There are people out there who think that Jim Rice is worthy of being in the Hall of Fame. Lots of people, in fact. Lots of people who think that Rice's bat has earned him that honor, the honor of being enshrined as one of the greatest players in the history of the sport. It's a divisive argument, but it's a common and popular one, one that seems to come up in some way or another every single year.
Albert Pujols just wrapped up his eighth full year in the Major Leagues. His worst offensive season so far was better than Rice's best.
I didn't think I'd ever be in a position where I'd feel the need to write this about a guy with a career batting line of .334/.425/.624, but here I am, and I'm not kidding. Albert Pujols does not get anything close to as much love as he deserves. Don't get me wrong, people know that he's great - I think even the most casual fan understands that Pujols is the best player on his team. But what seems to pass unnoticed is just how great he really is. It's the level of greatness that strikes me as being almost universally underappreciated.
Albert Pujols is the perfect hitter. Not 1.000 perfect, but perfect in the sense that he is all strength and devoid of weakness. This season he was 14 runs better at the plate than any other hitter in the league. With a busted elbow. Last season he came in seventh despite fighting through an assortment of injuries. In 2006 he was nine runs better than second place. In 2005 he was a run behind first but ten runs above third. And so on and so forth. He has as good an eye as Todd Helton. He makes as much contact as Ichiro. He has as much power as Alex Rodriguez. He makes more contact on balls out of the zone than Jack Cust makes on balls in it. He's flawless. As an opposing pitcher, you can't draw up a plan to retire Albert Pujols. You can draw up a plan to pitch to Albert Pujols, but no matter how many different approaches people take when he's at the plate, the one point they all have in common is "close eyes and cross fingers." A high-leverage at bat against Pujols from which a pitcher escapes without developing symptoms of PTSD can only be considered a resouding success.
But that's not all. You see, it wouldn't be enough if Pujols were simply the best hitter on the planet. He's also the best defensive first baseman in baseball. By one reputable metric, between 2005-2007 he made 41 more plays than the next best defensive 1B. He's led first basemen in RZR two years in a row and three of the last five. UZR loves him. PMR loves him. In the field, Pujols looks to be a 10 < x < 15 run player, which gives him an almost unfathomable edge over less graceful sluggers like Ryan Howard and Prince Fielder. He might only have a moderately substantial lead over them with the bat, but once you factor in defense, you're talking about an overall difference of anywhere from five to eight wins. Five to eight wins! That's like the difference between 2008 Tim Lincecum and 2008 Brian Burres.
And to think that Ryan Howard is being talked about as a candidate for the MVP. This year, perhaps more than ever, anyone who doesn't list Pujols #1 on his MVP ballot deserves to be subjected to an experiment in which he has his conscience irreversibly swapped with a looping version of Brad Lidge's from October 2005. Brad Lidge understands. Oh, does Brad Lidge ever understand.
Albert Pujols is amazing. He is the sort of player who is so unbelievably terrific at everything that it's almost as if he's been genetically engineered. His reliable level of extraordinary production doesn't seem like it should be possible for a human to generate, and yet Pujols does it, and he does it every year, every day. The only thing more remarkable than his talent is the way that people, when you ask them for a list of the NL's best players, include Pujols' name almost as an afterthought. Like "oh yeah, and Pujols is in there too," as if it's no big deal that he's able to do what he does. As if people have simply come to expect it.
That's probably what it is, really. Why he's so underappreciated. People love talent, but more than that, they love a story. They notice a guy who comes out of nowhere. They notice a guy having a big bounceback season. They notice a guy putting up monster home runs and RBI. Pujols meets none of the criteria. He's just a guy doing the same thing he's always done, and while that 'same thing' is absolutely sensational, nothing bores the masses quite like consistency. So they stop caring. They stop caring and they turn their attention to something newer, something shinier. Something worse. And Pujols just keeps chugging along as one of the greatest players the game has ever seen.
Albert Pujols has played so consistently well that he's spoiled the world. I can think of no higher praise.
Note: obviously there's no way of measuring who is actually the most underappreciated player in baseball. There are several contenders for that title. Albert Pujols is one of them.