Just last week, baseball celebrated the life and career of perhaps the greatest right-handed hitter who ever played the game. Hank Aaron's 82nd birthday offered yet another opportunity to appreciate a brilliant career, one filled to the brim with "black ink" -- representing times he led the league in various categories.
Now, as Spring Training 2016 approaches, we turn our eyes to the greats of the game today. And while it's easy to focus on the staggering wave of young talent, let's take a moment to appreciate the man who is by nearly any reasonable measure the best right-handed hitter since Aaron hung them up.
No, that's not Miguel Cabrera -- not yet, at least. And while A-Rod is certainly in the conversation, it's not him either.
It's Albert Pujols.
Somehow, despite 560 home runs and an eye-popping contract, Pujols doesn't seem to get the reverence he's due these days. But even as Cabrera has thrived into his early 30s, and even as Pujols has begun his decline phase, Cabrera has not yet caught up to Pujols.
The genesis of this column lies in a piece I wrote nearly three years ago for MLB.com, examining the same two hitters. Since then, Pujols' decline has hastened, while Cabrera's has barely begun.
And yet …
The gap is still there.
As he enters his age-33 season, Cabrera has 8,322 big league plate appearances. Pujols had 8,103 at the beginning of his age-33 season, which was 2013, his second year with the Angels. At that point, Pujols had already posted the first two years of -- relative -- decline. By basically every measure, Pujols' 2012 and '13 seasons were the worst of his career to date.
And even so, these were his career numbers at that point: .325/.414/.608 slash line, for a 168 OPS+; 475 homers, 1434 RBIs, 1376 runs, 505 doubles, 92 steals in 128 attempts, 91.2 WAR.
Now, here's Cabrera: .321/.399/.562, for a 155 OPS+; 408 homers, 1445 RBIs, 1229 runs, 492 doubles, 38 steals in 58 attempts, 64.7 WAR. Check that last category, which of course includes defense: Pujols was worth more than two wins per season more than Cabrera over equal time periods. That's enormous.
Maybe the most striking number of all: Pujols, even now, coming off three more seasons of decline, still holds a higher slugging rate and a higher OPS+ than Cabrera, and the on-base percentages are almost a push. That's really absurd.
At this point, Cabrera is virtually certain to finish well behind Pujols in career home runs, and extremely likely to trail him in runs. He's pretty much certain to finish with more strikeouts and fewer walks. Hits may be close, and it's hard to say about the rate stats, because we don't know how long they will play or what the ends of their careers will look like.
And of course, right now, in 2016, Cabrera is clearly the better hitter. It wouldn't be a shock if he contended for another MVP. He could never take another at-bat, and he'd be a shoo-in for Cooperstown.
Which just makes this statement all the more remarkable: Pujols has still done more. He was still better up to the same age. He's still the greatest right-handed hitter since Aaron. Cabrera may be second on that list, but Pujols is still at the top.