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  • Pujols article

    JUPITER, Fla. -- Albert Pujols did us all a favor last month. He gave us a simple, round number that everyone could remember. That would be $100 million, the value of the mega-contract he signed in February. Enjoy it now, because pretty soon he'll get back to putting up, as they sometimes say in baseball, "crooked numbers" on a regular basis.

    Numbers like .359, 137, .667 and 114. If you follow the Cardinals regularly, you may have already committed those to memory -- they're Pujols' batting average, runs scored and slugging percentage from last year, and his career homers, respectively. The problem is that soon they'll be joined by even more mind-boggling figures.

    Statistically, Pujols resembles no one quite so much as Joe DiMaggio. It's heretical in some quarters to invoke the name of the great Joe D when speaking of a current player. Yet no one since the Clipper has shown such a combination of batting average, power, and low strikeout totals so early in his career.

    Pujols -- who at this point lacks a nickname quite as aesthetically pleasing as the Yankee Clipper -- doesn't strike out as rarely as DiMaggio did, but for a power hitter in this era, he makes incredible contact. And he's getting better at it, while drawing a few more walks each year.

    Using "similarity scores," a concept introduced by Bill James, it's clear -- no player in baseball history has been more similar to DiMaggio at age 21, 22 or 23 than Pujols. And vice versa.

    For what it's worth, here are the 10 players whose career paths most resemble Pujols' at the age of 23: DiMaggio, Jimmie Foxx, Hal Trosky, Joe Medwick, Hank Aaron, Vladimir Guerrero, Frank Robinson, Orlando Cepeda, Ted Williams and Stan Musial. Eight of those guys are in the Hall of Fame. A ninth one, Guerrero, will probably be by the time he's done.

    It's the kind of performance that led manager Tony La Russa last summer to call Pujols the best player he's ever managed. It's a three-year start to a career that, in some ways, no one has ever matched. With a .300 average, 30 homers, 100 runs and 100 RBIs in each of his three campaigns, Pujols has reached unprecedented milestones at this point in his career.

    "Albert has demonstrated in his first three years the type of player he is," said Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty. "And if you watch the way he prepares himself, the kind of focus he has, he's ready for each game and each season. We know that Albert's going to continue to have that ability to work hard and keep working to be the best player he possibly can."

    It's that drive and dedication that most impress observers. Pujols remains hungry. He watches incredible amounts of video and puts hours into his swing. He's even been known to duck into the clubhouse between innings to learn from an at-bat or study up on a pitcher coming into the game.

    This is a $100 million man going at it like he's trying to make the team.

    "Right now, it's not about the money," Pujols said upon signing his contract. "It's about myself getting ready for the 2004 season. ... It's about the team. If you play for this team for 20 years and you don't win a championship, it doesn't matter how much money you make. But if you win a championship, everybody's going to recognize you. That's what it's about. It's about winning."

    Two of the game's biggest prizes have eluded Pujols thus far in his brief career. That coveted World Series ring, and an MVP award. He's been runner-up to Barry Bonds in each of the past two seasons, despite being recognized as 2003 Player of the Year by both the MLB players association and The Sporting News .

    He's going to win one, though. At least one.

    DiMaggio, by the way, won his first MVP in 1939 -- his fourth season. He reached career highs by batting .381 with a .448 on-base percentage that year. Is a similar outburst in the offing for Pujols in 2004?

    At least one forecasting system (the PECOTA system used by Baseball Prospectus ) predicts a slight step back for Pujols. But prediction with a player like this may be a fool's errand, because there are so few data points for comparison. Should Pujols stay healthy -- and he's shown the ability to do that, as well as the ability to play through pain -- he ought to keep doing what he's been doing.

    Even with the security of a big contract.

    "The way I look at it is, the man's done an outstanding job of putting up numbers and he deserves whatever he got," said Jim Edmonds. "That's the way the game is nowadays. To do what he's done over three years is amazing."

    Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
    Familiar territory, but always nice to read about our guys.

    Moon

  • #2
    Pujols is a treat to watch.
    Sometimes elections have positive consequences!

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