Published On: Thu, May 10th, 2018

The chase for 3,000: How young stars stack up to Pujols' pace

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Albert Pujols became the latest player to join the illustrious 3,000-hit club – the 32nd such hitter to do so in MLB history.

Say what you will about Pujols’ declining skills, but he’s managed to stay on the field with remarkable consistency throughout his career, only once failing to play at least 143 games over his first 17 seasons. The pace he set over his outstanding decade with the St. Louis Cardinals made his 3,000th hit an inevitability, despite sliding into mediocrity during his Los Angeles Angels tenure.

With that in mind, there are several young stars who’ve hit the ball with aplomb since coming into the league, starting a debate about whether or not they can follow in The Machine’s footsteps.

Here’s a look at five MLB players and how they measure up with Pujols at the same point in their respective careers:

Mike Trout

There’s something poetic about Pujols, in the twilight of a Hall of Fame career, achieving this milestone alongside Trout, who is this generation’s most dominant hitter.

Trout is in his eighth big-league season, though he was merely a blip on the radar in 2011 as he played his first 40 games. By the time Pujols played 933 games over his first six seasons, compared to Trout’s 961 to date, he had already amassed 1,159 base hits. Trout has 1,084 in nearly 30 more games.

Now, Trout has walked more often than Pujols did, and he has certainly stolen more bases, but Pujols was unparalleled with the bat early on. With Trout enshrined as baseball’s brightest star in 2018, this should serve as a reminder that young Pujols was in lockstep with him. It’s often easy to forget just how dominant the greats were when their best years are in the rearview mirror. In his first six seasons, Pujols tallied more than 190 hits four times, including a National League-best 212 in 2003, when he hit .359. Trout’s career high in hits is 190, and he did it only once.

Barring significant injury, a steep decline in skill, or a league-wide decision to permanently walk him, Trout stands an excellent chance at reaching 3,000. Last season’s 114 games are the fewest he’s played in since becoming a full-time player in 2012, and he only appears to be improving.

Bryce Harper

The yin to Trout’s yang, Harper will forever be referenced in comparison to his contemporary since they share somewhat similar tracks. Like Trout, Harper debuted at 19. Unlike Trout, Harper has suffered through inconsistency and a litany of injuries. When he’s at his best, he’s the best hitter in the game – as evidenced by his 2015 MVP campaign when he hit .330/.460/.649 with 42 homers. It wouldn’t come as a surprise if that wound up being the best season of an excellent career.

But, he’s also only 25. Based on what he’s shown to be his ceiling to date, it’s obvious that he’s got the skills. But where Pujols made a habit of playing almost every game in a season, Harper has maxed out at 153, and has only exceeded 120 games three times in six seasons entering 2018. All told, Harper has 813 hits in 805 games. Pujols had 982 in his first 790.

His age will give him an opportunity to cobble together a 3,000-hit career, especially if his drop-off isn’t as precipitous as Pujols’. It’s worth noting here that Pujols’ high since joining the Angels is 173 hits, matching his lowest total with the Cardinals. Last season, he only mustered 101 base knocks.

Other than health, Harper’s biggest roadblock will be a combination of consistency (his season batting average has fluctuated from .243 to .330 and everywhere in between) and a collective fear among opposing pitchers. Yes, that’s right. Because he’s such a great hitter, Harper may not have a chance to reach 3,000 due to being constantly walked. Barry Bonds played 22 seasons and missed 3,000 hits because he was given an absurd amount of free passes every year. Harper leads the majors in walks through the Washington Nationals’ first 37 games, and it’s reducing his opportunities to hit.

Kris Bryant

Bryant has a steeper hill to climb than either Harper or Trout because he didn’t make his MLB debut until he was 23. Through 487 career games, he’s registered 525 base hits (and a cool 100 home runs). Pujols, through his first three seasons, had 591 hits in 475 games. He was also 23 years old when he finished that stretch as opposed to being Bryant’s starting position.

The Chicago Cubs third baseman has something that does compare with Pujols, however, and that’s durability. He’s played in at least 151 games in each of his first three seasons, and he would have played in more in his rookie campaign if it weren’t for service-time issues.

Bryant’s also been improving his contact rate. He struck out 199 times in his first year, and did so only 128 times in 2017. His 16.5 percent strikeout rate to start the season is the lowest of his young career, too. If Bryant doesn’t succumb to poor health, he could stand a chance, but he’ll need to average close to his career high (176) through age 40 to reach the milestone.

Carlos Correa

Correa’s Houston Astros teammate, Jose Altuve, appears like a surefire candidate to reach the 3,000-hit plateau as he’s tallied 200 or more hits in four straight seasons and leads the majors with 52 through the Astros’ opening 39 games. Correa’s path isn’t as clear, however.

Like Trout, Correa lost a lot of time in 2017 due to injury, playing in only 109 games, in what was looking like a career season to date. He hit .315, which would have landed him in the top 10 in baseball if stretched through an entire season. Instead, he’s in his age-23 season with 439 career hits in 398 games. At that same interval, Pujols had 496 hits but was in the middle of his third, and his best, season. If Correa sustains his production through the course of 2018, he might be in good shape for the chase to come.

Francisco Lindor

Lindor is only slightly further along in terms of games played compared to Correa, with 452 under his belt since getting the call in mid-June 2015. As it was with Correa, the comparison to Pujols lands in the middle of his landmark 2003 campaign. Pujols recorded the 561st hit of his career in his 452nd game. Lindor, with a career batting average of .293, has 527.

The Cleveland Indians shortstop has more hits than anyone else on this list since the start of 2016, and he’s only barely in smelling distance of early Pujols.

Pujols was on a different plane of baseball greatness when he reached the bigs. Sure, caveats exist – pitching competition might not have been as tough in his first decade as it is now – but it’s not like everyone was alongside him in terms of production. He was borderline peerless (Bonds, Alex Rodriguez were in that stratosphere).

It’s also a reminder that baseball is a very difficult game. Without that longevity stretching his peak to a decade of dominance, plus solid early returns in Anaheim, he wouldn’t have stood a chance. For any of these players (plus other hopefuls like Manny Machado, who deserves mention), so much has to go right and a certain amount of luck has to be in play. Will at least one of these players get to 3,000? Probably. Will all of them? Factoring in health, bad luck, and deteriorating skills: No.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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