I watched almost zero minutes of the St. Louis Cardinals game on Sunday night. I was busy making and eating dinner, and by the time I got to checking the score of the baseball game, it was uncompetitive and there were three Games Seven in the NBA and NHL postseasons available to watch that night (granted, the NBA one became every bit the blowout of the Cardinals game). But then, after Artemi Panarin slipped a series-winning goal past Tristan Jarry to secure a Round 1 series victory for the New York Rangers, I checked Twitter, and without saying I was going to do so or announcing what was going on, I rapidly flipped the channel to ESPN.
I was, of course, transfixed by what was happening–Albert Pujols, a player so notably poor at throwing a baseball that he was moved to a full-time first baseman role almost twenty years ago, was pitching. His inability to pitch, of course, was secondary–the Cardinals held a massive lead in the game, so there was plenty of wiggle room in case things got out of hand. Here was a future Hall of Famer caught completely out of his element, getting absolutely obliterated from a competitive standpoint but laughing all the way. My wife, who broadly does not care about baseball and is not even a nominal fan of the St. Louis Cardinals, was all-in–this was the kind of moment that, unless you are a specific type of performative hater of the Cardinals, transcended fan loyalty.
There is a natural inclination, if you are a Cardinals fan, to want to inflate the importance of Albert Pujols pitching (“importance”, of course, being a fairly poor word choice, as it’s not as though he set the path for a second career on the mound). But it sure seemed like it was pretty rare territory. And I was curious as to how rare it was.
The huge differentiating factor for Albert Pujols, of course, is that he is an all-time legendary position player. Even if he were an above-average pitcher by the position player standard, guys like Pujols rarely pitch because position player pitchers are selected not for their pitching ability, but for their fungibility–you throw a mediocre infielder out there in a game that is functionally over from a competitive standpoint because you care less about risking him in unfamiliar territory than you care about your star players. But Albert Pujols, diminished as he is now, is an icon. By the metric of FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, in fact, he is one of the ten greatest position players ever to pitch even a single Major League Baseball pitch.
- Babe Ruth–168.4 fWAR
- Ty Cobb–149.4 fWAR
- Honus Wagner–138.1 fWAR
- Tris Speaker–130.6 fWAR
- Ted Williams–130.4 fWAR
- Stan Musial–126.8 fWAR
- Jimmie Foxx–101.8 fWAR
- Cap Anson–91.2 fWAR
- Wade Boggs–88.3 fWAR
- Albert Pujols–87.2 fWAR
This already puts Albert Pujols in rarified air–all nine players ahead of him on this list are enshrined in the Hall of Fame. It also has a nifty side effect from a St. Louis perspective of putting Pujols in the same company as Stan Musial, the St. Louis Cardinals legend to whom he has so often been compared throughout his career. The obvious outlier on this list is Babe Ruth, who came up as a pitcher and was quite accomplished at the position when he wasn’t punching umpires over their strike zone. Otherwise, Pujols seems to fit in–take an iconic hitter and throw him on the mound. To the surprise of nobody, the non-Ruth players had minimal success as pitchers–only Ted Williams, with a reasonable two innings pitched and one run allowed (plus, thanks to a strikeout and no walks, a career 1.83 FIP), has a career pitching fWAR in positive territory.
But Albert Pujols is a further outlier for one very simple reason–Albert Pujols was already a fully-formed Hall of Famer when he first took a big-league mound. When the aforementioned Ted Williams debuted, it was in his sophomore MLB season of 1940–he was an established star, but it wasn’t as though his ticket to Cooperstown was already conclusively punched, even if he seemed to be on the right track. It would be like if Brendan Donovan or Juan Yepez pitched this season for the Cardinals and then went on to Hall of Fame careers (which, you know, they might!). Babe Ruth’s first pitching appearance came as a pitcher–attending Babe Ruth’s pitching (and MLB) debut only took on significance years later when he became an established superstar.
Honus Wagner first pitched in 1900, his first season with the Pittsburgh Pirates–he had something of a positive reputation based on his three prior years with the Louisville Colonels, but he was not yet Honus Wagner. Cap Anson debuted in 1883, about midway through his late-blooming career, so while he would certainly have been considered an unusually overqualified position player pitcher, he was at 34.3 fWAR entering that season–he was not yet a Hall of Famer, much less a slam-dunk Hall of Famer (also, this happened prior to the invention of basketball, so he wasn’t a slam-dunk anything). Tris Speaker was a higher-end star early in his career than Anson, but the 26 year-old was still at 38.7 fWAR–on his way, no doubt, but not already there.
The five remaining names from the original list stand alone–guys who were five years away from Cooperstown if they had retired upon being given the order to pitch. This is where Albert Pujols jumps into even more rarified air.
- Ty Cobb–97.9 fWAR entering season in which he first pitched
- Albert Pujols–87.0 fWAR entering season in which he first pitched
- Wade Boggs–85.4 fWAR entering season in which he first pitched
- Jimmie Foxx–83.5 fWAR entering season in which he first pitched
- Stan Musial–74.1 fWAR entering season in which first pitched
The funny thing is that Ty Cobb wasn’t even all that old when he made his pitching debut, in 1918 at the age of 31. But he was coming off an 11.5 fWAR season and he was not only already a Hall of Fame-level player but probably the best player in the sport at that moment on September 1, 1918 when he took the mound at Sportsman’s Park to face the St. Louis Browns (curiously enough, another superstar position player, albeit one with more of a pitching track record, George Sisler, took the mound for the Browns that day).
The temptation would be to try to rationalize pushing Albert Pujols up one more spot in this list, and frankly, it was a lot easier than I expected–I thought maybe I’d have to add an “in the last century” caveat, or maybe resort to Al Stump-style mudslinging at Cobb, but it was not required. This list was based on FanGraphs WAR specifically. Why did I use FanGraphs as opposed to Baseball Reference, the more popular variant of WAR, you may ask? Because it was way easier to do the calculations and sorting I needed to do, and literally no other reason. But doing the math for a limited set of players is much easier. Let me introduce the list of Baseball Reference WAR entering the player’s debut pitching season.
- Ty Cobb–97.6 bWAR entering season in which he first pitched
- Albert Pujols–99.6 bWAR entering season in which he first pitched
- Wade Boggs–88.2 bWAR entering season in which he first pitched
- Jimmie Foxx–77.5 bWAR entering season in which he first pitched
- Stan Musial–75.4 bWAR entering season in which he first pitched
Because Ty Cobb pitched in September and was in the middle of another awesome season, the total WAR to that point was certainly higher than Albert’s. But this would be based on approximations, and it gives no consideration to the fairly undeniable piece of it that there is at least a little bit of a lag in recognizing player accomplishments. Then there’s also that Albert Pujols had a career WAR of 101.4 after the 2016 season (the last few years, as you are surely aware, were rough for Pujols), and it’s not as though his ineffectiveness has somehow made Albert Pujols less famous, and using that number to compete with Cobb, the math becomes substantially closer.
So there it is–with minimal rationalization, Albert Pujols made his MLB pitching debut as a more established MLB player than any other of the 10,272 pitchers in Major League Baseball history. And at the very least, he was certainly the greatest position player pitcher in over a century. Congratulations to those who didn’t leave the game early to escape traffic on Sunday night–you got the chance to see something truly unprecedented in baseball history.