Tuesday, March 09, 2004


I'm sure you've already noticed, but Peter Gammons has an interesting piece on Albert Pujols.

Firstly, I think Gammons' implication that Pujols is clean--nay, must be clean--isn't fair to those whose recent accomplishments have been questioned. Sure, I myself have implied some things about Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi, but it's not as if Pujols himself is without his own question marks. Let me put it this way: Do I believe Bonds and Giambi are all natural? Do I believe Pujols is really 24 years old?

Nonetheless, it's clear that Pujols is a great talent.

What I found especially interesting is how Gammons suggests that the key to Pujols' succes over his first three seasons is his "throwback" approach at the plate in an era of light-tower sluggers:

In many ways, Pujols is a throwback to those Hall of Famers who starred in the 1930s because he is a contact, line-drive hitter. In the last two seasons, he's hit 77 homers, but, unlike most of his slugging contemporaries, has walked 14 more times than he's struck out. "Last year I took more walks, less strikeouts than the last few years," says Pujols. "That's one of the things that I want to improve, I want to get more walks and less strikeouts. I don't compare myself as a power hitter. I compare myself as a line-drive hitter with power. The ball is going to go out of the park if you put a good swing every time."

Maybe it's just me, but that actually sounds a lot like Frank Thomas in his youth. Thomas has always been a "line-drive hitter with power", to the constant frustration of who beheld his linebacker frame and wished he were a "slugger".

Aside from both being right-handed line-drive hitters, Thomas and Pujols also share another similarity--both enjoyed immediate success at the major league level. Here's how they compare over their first three seasons:

Frank Thomas
'90 22 191 .330 .454 .529 7 44 54 .337 .356
'91 23 559 .318 .453 .553 32 138 112 .342 .360
'92 24 573 .323 .439 .536 24 122 88 .332 .357

Albert Pujols
'01 21 590 .329 .403 .610 37 69 93 .334 .329
'02 22 590 .314 .394 .561 34 72 69 .318 .318
'03 23 591 .359 .439 .667 43 79 65 .364 .362

It's still very early, but even with Pujols' head start, I think Thomas has the edge. That's not a knock on Pujols. After all, I still think he should have been MVP last year. It's just a comment on how good Thomas was. It's interesting that both players have similar BB/SO ratios, although Thomas walks nearly twice as much. That advantage in OBP so far eclipses Pujols' more impressive SLG.

For the record, I used EqA as adjusted for all-time, which only goes to show what a different game baseball was before the lockout. Note how similar Pujols' EqA and GPA scores are, while EqA suggests Thomas was performing much, much better than meets the eye. After '94 things changed. Thomas' '95 season, for instance, he posted an impressive .355 GPA, but it was also only good for a .361 EqA. In '96 he had a Pujols-like .363 GPA, which still translated into a .360 GPA. So you tell me: either the ball got juiced or more of the competition was.

It'll be interesting to see where Pujols goes from here. Might this be his peak? Comparing his 2001 and 2003 seasons, Pujols did enjoy modest improvements to his IsoPwr, BB/SO, BB/PA, but can all of that explain why his batting average jumped 30 points? Assuming those peripheral improvements are real but he won't be able to keep hitting .350 without a lot of luck, I think a .325/.410/.635 (.343 GPA/EqA) season is more likely in 2004. (I just looked it up, and PETCO predicts a weighted mean of .324/.413/.591 (.339 EqA). ZiPs is a little loonier, suggesting he keeps the batting average and nothing much changes: .359/.448/.667 (.368 GPA). That's a possibility, but far from a certainty.)

Besides, Thomas didn't really improve from his already staggering level of performance until '94 at age 26--and I'm tempted to asterisk his .394 EqA since it was only over 113 games--and then was back hovering around a .360 EqA for the next couple of years. But Thomas suffered a steep declined in performance between '97 and '98, when his EqA dropped from .365 to .307. He's never completely recovered since, although he's posted some fine seasons by almost anybody else's standards.

It's clear that Pujols, however, took a massive step forward last year. Assuming he really is just 24, will he continue to improve? Or will he just stablise at this level like Thomas did? (Guerrero is another gifted young righty who enjoyed a lot of success early on yet who has more or less stablised at the level of his age 24 season.)

Of course, when Pujols talks about "improving" and "getting more walks", Thomas was already there at Pujols' "age"--not that it won him a lot of fans. While Thomas was my favourite player in high school in the early 90s, I remember reading constant criticism from his managers and coaches who wished he'd be a little bit more aggressive. Made sense at the time, until I'd read something quoting Thomas justifying his Teddy Ballgame-like approach at the plate. It's thanks to Thomas that I learned the importance of OBP, and how that's the real key to being a "Big Hurt".

Unfortunately, even now, Thomas' relatively "meagre" home run total (418) means in many people's minds he's only a borderline HOFer, when by any rational, objective standard he's a slam dunk. (10th all time in career OBP, and being the best hitter in baseball for half a decade, and not too shabby for the rest of it, will do that for you.)

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