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A Midsummer Night's Conversation With Bill James about ... Maybe, Just Maybe, The Most Perfect Player Who Ever Did Live
JOE POSNANSKI
July 13, 2009
On the eve of the 2009 All-Star Game in the home city of Albert Pujols, the oracle of statistical analysis considers the St. Louis slugger's place in history
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July 13, 2009

A Midsummer Night's Conversation With Bill James About ... Maybe, Just Maybe, The Most Perfect Player Who Ever Did Live

On the eve of the 2009 All-Star Game in the home city of Albert Pujols, the oracle of statistical analysis considers the St. Louis slugger's place in history

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There are a million words that can be written about Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols, but we only have about 1,300 so we decided to concentrate on just one question: Is he off to the most perfect career start in the history of baseball? We should start by defining what we mean by "perfect," since that's not really a baseball word. Baseball, as every manager and announcer will tell you, is about failure.

But Bill, the baseball writer who's now a Red Sox senior adviser, came up with this concept about perfect careers. By perfect, we are talking about a career that—thanks to a blessed confluence of timing, luck and talent—meets, at minimum, these three criteria:

1. It comprises brilliant full seasons from Day One in the big leagues. This is extremely rare, as most great players will play a partial season or two before their careers really get going. Frank Thomas, for example, was instantly great and is an excellent early-career comparison for Pujols, but he was called up midseason and played only 60 games his first year. Lou Gehrig played 23 games over two seasons before getting called up for good. Ty Cobb played parts of two seasons before becoming a regular in 1907.

2. It is not interrupted (by a war, a strike, injuries) or diminished by a factor out of the player's control, such as a lousy home park. This is probably an unfair requirement, but, hey, we are talking about a perfect career. Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams had tremendous careers, but theirs were interrupted by World War II, and Willie Mays's career was briefly put on hold by the Korean War. Joe Morgan's greatness was undercut by some rather ordinary numbers that were a consequence of playing seven seasons in Houston's Astrodome, one of the worst hitting parks in baseball history.

3. It should be made up of Hall of Fame--caliber seasons every single year.

Those three qualifications, of course, eliminate virtually every player in baseball history from having a career that's considered perfect. One player who is not eliminated, though, is Albert Pujols, who made the Cardinals out of spring training in 2001, had one of the greatest rookie seasons in baseball history—.329 average, 37 homers, 130 RBIs, 112 runs scored—and has been killing the ball ever since, right up through this season, in which he is making his most serious run at a Triple Crown. Through Sunday he had 31 homers (seven ahead of his closest pursuer), 82 RBIs (six ahead) and was hitting .336 (second in the league, 10 points off the pace).

Pujols has battled nagging injuries; nerve irritation in his right elbow has been a concern for seven years now. Still, he has exceeded 600 plate appearances every year and should again this season, his ninth. So far nothing has marred his career, other than the whispers—unsupported—about the use of performance-enhancing drugs that hound all the great players of his generation.

Finally, there is his consistent brilliance. His worst season? Maybe 2002, when he hit only .314 with 34 homers, 127 RBIs and 118 runs. "By my math," Bill says, "Albert would have to repeat his weakest season 11 times to make the Hall of Fame."

Bill: To the point of perfect careers: I started looking for players who had nine consecutive years as good as Albert's (or close to it) at the beginning of their careers. There are only two I come up with.

• Kid Nichols—like Pujols a Kansas Citian—was a 19th-century pitcher who had 10 outstanding seasons with the Boston Beaneaters at the start of his career, winning 297 and losing only 151.

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