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Tuesday, June 17
Updated: June 19, 9:05 AM ET
Pujols definitely something special

By Rob Neyer

When we watch Albert Pujols, we know we're watching something special.

But how special? How many players have done what Pujols has? Step right into the major leagues and play at a high level, then maintain, or even improve upon, that level over the next couple of seasons?

Albert Pujols
Left fielder
St. Louis Cardinals
238 57 18 56 1.151 .378

This is the sort of question for which Bill James' Win Shares system is perfectly designed. For anybody reading about Win Shares for the first time, I'll just say that the system is supposed to consider a player's contributions with the bat and the glove, and arrive at a nice round number that summarizes his contribution within the context of his team. And as James wrote in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract,

A 30-Win Share season is, in general, an MVP candidate-type season. People have won MVP awards with less; people have failed to win MVP awards with 40 Win Shares. But when a player gets to 30 in an ordinary season, he's probably going to be visible in the MVP voting.

So with that in mind, I went hunting for players who totaled 90 or more Win Shares in their first three seasons. What's more, I wanted players who were excellent in all three seasons; a series of seasons like 25-35-30 counts, but 10-40-40 doesn't. We're looking for players who were excellent from their rookie season forward.

The first surprise is that the first two players on the list are not in the Hall of Fame ... but with both, there are extenuating circumstances ...

Joe Jackson 112*
Dick Allen  109

If you're making a list of the most talented hitters who ever swung the ol' lumber, these two guys will be pretty near the top. But Jackson's not in the Hall of Fame because he conspired to throw the 1919 World Series, and Allen's not in the Hall of Fame because 1) he got hurt a lot, and 2) a lot of people didn't like him. But both Jackson and Allen were great hitters, among the very best ever.

Speaking of men who were born to hit, here are the next three guys on the list, and all of them are in the Hall of Fame (or will be soon) ...

Ted Williams 104
Cal Ripken    95
Joe DiMaggio  94

It's Big Mac ... then Pujols
Is Albert Pujols really the best player that Tony La Russa's ever managed?

The competition is pretty strong, with Rickey Henderson, Mark McGwire, and Ozzie Smith the other prime candidates.

But La Russa managed Ozzie Smith for only one season: 1996, which was also Ozzie's last season. Smith batted .282, but he was 41 years old and played only 52 games at shortstop. So we really can't expect La Russa to hold a particularly high opinion of Ozzie's skills.

La Russa managed Henderson from June of 1989 through July of 1993, and then again in 1994 and '95. That includes only five full seasons, and in only one of those seasons was Henderson great. But in 1990 he was really great, earning the MVP Award with a .439 OBP that led the league and a .577 slugging percentage that was second. Still, that's only one season.

And what about McGwire? La Russa managed him for all but 105 games of the big slugger's career, first in Oakland and then St. Louis. McGwire's one of the 10 greatest first basemen who've ever played the game. Considering that La Russa managed the great majority of games that McGwire played, isn't it something of a stretch to suggest that after two seasons and two months, Albert Pujols is the best player that La Russa's managed.

La Russa treasures versatility, and of course Pujols can play more positions than McGwire could. But from where I'm sitting, Pujols still sits behind Big Mac on La Russa's all-time list.
-- Rob Neyer

An impressive group, yes? Williams is the greatest left fielder ever, while Ripken and DiMaggio both rank among the top five at their positions. Ripken, by the way, was the American League's Rookie of the Year in 1982, then the MVP in 1983. Pujols didn't duplicate that feat, but he does stand a decent chance of winning the MVP in his third season.

So far, that's five players who played at, or near, an MVP level in each of their first three seasons. How many more players meet the criteria? I've located only one.

George Stone 92*

At this point, you might be asking two questions:

1. Who the hell is George Stone? (and)

2. What the hell do those little stars signify?

The stars signify that I've cheated, sort of. When adding up the Win Shares for the starred players -- Stone and Shoeless Joe Jackson -- I started with their last rookie season. Stone, a speedy but weak-armed left fielder, played two games for the Boston Pilgrims in 1903, but I didn't count that season. Jackson, same thing. He played five games for the Athletics in 1908 and five more in 1909, then played 20 games for the Indians in 1910. I don't have any idea if he'd still have been a "rookie" in 1911 by the standards we use today, but I counted 1911 as Jackson's first season for the purposes of this little study (and it didn't hurt that he batted .387 in those 20 games with the Indians).

And who was George Stone? After those two games with Boston in 1903, Stone spent 1904 in the minors, then returned to the majors in 1905 with the St. Louis Browns. That year, he led the American League with 187 hits. In 1906, Stone batted .358 to lead the league, and his on-base (.417) and slugging percentages (.501) were tops, too. He slumped a bit in 1907, but still reached base more times (256) than anybody else in the American League.

Stone was no kid, though. He'd got a late start to his professional baseball career, and turned 30 in September of 1907. Stone suffered from malaria in 1908 and tore up his ankle in 1909, and his career ended after the 1910 season (even then, he was a pretty good player). Stone's been essentially forgotten now, but his ranks as one of the greatest short careers in major-league history.

There's another group of players who just missed the 90-Win Shares cutoff, including Paul Waner (88), Tony Oliva (88), Johnny Mize (88), Home Run Baker (87), Johnny Bench (86), and Nomar Garciaparra (85).

So where does Albert Pujols fit into all this? After earning 29 Win Shares as a rookie in 2001, Pujols upped that number to 32 in 2002, and this season he's doing better than ever. Barring a serious slump or an injury, we might realistically project Pujols to finish 2003 with 35 Win Shares, giving him a three-season total of 96.

Which would obviously put him in pretty select company. While there are plenty of people who wonder if Pujols is really only 23 years old -- he wouldn't be the first Dominican ballplayer to fib about his birthday -- it's incredibly rare for anybody to step into the major leagues and perform at an MVP level in each of his first three seasons. And those who do become superstars and, unless injury intrudes (as in the case of Dick Allen and George Stone), Hall of Famers.

So the answer is yes, in Albert Pujols we're seeing something pretty special.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information, visit Rob's Web site.

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