Any honest evaluation of the defining Major League Baseball players of the decade spanning 2000 through 2009 centers around three men, separated by a 15 1/2 year difference in age from oldest to youngest and with three distinct career stages played out during the first decade of the twenty-first century.
Barry Bonds was already a super-duper-star by the beginning of 2000. Wins Above Replacement didn’t exist in a form recognizable to the modern fan at the time, but through the 1999 season, Bonds was the 17th greatest position player of all-time, an inner-circle Hall of Famer sandwiched between the long-inducted Frank Robinson and Nap Lajoie. Bonds was the best player by WAR in the 1990s, though it was Ken Griffey Jr., an incredible player by the standard set by just about anybody that wasn’t Barry Bonds, who earned the most cultural currency throughout the decade. The benefit of hindsight and readily available statistics tells me that Bonds was the superior player, but I didn’t spend any 4th grade sleepovers playing Major League Baseball Featuring Barry Bonds.
Alex Rodriguez, the aforementioned Griffey’s teammate with the Seattle Mariners, was a budding superstar when the 21st century began. Although only 24 at the start of the 2000 season, the shortstop nearly won the American League’s Most Valuable Player award in his age-20 1996 (with the possible exception of the revival of swing music, no late-90s trend is more puzzling in retrospect than the tendency of voters to give Juan Gonzalez MVP awards), and Rodriguez led the AL in WAR in 1998.
The man known then, now, and forever simply as “A-Rod” was the odds-on favorite to be the player of the 2000s–for those who don’t remember his prime, imagine Bryce Harper’s much-hyped impending free agency, but with an above-average defensive shortstop (as opposed to a nondescript defensive right fielder) who was actually a few months younger. That Rodriguez’s ten-year, $252 million contract with the Texas Rangers following the 2000 season more than doubled the previous MLB record was jarring but it wasn’t necessarily surprising, per se. Barry Bonds, meanwhile, was a less obvious candidate due to his age (while he was still excellent, Bonds would turn 36 in 2000 and would almost certainly not play until the end of the decade).
But less obvious of a candidate still was Albert Pujols, who began the 2000 season with the Peoria Chiefs, an A-ball affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals. He hit well and he eventually had abbreviated stints with the high-A Potomac Cannons and AAA Memphis Redbirds, but while the 13th round pick from the 1999 draft had certainly surpassed expectations early in his minor league career, he wasn’t a major prospect and certainly wasn’t comparable to established MLB superstars.
The two major variants of WAR, from Baseball Reference and FanGraphs, agree that the top three players of the aughts were, in order, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, and Barry Bonds. They disagree at who’s next–Baseball Reference says Todd Helton; FanGraphs says Chipper Jones–but it would take a strident Colorado Rockies or Atlanta Braves partisan to argue that either of these players defined the decade of Major League Baseball quite like the top three players by WAR.
Siding with A-Rod because he has a WAR edge is a fair conclusion, since when choosing among the game’s gargantuan talents, one is forced to split hairs a bit. But while the conclusion is fair, it’s also a bit lazy. Rodriguez had 686 more plate appearances in the 2000s than Pujols. A-Rod holds a 3.9 bWAR/4.8 fWAR edge, and if one were to remove his 2000 season (i.e. the season Pujols did not spend in the Majors), Pujols would hold decade WAR leads of 6.5 by Baseball Reference and 4.7 by FanGraphs.
But if we are limiting the scope to a rate basis, Barry Bonds leads the trio. A-Rod’s best four-year stretch by WAR during the decade, 2000-2003, saw him totaling 35.9 bWAR. Pujols was even better, with 36.2 bWAR from 2006 through 2009. But Bonds dominates this category, with 43.4 bWAR from 2001 through 2004. Although once a strong defensive left fielder and stolen base threat, Bonds was a pure (legendary) batter at this point, hitting 73 home runs in 2001, somehow being even better by wRC+ in 2002, and in my personal “okay this guy is seriously breaking baseball right now” favorite point of his peak, Bonds managed a .609 on-base percentage in 2004. Using 600 plate appearances as the baseline for a season, Rodriguez was worth 6.7 fWAR per season in the 2000s. Pujols was worth 7.0. Bonds was worth 9.1.
Considering what a dominant force of nature he was with the Cardinals in the 2000s, it may seem weird to view Albert Pujols as a compromise candidate for Best of the Decade, but compared to Bonds and Rodriguez, he is. Bonds was the best hitter, but the worst fielder. Rodriguez was the weakest hitter (though by wRC+, only his two co-candidates and Manny Ramirez were better on the decade) but was the more valuable fielder. But Pujols was the decade’s second-best hitter on a rate basis (and by FanGraphs’s Offensive Runs Above Average, he holds a slight edge over Bonds) and while Rodriguez was a Gold Glove-winning shortstop before moving to third base after being traded to the New York Yankees, Pujols too was a Gold Glove winner (albeit at the much less impactful defensive position of first base).
Nationally, Pujols commanded fewer headlines in the 2000s than Rodriguez or Bonds, for better and worse. A-Rod was, of course, great, but he often commanded headlines for chasing the money (at a time when this was more vilified than it is in today’s somewhat less owner-friendly era) and signing with the last-place Texas Rangers, or for being a supposed playoff choker, or for rumors of steroid use. Bonds stayed in the news for chasing records, breaking Mark McGwire’s single-season home run record in 2001 and Hank Aaron’s career home run mark in 2007, but he too was dogged by constant steroid rumors, while he was done no favors by his often combative public persona.
Pujols, meanwhile, was not chasing major records nor inviting major controversy. I’m not one to assign great significance to athletes taking on the identity of the region in which they play, but Albert Pujols embodied an understated, quiet Midwestern-ness while lightning rod players on the coasts drew the majority of both headlines and ire. None of this matters, or at least it shouldn’t, in evaluating Pujols (or Rodriguez, or Bonds) as players, but it does have an impact on their perceptions.
Despite fewer headlines, Pujols had the most team postseason success of the three. Bonds made one World Series in the decade and his team lost (though he could hardly be faulted–his OPS was 1.994 and he should have been MVP in a losing effort). Rodriguez made one World Series and his team won, though he wasn’t half the hitter in it that Bonds was (note: this is literally true, as A-Rod had a .973 series OPS, trailing only Hideki Matsui for the Yankees’ team lead). Pujols, meanwhile, made the World Series twice (assuming you want to acknowledge that the 2004 World Series, indeed, happened), winning once, and, as an aside, he hit the train track.
As captivating as Barry Bonds was in the first half of the decade, it’s hard to look past how abruptly his amazing run ended. Injuries limited him to 52 plate appearances in 2005, and while it remains an absolute travesty that Barry Bonds was not signed following the 2007 season, his 2006 and 2007 seasons, while very good, were not quite to the level we are discussing in a “Player of the Decade” conversation.
“Bonds wasn’t a team player” is a Baylessian hot take which was commonly said during his peak years, but in a purely on-field sense, Bonds was very much a team player in that he drew a ton of walks. Following the 2001 season, teams became arguably irrationally scared of Bonds–while Bonds always drew a well above-average number of bases on balls throughout his career, he drew a walk in nearly one-third (32.5%) of his plate appearances from 2002 through 2004. And he didn’t respond by complaining or questioning the bravery of opposing pitchers or managers. Bonds was nothing if not smart–he simply took his bases and was the most valuable player in the game despite his lack of defensive skill.
But the “team player” argument is arguably even stronger for Pujols and Rodriguez. Pujols logged considerable time in his first three seasons at third base and left field, more out of necessity than because these positions served him best. Ultimate Zone Rating does not exist for Pujols’s rookie season of 2001, but for the remainder of the decade, he was above-average defensively at first base every year, while he was below-average at third base and left field. Pujols wasn’t quite the statue in the field he is today (or would be today, if the Angels let him play regularly), but he was certainly not good defensively outside first base. But the Cardinals had a first baseman in 2001 in Mark McGwire, and in 2002 and 2003 in Tino Martinez, and it benefited the Cardinals to have Pujols play elsewhere because it meant improving the overall offensive potency of the lineup.
And this is the part where I give the edge to the guy who wasn’t a Cardinal.
Because as much as Albert Pujols subjected himself to looking bad for the sake of his team’s success and as much as I want to give him bonus points for this (as an aside, that those who supported Miguel Cabrera’s AL MVP candidacy in 2012 didn’t point to his willingness to fake it at third base in order to get Prince Fielder into the lineup as a point in his favor is amazing to me), Alex Rodriguez was historically hurt by a mid-career position change. And it wasn’t even one which helped the team.
Public perception has shifted a bit in favor of Alex Rodriguez and against Derek Jeter. While A-Rod is now regarded as an all-time great player and has become well-received as a TV analyst, Derek Jeter is widely viewed as overrated (though still great, lest we over-correct here) through the prism of advanced statistics while his role as the public face of the Miami Marlins ownership group has made him a convenient villain. But this shift happened too late.
In 2004, when the Yankees acquired Alex Rodriguez, they already had a shortstop in Derek Jeter, and while Jeter was one of the sport’s best shortstops, this was because of his bat and not because of his glove. Of baseball’s 22 shortstops to play enough innings to qualify for statistical leaderboards in 2003, Jeter ranked 19th by Ultimate Zone Rating (Rodriguez ranked 2nd). Jeter fared better the year before, ranking 12th of 26, but A-Rod ranked 1st. Jeter provided value by playing a premium position semi-competently, but there was no question that Alex Rodriguez, who was a year younger, was superior defensively. Yet it was Rodriguez who was forced to move to third base.
Rodriguez was a great hitter at any position, so he was a great hitter at third base, but while at shortstop, he was perhaps the game’s most valuable player. This was going to be true even if he went from above-average to merely serviceable at shortstop (likely, given normal aging curves). Instead, A-Rod reverted to “merely serviceable” at third base, where he received far less of a defensive bump in his player value metrics. While his peak value came during his time in Texas, Rodriguez had his two best offensive seasons in New York–in 2005, when he had a 174 wRC+, and in 2007, when he had a 175 wRC+. In both seasons, he was an adequate but below-average defensive third baseman. No shortstop since Arky Vaughan in 1935 was that productive offensively over the course of a full season. A-Rod had historic seasons as a shortstop and should have had more. Derek Jeter deprived him of this. He deprived all of us of this.
Arguing for a best player of the 2000s is largely subjective but considering that Mike Trout has completely ruined the 2010s, it is all we have. And the extreme burst of energy that is Bonds, the well-rounded body of work that is Rodriguez, and the metronomic offensive consistency that is Pujols make for a compelling argument and my own, dispassionate conclusion.