did get a little tricky, by the way, because we took the first five seasons of each player’s career, regardless of how many at-bats the players saw in those seasons. Gehrig, for instance, barely played in his Age-20 and Age-21 seasons of 1923 and 1924. Because EqA is a rate stat instead of a cumulative counting stat like home runs, though, a few stray ABs don’t make a big difference here.)

Just to reiterate, Pujols had a better five-year start to his career than Joe DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig.

#8
                    5-Yr
Player          EqA    Years        Age     AVG/OBP/SLG    Yr-6 EqA, AVG/OBP/SLG
Dan Brouthers  .334   1879-83    21-25   .344/.373/.534      .327, .327/.378/.563

With apologies to Sesame Street, Dan Brouthers is the “one of these things just doesn’t belong here” entry on the list. Brouthers’ raw, unadjusted rate stats trail well behind most of the others on this list. But the rules, playing equipment and ballpark dimensions of 19th-century baseball also created an entirely different game. To begin with, over-the-fence homers were exceptionally rare. Batting average was also the game’s most important stat, given how tough it was to catch the ball and thus how vital it was to hit 'em where they weren’t.

Brouthers was definitely a standout for his era, regardless. His career line of .342/.423/.519 scored him a cumulative EqA of .328; by way of comparison, inner-circle Hall of Famer Frank Robinson posted a career EqA of .324. Brouthers’ physical stature also stood out. Nicknamed “Big Dan,” he stood 6’2” and weighed 207 pounds. Sure, that would make him smaller than most batboys today, but Brouthers was huge by 19th-century standards.

#7
                        5-Yr
Player           EqA    Years       Age     AVG/OBP/SLG    Yr-6 EqA, AVG/OBP/SLG
Dick Allen      .336   1963-67    21-25   .311/.387/.558     .324, .263/.352/.520

The Albert Belle of his era, both for his vilified, out-spoken style and some terrific peak years. Many of the best hitters of the 1960s were vastly underrated, as their numbers were severely skewed by the favorable pitching element of the era. If you could get on base and pop some homers against the likes of Gibson and Koufax as they fired down from the giant mounds of the time, you were a great player. Spend five minutes kibitzing with noted Wall Street Journal writer and baseball fan Allen Barra and he’ll talk your ear off over how Dick Allen deserves to be a Hall of Famer. He’s got a good case, too. Allen and Houston Astros contemporary Jimmy Wynn may well be the most underrated players of all-time.

#6
                       5-Yr
Player            EqA    Years      Age     AVG/OBP/SLG    Yr-6 EqA, AVG/OBP/SLG
Albert Pujols    .340   2001-05   21-25   .332/.416/.621     .410, .350/.495/.925

By now we’ve all heard how Pujols’ 14 April home runs are an all-time record. But how about this: If Pujols can maintain his current 2006 EqA of .410, he would produce the 6th-best offensive season in MLB history, one better than anything Babe Ruth ever accomplished. Only Ted Williams’ 1941 season (.418 EqA) and Bonds’ unfathomable 2001-2004 (.427, .453, .412, .456) were better. If Pujols’ career continues the way his first five season have turned out, he’ll be a top-tier Hall of Famer. If he comes anywhere close to maintaining the pace he set this April, he’s on the Mount Rushmore of all-time players.

#5
                        5-Yr
Player            EqA    Years      Age     AVG/OBP/SLG    Yr-6 EqA, AVG/OBP/SLG
Joe Jackson      .342   1908-12    18-22   .393/.453/.571    .347, .373/.460/.551

Some of those numbers look like typos, especially the .393 cumulative batting average for Joe Jackson’s first five seasons. In truth Jackson’s career line is similar to Gehrig’s, in that his first three seasons had Shoeless Joe seeing only sporadic action. Of course that means he put up a .408 batting average in the first full season of his career. Think of the hype some of the more exciting rookies of recent years--like Dontrelle Willis--received during their debut seasons. Now imagine a player coming up from the minors to hit FOUR-OH-EIGHT.

Brouthers’ numbers differ most from the other players on this list largely due to the era in which he played. Jackson’s era also wasn’t yet conducive to power hitting. But in terms of player types, Jackson stands apart from anyone else on this list. Through the Black Sox scandal of 1919 and the resulting books and movies on the subject, Shoeless Joe has become more well-known as a tragic figure (or crook, depending on your interpretation of events) than he was a great ballplayer. But what made the scandal even sadder was the stain it would place on such an incredible career. Baseball may never again see another Joe Jackson.

#4
                       5-Yr
Player           EqA    Years      Age     AVG/OBP/SLG    Yr-6 EqA, AVG/OBP/SLG
Johnny Mize     .342   1936-40    23-27   .339/.421/.611     .326, .317/.406/.535

Now we enter the “What If?” portion of our Top 10. Johnny Mize was a star hitter just ending his 20s when he got the call to fight in World War II. Though 33 years old when he stepped back on the field, Mize was even better his first two years back than he’d ever been before. Though limited to 101 games played in 1946, Mize set career highs that year in OBP (.437) and EqA (.355). The next season he set a career high in home runs with 51. One of the all-time greats in both Cardinals and Giants history, he may have achieved Pantheon status if not for the three seasons lost in his prime.

Here’s one for you: Name another team that had three star players put up the kind of numbers at the same position that Mize, Mark McGwire and Pujols have for the Cards. A showdown with Yankee center fielders DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Bernie Williams would be fun. Red Sox left fielders Williams, Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Rice (and/or Manny Ramirez), maybe?

#3
                   5-Yr
Player        EqA    Years          Age       AVG/OBP/SLG    Yr-6 EqA, AVG/OBP/SLG
Stan Musial  .343   1941-44, 46   20-23, 25  .350/.426/.551   .307, .312/.398/.504

Make it three Cardinals among the top-six fastest starters in MLB history. Stan Musial’s Age-20 season saw him accumulate only 47 ABs. But by age 21 he was a full-time player, one of the best in the game. His career traced an interesting path, with his early years coming in war time, when many of the best players in baseball--and moreover, many of the best pitchers in baseball--were off fighting overseas. Any doubts about his abilities were put to rest when MLB returned to full strength in 1946. At age 25 he wasn’t yet the big power hitter he’d later become, but Musial’s ’46 season included a gaudy .365 batting average and .434 OBP. The power came soon afterwards, with Musial compiling an outrageous .376/.450/.702 line in 1948, with 102 extra-base hits (.372 EqA).

More than most players on this list, Musial’s stardom endured long past normal players’ expiration dates. At age 41 he sprung for a .330/.416/.508 campaign, one of the best over-40 performances ever. If Pujols is still hitting at that level in his 40s, he may have a career good enough for two Hall of Fame inductions.

#2
                     5-Yr
Player         EqA    Years     Age    AVG/OBP/SLG   Yr-6 EqA, AVG/OBP/SLG
Frank Thomas  .364   1990-94   22-26  .326/.449/.590   .361,  .308/.454/.606

Younger fans watching Frank Thomas may not be able to see past the big, hulking all-or-nothing hitter he is today to the big, hulking force of nature he was 15 years ago. How do the numbers .318/.426/.529 grab you? Those were the lowest AVG, OBP and SLG figures Thomas put up in his first five seasons. Playing with the kind of huge strike zone which can cause fits for players his size, Thomas showed complete mastery over the hitting zone from the moment he put on a major league uniform. Before Barry Bonds there was Thomas, the guy who either crushed the ball if it dared enter his wheelhouse, or sneered at pitches that missed the zone by an inch, taking a walk instead.

His transgressions, such as they are, range from some squabbles with management to his supposedly being tough to get along with in the clubhouse, if a few ornery ex-teammates are to be believed. If Thomas gets remembered for those events or his late-career struggles and not for the wide swath of destruction he carved through AL pitching for more than a decade, fans will have missed the point. Do people look back on Willie Mays’ playing days and think of the ugly end to his career as a Met?

#1
                    5-Yr
Player         EqA    Years        Age       AVG/OBP/SLG   Yr-6 EqA, AVG/OBP/SLG
Ted Williams  .372  1939-42, 46  20-23, 27  .353/.484/.647   .382, .343/.499/.634

The most famous of “What If?” cases, Williams missed his Year-24, -25 and -26 seasons to WWII, often some of the most productive of a player’s career. On the other hand, without his stellar career as a fighter pilot, Williams might have been remembered only as Ted Williams the great hitter, not Ted Williams, American Hero.

If you’re looking for a counting stat to measure the first five years of a player’s career, BP’s Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP) stat does the trick. The WARP-3 stat allows us to further adjust performance so that all players are measured on the same level of per-162 games played. WARP takes into account defensive performance, something EqA does not. It can also be used to measure pitchers’ performance, thus opening up the list of possible Top-10 candidates. The leaders:

WARP3 in their first 5 years:

1. Ted Williams 61.7 (1939-42, 46)
2. Arky Vaughan 58.0
3. ALBERT PUJOLS 54.9
4. Joe DiMaggio 53.5
5. Jackie Robinson 53.3
6. Pete Alexander 52.6
7. Amos Rusie 49.9
8. Wade Boggs 49.6
9. Tom Seaver 49.3
10. Jeff Bagwell 48.8

Pujols moves up to 3rd all-time. But it’s still the Splendid Splinter on top, no matter how you slice it.

Jonah Keri is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jonah's other articles. You can contact Jonah by clicking here

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