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100 Greatest St. Louis Cardinals: #1 – Albert Pujols

Albert Pujols, the most feared hitter of his generation.

At long last, we have reach the final spot on our offseason countdown. No doubt, the top two spots have been met with some controversy — perhaps a questioning look or a short, sweet “bull****” — upon seeing Stan Musial listed at #2, and not #1. Now, the debate is not about the players in the top spots, just the order. Even with an objective system, one could have easily predicted that Pujols, Musial, Bob Gibson, and Rogers Hornsby would occupy the top 4 spots, they are among the greatest in baseball history, not just Cardinals’ history.

But Albert over Stan?! Heresy! Blasphemy! Sacrilege!

Perhaps.

But, let’s keep in mind that this system was built solely on statistics. No emotional choices. No accounting for community impact or legacy. Just the numbers. Plain and simple.

I’ll get this out of the way first.

St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols, left, greets Stan Musial, a Hall of Famer, before the start of a baseball game on opening day Thursday, March 31, 2011. (AP Photo/Tom Gannam)

I’d love to say that it was “tied for first” situation with Pujols and Musial. It wasn’t. In the formula, Pujols topped Musial by 22 points, 272 to 250. In fact, if it weren’t for the “Extra Credit” that I awarded to recognize accolades, Musial would have found himself tied with Hornsby for THIRD place, with Gibson edging them both out with 253 points.

Now, I’ll be getting into a gritty breakdown of the formula and what we would do different later this week. Be on the lookout for that article. But the simplest explanation that I can provide for the Pujols/Musial results is this:

The formula had to give credit to basestealing prowess. Musial got no points in this category. Pujols, the pickpocket that he is, earned himself 17 points for having the 14th best Stolen Base % in Cardinals history. That alone accounts for most of the difference.

Most categories saw Albert and Stan back-to-back, one way or the other. However, AB per HR — which was included to account for true HR prowess — gave Pujols another 8 points over Stan.

That’s it. Those two categories pushed Albert ahead. Otherwise, El Hombre and The Man were neck-and-neck.

And so let’s honor our top player.

#1 – Albert Pujols, 1B (2001-11, RCG Score: 272, Extra Credit: 12.25, Total: 284.25)

Let’s be honest. Those of you that followed this countdown from the beginning had your suspicions — even if it was just creeping in the back of your mind — that Pujols might take the cake. He did. And rightfully so.

His time in St. Louis was not just the greatest run in our franchise’s history, but arguably the best 11 season run in the history of the game. Especially to start a career.

Albert burst onto the scene following the (un?)fortunate injury to Bobby Bonilla in spring of 2001. He seized the opportunity and never looked back. Despite being a man without a position, the bat played. The bat played all the way to 37 HRs, 130 RBIS, a slash line of .329/.403/.610 and a Rookie-of-the-Year award. His 37 HR’s set a new record for NL rookies (bested by Cody Bellinger in 2017). Heck, he even finished 4th in MVP to go along with an All-Star bid and a Silver Slugger award (I guess for 3B?).

He was 21 years old.

Changing of the Guard

That same year, my father and I headed to Busch II for what would be Tony Gwynn‘s final game in St. Louis. (They gave out pins in honor of Gwynn, the only promotional item I’ve ever gotten that was not at all Cardinals related.)

Pujols was playing 1B that day, which was pretty unique (he didn’t take over that position until 2004).

Gwynn, one of the quintessential players of the previous generation, made a pinch hitting appearance late in the game.

He smashed a sure-fire single towards the second base hole when, out of nowhere, Albert made a diving play ranging far to his right (as he would so often do in later years), throwing to first to retire the Hall-of-Famer.

A symbolic passing of the torch from one great to another?

More like Pujols ripped the torch from Gwynn’s hands and then raced off in a ’67 Mustang.

(Update: Pujols would later take that same torch to Anaheim where he gave it to Mike Trout)

Consistent Greatness

Albert would make the All-Star game in 9 of 11 years in STL, and finish in the Top-10 for MVP every single year, Top-5 10 times, winning the award 3 times.

Pujols had an incredibly consistent run of tallying 100 runs, 100 RBIs, and 30 HR nearly every season in St. Louis. There were just two years he failed to accomplish this feat. In 2007, when scored only 99 runs, and in 2011 when he drove in only 99.

2011, his final season here, was the first time he hit below .300 in his career. He hit .299.

In his rookie year, Pujols struck out 93 times while adjusting to the majors. He would never go over 76 in a single season after that, typically falling in the 55-65 range. His career-low of 50 in 2006 was a modern baseball miracle. In an era where strikeout totals were climbing, Albert was a throwback.

Big Moments were Normal

Albert hit 10 walk-off HR’s with the Cardinals.

I’ll never forget a game in which Odalis Perez entered a game, greeted by Pujols.

FSN flashed the stupid numbers. I don’t know where they were at the time, but in 20 career AB’s Pujols had a line of .600/.724/1.500 against the lefty. Owned.

Hrabosky simply said, “Change-up.” Dan McLaughin, sensing the outcome, proclaimed, “Here it comes!”

Swing and homerun, game over.

That was just the sort of thing Albert did on a regular basis. Commonplace.

Even when he got hurt, he never really got hurt.

In 2006, he hit the DL for the first time with a muscle strain in his side that doctors predicted would require at least a month long recovery.

He returned in 15 days.

In 2011, he FRACTURED HIS WRIST.

He returned in 15 days.

He never played less than 143 games in a season for the Cardinals.

Funny, the two times he went on the DL, they ended up with a World Series ring.

(Oh, and anybody remember that time Albert slipped on the wet on-deck mat following a rain delay? If it had been, like, Hector Luna, they probably wouldn’t have worried about it. But this was Albert, so from that day forward, those mats were removed any time there was a hint of moisture in the air.)

Postseason Performer

Some great players seem to disappear or underwhelm in the bright lights of the playoffs.

Albert Pujols was not one of those players.

Here are some highlights:

First, a postseason slash line of .323/.431/.599 with 19 HR’s, 54 RBI’s, and 55 runs scored in 334 plate appearances.

There was the incredible Game 5 HR against Brad Lidge and the Astros in 2005.

He homered off of Justin Verlander in Game 1 of the 2006 World Series, helping to set the tone for that Championship.

Don’t forget the from-his-back toss to Jeff Weaver in the deciding Game 5 of that series.

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Of course, on his farewell tour, he gave us a jaw-dropping 3-HR game against Texas in the 2011 World Series.

In the glory of Game 6, it was Pujols that got the action started with the single in the bottom of the 9th (he was 0-4 prior to that) and came around to score on the David Freese triple.

In the deciding Game 7, after Texas went on top 2-0 in the 1st, it was again Albert serving as a catalyst. He drew a 2-out walk, which was followed by a Berkman walk and Freese double and 2-2 tie. They went on to win the game and the series.

Even when he wasn’t the focal point, he was always in the mix.

In the Presence of Greatness

Over 11 seasons, us Cardinals fans would grow to take this once-in-a-generation talent for granted, simply because he was a given.

There is a line from The Office, “I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days, before you’ve actually left them.”

I think that’s fitting with Albert’s career.

As is this Jackson Browne lyric, “I don’t remember losing track of you…I guess I thought you’d always be around.”

We knew Albert was great. And from 2001 to, say, ’03 or ’04 we were all in awe of him. But somewhere along the line, we got used to it. We still knew what we were watching, kind of. But for some of us, it probably took him leaving for the greatness of Albert to really sink in.

Did you enjoy the show while it was still on the air?

If not, here’s some video to take you back.

The Numbers

This is where he ranks in so many categories.

Category Cardinals Rank MLB Career Rank
WAR 3rd 21st
Batting Average 7th 147th
OBP 4th 125th
Slugging % 2nd 15th
OPS 2nd 22nd
Runs Scored 3rd 25th
Hits 4th 33rd
Total Bases 2nd 10th
Doubles 2nd 12th
Home Runs 2nd 7th
RBI 2nd 10th
Bases on Balls 2nd 53rd
OPS+ 4th 31st
Runs Created 2nd 17th
Adj. Batting Runs 2nd 16th
Adj. Batting Wins 2nd 16th
XBH 2nd 7th
HBP 3rd 83rd
Sac Flies 1st 27th
Intentional BB 1st 2nd
Stolen Base % 14th 263rd
AB per HR 2nd 29th
Win Probability Added 2nd 9th
Power – Speed # 4th 112th

It’s a shame that his years with the Angels have damaged his Average and OBP so much. Still, we’re looking at a top 25 player All-Time.

He honestly could have walked out of Busch Stadium following Game 7 of the 2011 World Series, elected to never take the field again, and he would have been inducted into Cooperstown last July. He was just that good.

I can sit here and gush over the stats, but I’ll just hit you with the chart. There is just too much ground to cover in words.

Standard Batting
Year Age Tm Lg G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+ TB GDP HBP SH SF IBB Pos Awards
2001 21 STL NL 161 676 590 112 194 47 4 37 130 1 3 69 93 .329 .403 .610 1.013 157 360 21 9 1 7 6 5379/D AS,MVP-4,RoY-1,SS
2002 22 STL NL 157 675 590 118 185 40 2 34 127 2 4 72 69 .314 .394 .561 .955 151 331 20 9 0 4 13 *753/D96 MVP-2
2003 23 STL NL 157 685 591 137 212 51 1 43 124 5 1 79 65 .359 .439 .667 1.106 187 394 13 10 0 5 12 *73/D AS,MVP-2,SS
2004 24 STL NL 154 692 592 133 196 51 2 46 123 5 5 84 52 .331 .415 .657 1.072 173 389 21 7 0 9 12 *3/D AS,MVP-3,SS
2005 25 STL NL 161 700 591 129 195 38 2 41 117 16 2 97 65 .330 .430 .609 1.039 168 360 19 9 0 3 27 *3 AS,MVP-1
2006 26 STL NL 143 634 535 119 177 33 1 49 137 7 2 92 50 .331 .431 .671 1.102 178 359 20 4 0 3 28 *3 AS,MVP-2,GG
2007 27 STL NL 158 679 565 99 185 38 1 32 103 2 6 99 58 .327 .429 .568 .997 157 321 27 7 0 8 22 *3 AS,MVP-9
2008 28 STL NL 148 641 524 100 187 44 0 37 116 7 3 104 54 .357 .462 .653 1.114 192 342 16 5 0 8 34 *3/D4 AS,MVP-1,SS
2009 29 STL NL 160 700 568 124 186 45 1 47 135 16 4 115 64 .327 .443 .658 1.101 189 374 23 9 0 8 44 *3/D AS,MVP-1,SS
2010 30 STL NL 159 700 587 115 183 39 1 42 118 14 4 103 76 .312 .414 .596 1.011 173 350 23 4 0 6 38 *3 AS,MVP-2,GG,SS
2011 31 STL NL 147 651 579 105 173 29 0 37 99 9 1 61 58 .299 .366 .541 .906 148 313 29 4 0 7 15 *3/5 MVP-5
G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+ TB GDP HBP SH SF IBB Pos Awards
STL (11 yrs) 1705 7433 6312 1291 2073 455 15 445 1329 84 35 975 704 .328 .420 .617 1.037 170 3893 232 77 1 68 251
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 2/3/2018.

A Generational Player

For me, Pujols carries a great distinction.

He is my Cardinal.

See, my Grandpa — the hands-down most devoted, miss-family-events-because-the-game-is-on Cardinals fan I will ever meet — had Stan Musial.

My dad got lucky, he grew up on Bob Gibson and Lou Brock.

And me? Well, my interest in baseball was touch-and-go in the late 90’s. From like 7-10, I was aware of what was happening, but I can’t say I was following it. I was there in the living room as my dad watched Mark McGwire chase down Roger Maris in 1998, but I wasn’t invested in it. Jim Edmonds and the 2000 team began to pique my interest, but again, it was all in passing.

Then came 2001. Then came Albert.

I watched the first couple road series against Colorado (when the camera stayed on Mike Hampton 90% of the time) and Arizona.

Then, came the home opener and St. Louis’s first look at Mr. Pujols.

I was sick that day and stayed home from school. While surfing channels in the mid-afternoon, I noticed that the Opening Day ceremonies were on, so I tuned in.

In his first at-bat in front of the home crowd, Albert Pujols (batting 7th) cranked a 2-run bomb to Left Field.

Busch Stadium erupted and I was hooked.

And as I grew up, in life and in baseball fandom, Pujols was the constant. He was…is my Stan, my Gibby, Lou or Ozzie.

He is more than likely the greatest Cardinal I will see in my lifetime.

Thanks Albert.

For Everything.

Pujols takes a curtain call following his first career homerun in front of the St. Louis crowd on April 9th, 2001.

Thanks for reading.

Come back Thursday as I analyze our ranking system and tell you how our staff would change the list.

Get caught up on all the player articles right here.

Rusty Groppel
I'm a diehard Cardinals fan that feels privileged to write about his favorite team in this corner of cyberspace. I'm also the bass player for the best damn band in the 618, Tanglefoot. Check us out some time.
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