A few weeks ago, Albert Pujols hit his 499th and 500th home runs in one game, but there was little attention paid to this milestone in the national media as players reaching 500 home runs is no longer the exciting story it once was. Pujols is the 26th player to hit 500 or more home runs in the big leagues, but 20 years ago there were only 15 players in this select group. Nonetheless, Pujols is one of the great hitters in the game's history, and his strong start in 2014 indicates that he may be able to, at least partially, reverse the steady decline he has experienced since 2009.
Thus far this year, Pujols is hitting .293/.359/.579 and is on track to post his best numbers in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage since 2009. While the Angels probably are not looking forward to paying Pujols $180 million more between 2015 and 2021, this year, unlike his last two seasons could be a reasonably good one for the former Cardinal.
Pujols' decline has overlapped very neatly with the evolution of Miguel Cabrera from being one of the best hitters in the game to being the best hitter in baseball. Interestingly, Cabrera who is three years younger than Pujols, is struggling a bit this year hitting .282/.326/.468. These numbers are not terrible, but at this pace, Cabrera is heading his worst year since he was a 20-year-old rookie in 2003.
Cabrera and Pujols are very similar players. Both are big right-handed hitters who have played several positions, but are best suited for first base, although Pujols is the better first-baseman of the two. They also are both extremely well-rounded hitters excellent at hitting for power and average as well as drawing walks. They also are both the beneficiaries of very team unfriendly contracts. Following this year, Cabrera is guaranteed another $260 million between 2015 and 2023 when he will be 40, making the $180 million owed Pujols over the seven seasons after this one, seem positively like a bargain for the Angels. It is likely that Pujols and Cabrera will be linked in the minds of many fans as they move through the next few years as aging and overpaid Hall of Fame-caliber sluggers. It is way too early to declare either of them finished or washed up, but it is equally clear that their best years are likely behind them.
Cabrera's 2012 triple crown catapulted him to new level of fame and visibility, but by most measures he was never quite as good as Pujols in his prime. By conventional statistical measures, Pujols is the superior home run hitter, having topped 40 home runs in a season six times, compared to only twice for Cabrera. Through his age 30 season, Pujols had batted .331, compared to Cabrera who hit .321 through the end of last season when he was 30 years old. More advanced analytical numbers show Pujols, not least because of his superior defense, to be the better all around player. By the time he was 30, Pujols had 7 seasons of 9 or more WAR. Cabrera's career high for WAR was 7.5, in both 2013 and 2011. Through his age 30 season, Cabrera had an OPS+ of 154, while Pujols' was 172 through that age. It is hard to look closely at the two players' numbers and not conclude that Pujols has been the superior player. It is possible that Cabrera will become the better older player and narrow the gap somewhat, but when both players are retired, and their enormous contracts are finally over, it is very likely that Pujols will have had the more impressive career.
Cabrera is a very good player, but he is also in danger of being defined by his most well-known accomplishment. Cabrera's 2012 triple crown was the first by anybody in an astounding 45 years. The triple crown is perhaps the ultimate old school offensive accomplishment. It consists of leading the league in three categories, home runs, batting average and RBIs, the latter two of which are still taken seriously by some while seen as of secondary import to many more advanced quantitative analysts of the game. In 2012, Cabrera beat out Pujols' teammate Mike Trout for the MVP award despite Trout having a much better year by more contemporary measures. That MVP vote was as much a referendum on methodology for evaluating players as it was a vote about who was the best player, but it elevated Cabrera just as Pujols' decline was becoming most noticeable. That triple crown may also help distinguish Cabrera from Pujols who will probably never win one. In the eyes of many, he will be seen as the superior slugger of the era, but Pujols at his best was a better player, and hitter, than Cabrera ever was.