Near the end of the big interview with Bob Costas, Mark McGwire said something that's mostly been lost among the tearful replays. After a question about his recent contacts with St. Louis Cardinal hitters, there was this exchange ...
McGwire: I spoke to Albert Pujols today ... had a great, great talk with Albert. He is, by far, one of the most terrific human beings -- and when it's all said and done, he will be probably the greatest baseball player to ever play this game.
Costas: You think that?
Costas: That he'll be the best player ever.
McGwire: Ever. There is absolutely -- his swing is flawless. His work ethic is flawless. He is one of those guys, is a grinder. He's very intense. And I'm just happy to say that I can be his hitting coach, and sit back and watch history be made.
Is that nuts?
With due respect to Oscar Charleston, a list of the six greatest players in major league history looks something like this:
1. Babe Ruth (756/224)
2. Barry Bonds (705/171)
3. Willie Mays (642/155)
4. Ty Cobb (722/159)
5. Honus Wagner (655/135)
6. Hank Aaron (643/142)
The first number in parentheses is Win Shares (sorry, no Loss Shares yet); the second is Wins Above Replacement. You can slot them however you like, but Ruth and Bonds would seem to have a clear edge over their nearest competition, statistically speaking. And yes, we might drag Stan Musial or Ted Williams into this discussion, but remember that we're actually trying to figure out if Pujols can reach (or approach) the top of this list.
Actually, I suppose we're probably going to end this discussion the way it begins: the answer is Babe Ruth. Ruth's WAR as a hitter/fielder/runner is 172, just a hair ahead of Bonds -- but he picks up another 52 for his pitching, and so nobody's remotely close to his 224 total. His Win Shares don't seem quite so impossible, but ... well, we'll see.
First let's look at more WAR. I can't break down the candidates by age, but I can tell you that Pujols now has 76.5 Wins Above Replacement, after nine seasons. If he plays another nine seasons at exactly the same level, he'll have 153 WAR. That's unlikely enough, but for the sake of argument: In nine years he'll be turning 39 -- his birthday is later this week -- so let's give him three more seasons at (generously) 4 WAR per season. That gets him to 165 WAR, and squarely into the conversation as the greatest non-Ruthian player ever. As I said, it's unlikely, because even Pujols is likely to decline in his 30s. But we're just talking, right?
Now let's turn to Win Shares, which I can break into age groupings. Pujols already has 315 Win Shares. Conveniently, he's not quite into his 30s. So there's an easy break. Here are the same players, ranked by Win Shares prior to their Age 30 seasons:
The first numbers aren't so interesting, because they're heavily influenced by events out of each player's control. Bonds spent a few years playing college ball. Mays spent nearly two full seasons in the Army. Wagner wasn't spotted by the talent scouts until he was well into his 20s.
No, what's interesting are the second numbers -- the Win Shares each player compiled after his Age 29 season -- because they suggest the limits.
Granted, those second numbers are all over the map. The Great Ty Cobb just cleared 300 after turning 30, while Bonds and Wagner both zoomed past 400. Wagner clearly was a freak, and played until he was 43. Bonds -- well, you know enough about him already. One thing we shouldn't do is assume that Pujols will age better than his competition, because for the most part his competition aged quite nicely. In addition to Wagner, Ruth had a big year at 38, Aaron at 39 and Mays at 40. They weren't just playing at those ages; they were still great (or close) at those ages.
I'm perfectly comfortable with giving Pujols another 300 Win Shares in his career, if only for the sake of argument.*
* But this is the place to mention selection bias. We've chosen the greatest players ever. Of course they played well after turning 30; if they hadn't, they wouldn't have made this list. Jimmie Foxx, like Pujols a first baseman, racked up 312 Win Shares before turning 30 -- almost exactly as many as Pujols. But Foxx finished his career with only 435. Which is to say, all this speculation is great fun, but there any number of gremlins just waiting to chew into a great player's career. There's no such thing as a sure thing.
How many more than 300, though? Might he really match what he's already done? Sure. He's played only nine seasons. With a little luck, he'll play another dozen or so. The other six players in our little study averaged 371 Win Shares beginning with their Age 30 seasons. Again for the sake of argument, let's bump that to 385 to account for longer seasons and better doctors.
So now we've got Pujols with 700 Win Shares, still well behind Ruth (756) but just a shade behind Cobb (722) and Bonds (705).
It's not hard to imagine Pujols getting past Bonds. It's not hard to construct an argument for Pujols being better than Cobb, considering how much more developed the game is today, compared to when Cobb played.
And the Babe? Hey, there's no such thing as a sure thing. A dozen years from now, the doctors and conditioning specialists will be doing amazing things. You want to bet that Albert Pujols won't still be a good hitter when he's 42, or 45? I don't.