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Saturday, May 10, 2014
It is likely that Pujols and Cabrera will be linked in the minds of many fans as they move through the next few years as aging and overpaid Hall of Fame-caliber sluggers. It is way too early to declare either of them finished or washed up, but it is equally clear that their best years are likely behind them.
Cabrera’s 2012 triple crown catapulted him to new level of fame and visibility, but by most measures he was never quite as good as Pujols in his prime. By conventional statistical measures, Pujols is the superior home run hitter, having topped 40 home runs in a season six times, compared to only twice for Cabrera. Through his age 30 season, Pujols had batted .331, compared to Cabrera who hit .321 through the end of last season when he was 30 years old. More advanced analytical numbers show Pujols, not least because of his superior defense, to be the better all around player. By the time he was 30, Pujols had 7 seasons of 9 or more WAR. Cabrera’s career high for WAR was 7.5, in both 2013 and 2011. Through his age 30 season, Cabrera had an OPS+ of 154, while Pujols’ was 172 through that age. It is hard to look closely at the two players’ numbers and not conclude that Pujols has been the superior player. It is possible that Cabrera will become the better older player and narrow the gap somewhat, but when both players are retired, and their enormous contracts are finally over, it is very likely that Pujols will have had the more impressive career.
Cabrera is a very good player, but he is also in danger of being defined by his most well-known accomplishment. Cabrera’s 2012 triple crown was the first by anybody in an astounding 45 years. The triple crown is perhaps the ultimate old school offensive accomplishment. It consists of leading the league in three categories, home runs, batting average and RBIs, the latter two of which are still taken seriously by some while seen as of secondary import to many more advanced quantitative analysts of the game. In 2012, Cabrera beat out Pujols’ teammate Mike Trout for the MVP award despite Trout having a much better year by more contemporary measures. That MVP vote was as much a referendum on methodology for evaluating players as it was a vote about who was the best player, but it elevated Cabrera just as Pujols’ decline was becoming most noticeable. That triple crown may also help distinguish Cabrera from Pujols who will probably never win one. In the eyes of many, he will be seen as the superior slugger of the era, but Pujols at his best was a better player, and hitter, than Cabrera ever was.
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