ST. LOUIS -- One of the amazing things about the return of Albert Pujols to St. Louis this weekend isn't about him at all. Before Friday, Redbird Nation had never gotten a first-hand look at the game's greatest player: Pujols' Angels teammate Mike Trout. Yet Trout's St. Lou debut barely caused a ripple in the flood of Albert love the past couple of days. You know it's a big deal when no one is paying attention to Mike Trout.
Maybe there is a good reason for that. St. Louis fans may never have seen Trout in person before, but they've certainly heard of his exploits and seen his unmatched career-to-date numbers. In fact, Trout may remind them of a certain former Cardinal, the one drawing more adulation along the banks of the Mississippi than Mark Twain.
Consider this an exercise in "you better appreciate what you got before it's gone." If Pujols were the same age as Trout right now, and you had to pick one or the other, whom would you take? It's Trout, right? You're probably on the money, but it's not as much of an open-and-shut case as you might think. To weight it objectively, you have to do your best to wipe away the Angels version of Pujols that we've seen the past few years from your consciousness. Try, if you can, to zero in on Pujols, circa 2007, when -- like Trout is now -- he was 27 years old.
First, consider this. Yes, Trout is considered baseball's best player right now by mass acclamation and he has held that unofficial title for several years. Earlier this year, I looked at the "best in the game" issue objectively, awarding the title to the top-ranked player by five-year win shares totals. The idea is that you don't lose your title because of an off-year, or a career season by someone else. It takes prolonged excellence to be considered baseball's king, and using rolling averages is a good way to model that effect.
By that method, Trout has been baseball's best player at the conclusion of each of the past five seasons, from 2014 to 2018. He leads the majors in most bottom-line value metrics so far in 2019, so it seems all but certain he'll retain his crown through this season.
There was a bit of anarchy at the top in the three seasons before Trout's ascension, with Andrew McCutchen, Robinson Cano and Miguel Cabrera each stealing the belt for a brief spell. Before that, Pujols was the titleholder, leading the way after each season from 2004 to 2010. In terms of king-fish status, Trout still has a couple more years to match the length of Pujols' reign.
As mentioned, Pujols' age-27 season was 2007, so when he was done with that campaign, he had been the game's top player for four years, and he had three more to go. We know that Trout will almost certainly still be considered the top player after this season. And it seems unfathomable that he'll relinquish the title any time soon. But you never know, right? Still, you would take your chances with a guy like that.
That's where Pujols was in terms of acclaim when he was Trout's age. He had been the game's best player for years and his performance record was virtually spotless. He was good at everything -- hitting for average and power, with discipline and in situations. He was the best in the game defensively at first base and was a tremendous baserunner. And he was right in the middle of his prime, one that seemed as if it would never end. Every great season looked a lot like the previous one. Kind of like with Trout.
Let's consider value metrics. Trout is at 69.4 WAR but has a little over half this season to go. Let's go with his having 75 WAR by the end of 2019. Pujols was at 54.9 WAR through his age-27 season. This is the essence of why you'd go with Trout. He had more than a season's head start on Pujols because he broke in at 19, and that narrows the gap because -- remember -- we're trying to figure out whom we'd take going forward. Still, while both players stood alone as MLB's top performer at age 27, there are degrees to greatness, and Trout has been a greater shade of great than Pujols was at the same age. You can quibble about a handful of WAR, but you can't really quibble about a 20-win gap in value.
The more traditional stats are not so clear-cut, especially since some might want to dismiss the positional adjustments in WAR and some of the park effects when arguing this choice. (They'd be mostly wrong to do so, but these measurements are kind of touchy with some fans because of the abstract nature of contextualization.)
Pujols was hitting .332/.420/.620 through his age-27 season. Trout is at .307/.420/.578. Pujols had 282 homers; Trout has 262 and will likely end up around 282 by the end of the season. Pujols had 861 RBIs; Trout has 704 and even with another half season of RBIs will be at a major deficit. Trout already has more runs and stolen bases at 27 than Pujols, even with rest of 2019 remaining. Still, anyone arguing for Pujols on the basis of traditional measures might be hard-pressed to take his future greatness over Trout's.
There is one final factor in this: durability. Trout has been mostly healthy this season, but he missed 71 games combined in 2017 and 2018. He's a rambunctious player, running into outfield walls, diving into bases with unthinking abandon, and even seems to have an unusual ability to foul balls off himself. If these things worry you in regard to Trout's future, and you have age-27 Pujols as a standby option, is the choice really as easy as all that?
Actually, yes. Pujols is among the greatest of the great, but nevertheless, if you were to put Hall of Famers into tiers, he'd probably be on the second tier. And that's pretty damned good. But Trout appears to be headed to the pantheon -- the Mays-Ruth-Aaron-Bonds-Mantle-Wagner class living somewhere on the upstate New York version of Mount Olympus.
Yet, maybe we thought Pujols could have eventually resided there as well. We can slot his career more accurately because we've seen how it has turned out. He proved to be human, not the machine to which he was initially likened for his consistency. With Trout, we can continue to dream of heights never before scaled.
And that's the moral of all this. Appreciate Pujols for what he was and what he is. But don't put off admiring what Mike Trout has done so far in his career and continues to do. The best, even the best of the best, don't stay the best forever. It doesn't matter whether or not you'd take the 27-year-old Pujols or the 27-year-old Trout. You can't go wrong with either, and whomever you end up with, soak up every magic moment while you can.