On tonight’s episode of The Ivy Boys, Chipper and I began discussing the Nationals’ formidable rotation and how it potentially could bode very poorly for the Cubs if the two teams did indeed play the one-game Wild Card Playoff Game against each other. This is a realistic proposition at this point, and one that would almost inevitably involve Max Scherzer. The reality of facing Scherzer, possibly the best pitcher in the game today, in a winner-take-all format scared the daylights out of both of us (and it certainly scares you, too).
We then began discussing who the best starting pitchers we’ve ever seen (during their prime) in our lifetimes were. With us both being in our early 30’s, this essentially qualifies any pitcher whose peak was achieved after the Strike of 1994.
Here is my Top 10:
- Pedro Martinez
- Clayton Kershaw
- Randy Johnson
- Max Scherzer
- Greg Maddux (I missed much of Maddux’s peak — 1992-1996 — and only really got to enjoy 1997 and 1998 as Prime MadDog)
- Justin Verlander
- Roger Clemens (He had a minimum two peaks, maybe 3, and I really only saw the 1997-98 seasons as ridiculously dominant)
- Zach Greinke
- Felix Hernandez
- John Smoltz
From here, the conversation turned to the difficult task of declaring our “Best Player We’ve Seen in Our Lifetime” title. While I still contend Ken Griffey Jr. is the best player I’ve ever seen play the game, some of that may just be due to the artistry with which he seemed to use in every graceful move he made around the baseball field. If you look at pure numbers, there were many during The Kid’s time that surpassed him (no doubt due in large part to injuries Griffey sustained, robbing much of the back-end of his prime years).
Chipper bestowed the title on Albert Pujols. While I saw where Chipper was coming from, I was convinced that one player was being undersold in this entire argument, one whose numbers (in my mind) were right there with The Machine. Surely, Chipper’s opinion of Pujols was enhanced by 1) seeing him often, since Chipper lives in St. Louis, and 2) as a Cubs fan, feeling like Pujols *always* hits .650 with 175 home runs a season against everyone like he does the Cubbies.
The player I thought Chipper was forgetting was Frank Thomas. Big Frank had a dazzling start to his career, routinely being the answer to the trivia tidbit “The first since Ted Williams to…” about a multitude of different statistics. I didn’t look up the two players’ peak performances, but I was confident that when I did, I’d find two guys who were essentially the same hitter.
Well, I did look them up.
And Albert Pujols at his peak is unquestionably better than Frank Thomas ever was.
When we watched Albert Pujols from 2001-2011, he was one of the most intimidating players the world has ever known. Through Age 27, the same age as Mike Trout, Pujols slashed .332/.420/.620 for an OPS of 1.040, and a Baseball Reference OPS+ of 167 (meaning he’s 67% than the average hitter). The man was a cartoon character at the plate, something that is easy to forget considering his past decade as a broken-down jalopy of a man toiling away in his final years as an Angel… oddly enough, with Mike Trout as a running mate.
While Frank Thomas was a force to behold with a bat in his hands, the years from 1990-2000 were just a liiiiiittle bit less impressive than Phat Albert’s prime. Though if you had Frank Thomas at first base on your favorite team during this time, you’d be hard-pressed to complain that he wasn’t Albert Pujols — somehow, I think you’d manage.
And for what it’s worth, Mike Trout will go down as being better than either of them. Much of Trout’s worth is due to him playing an extremely valuable position (as opposed to first base, where it’s easier to find production), but Trout at the plate puts of Hank Aaron-level numbers in nearly every way. Lest we forget how great Trout is, here are his 10 most similar players through Age 26 (per Baseball Reference):
- Frank Robinson (Hall of Famer)
- Ken Griffey Jr. (Hall of Famer and MY GUY!)
- Mickey Mantle (maybe the most naturally gifted ballplayer ever)
- Hank Aaron (like I said…)
- Miguel Cabrera (future HOFer)
- Orlando Cepeda (HOFer who really shouldn’t be a HOFer)
- Mel Ott (the answer to every, and I mean every, “Youngest power hitter to…” trivia data point)
- Eddie Matthews (HOFer)
- Andruw Jones (Not a HOFer, but a swell player)
- Albert Pujols (Best hitter of our generation who isn’t Mike Freaking Trout)
So do yourself a favor and watch an Angels game sometime this season, so you can watch the past (Pujols), present, and future (Trout… the dude’s 27) of the greatest hitters in uniform today.