Albert Pujols, 2001 - Elsa, Getty Images
The first Prospect Retro I wrote for Albert Pujols was almost seven years ago. I revisited Albert in 2010, but (per reader request) it is time for another look at his career. The first paragraphs of this are from the earlier articles, but the career summary through 2012 is obviously up to date, as well as the Lessons Learned.
Albert Pujols was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 13th round in 1999, out of Maple Woods Community College near Kansas City, Missouri. Local scouts were aware of him and he was considered to be a promising bat, but there were questions about his defense, and many scouts thought he was too fat. Scouts also questioned his listed birthday of January 16, 1980. He was born in the Dominican Republic and it was widely assumed that his listed birthday was inaccurate. The date and glove questions combined kept his draft stock minimized despite his evident hitting skills.
Pujols made his pro debut in 2000, hitting .324/.389/.565 in 109 games for Class A Peoria, with 38 walks and just 37 strikeouts in 395 at-bats. He also got into 14 games at Class A Potomac, hitting .284/.341/.481, and went 3-for-14 in three games at Triple-A Memphis.
After seeing him in the Arizona Fall League, I was extremely impressed with his bat, and gave him a Grade A- in the 2001 Minor League Scouting Notebook, rating him as the Number 18 prospect in baseball. I was a bit ahead of the curve on this. Baseball America put three different Top 50 lists in their '01 prospect book, written up separately by Jim Callis, Allan Simpson, and Will Lingo. The highest ranking for Pujols was #39.
While most people, including me, thought that Pujols would start 2001 in Double-A, he had a terrific spring training and won a starting job in the Cardinals lineup, hitting .329/.403/.610, quickly emerging as one of the very best hitters in baseball. His power developed beyond where it was in A-ball, and he maintained his exceptional plate discipline.
Did Pujols really come out of nowhere? He was a year ahead of schedule and caught a lot of people by surprise, but it's also true that Baseball America was tracking him, and I was tracking him, and other experts were tracking him too.
The Top Seven Sim Score Comparable Players to Albert Pujols, through Age 24
When the WORST guy on your comp list is Jack Clark, you are a special hitter
Through Age 29, Pujol's Sim Score comp list looked like this:
Ken Griffey Jr
Gonzalez was the only non-HOF guy, and under different conditions he might have made it; he was certainly talented enough.
Though age 32, Pujols' comps are:
Ken Griffey Jr
Still in rarified company as we would expect.
Through 1859 career games, Pujols is a .325/.414/.608 hitter, wRC+ 164, OPS+ 168, career WAR 91.6. His worst season was 2012 after jumping to the Angels as a free agent, this "worst season" being defined by just 50 doubles, only 30 homers, a mere 141 OPS+, and a 3.9 WAR.
If Pujols never played another major league game, his 91.6 WAR would rank him as the 30th-most valuable position player of all time. This WAR score ranks him third all-time among players whose primary position was first base, behind only Lou Gehrig (125.8) and Jimmie Foxx (112.2). Albert's contract runs another nine years. He is 34.2 WAR behind Gehrig, so he'll need to average more than 3 WAR per season the rest of his career to pass the Iron Horse as the most valuable first baseman of all time.
What lesson can we take away from Albert's history as a prospect? Sabermetrically, the thing that stood out most about his one minor league season was his extremely low strikeout rate for a power hitter, just 47 whiffs in 490 minor league at-bats in 2000 while hitting .314/.378/.543 at three levels. Despite questions about his body type and position as an amateur, his defensive stats at third base in the minors were excellent, leading the Midwest League in fielding percentage along with 25 double plays and a 3.27 range factor in 127 games. Baseball fans here in the Kansas City area still complain about the fact that the Royals didn't draft a talented local player despite his easy availability, and it strikes me that more teams try to avoid having players nabbed out of their backyards these days. At least the Royals do.
LESSONS: If you hit, you'll play. Low strikeout rates are good. Pay attention to local talent.