Sublime Pujols has chance to be best hitter of all time

October 27, 2006|By RICK MAESE

St. Louis — St. Louis-- --Albert Pujols is the best hitter I've seen swing a baseball bat. Of course, that might not mean a whole lot considering most of baseball history took place before I was born and power numbers from the current generation of sluggers can seem about as believable as a Tolkien novel.

So, as we prepare for Game 5 of the World Series tonight, the St. Louis Cardinals one game away from winning the whole thing, I sought out a better source, someone who knows a thing or two about hitting.

"I haven't seen anybody that young who's that good," said Al Kaline, the Baltimore native who swung his way into the Hall of Fame wearing a Detroit Tigers uniform. "Ever."

Kaline has seen them come and go over the past half-century - Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds - but Pujols is different.

"If he stays healthy and has the desire, he'll be as good or better than anybody who's ever played the game," said Kaline, a pretty good young hitter in his own right, the youngest player, in fact, to win a batting title. He was just 20 when he hit .340 in 1955.

Kaline, who works in the Tigers' front office, can feel his heart beat a little faster whenever Pujols steps to the plate. In Game 1, Pujols hit a two-run home run, and last night, in the Cards' 5-4 win over the Tigers, he stepped to the plate in the seventh inning with the go-ahead run standing on second. Learning from the tactical mistake in Game 1, the Tigers opted to walk him. You have to. He's the only player who steps in the box and makes you suddenly feel like anything is possible with one swing of a 31.5-ounce stick.

"And it's not just that he's good, but he's good in every phase," Kaline said. "You see guys with great power or good coordination or just one part. This kid's the whole package."

It's easy for me to declare Pujols the best hitter today, and it certainly carries a lot of weight for a slugger such as Kaline to speak so highly of the Cardinals first baseman, but whenever you mention "all time," you're setting both feet firmly into Babe Ruth territory. And there's actually some evidence that suggests Pujols is comparable to the Babe.

You see, when Ruth was 26 years old, psychologists at Columbia University put the Sultan of Swat through a series of tests. They measured his reflexes, his sight and his hearing. When the results came back, The New York Times declared Ruth was "supernormal."

Aware of the Ruth tests, GQ asked Pujols, who turned 26 on Jan. 16, to submit himself to a similar examination last spring at Washington University. Researchers used similar testing methods, from tapping fingers to measuring bat speed.

In one test, Pujols showed impeccable hand-eye coordination by replicating 133 symbols in a minute - so impressive that the makers of the test didn't even list a score that high. His motor skills and visual acuity are off the charts.

For another test, Pujols was given a sheet of paper with letters scattered all over the page. He was told to locate and cross out all of the letter As. While most people scan the page left to right, Pujols visually divided the page into sections and searched them one at a time. You can see how this translates to the diamond, where a batter is trying to focus on a little white ball while also noting everything else that's happening on the field. It's just natural for him.

There were some inherent limitations in the comparison, but in the end, the testing revealed that like Ruth, Pujols essentially is a physiological freak.

He has the capabilities and tools to do just about whatever he wants in the game. I'm not sure casual fans realize exactly what we're witnessing. Pujols just became the youngest player to hit 250 homers. This season, he became the first to hit at least 30 in each of his first six seasons and the first since Williams to have at least 100 RBIs in his first six seasons. I mean, the guy hit as many homers in the month of April as the entire Royals team.

And here's what's scary: Pujols is only getting better. This season, he established career highs in slugging percentage, home runs and RBIs. He just broke Willie Mays' single-season record with 20 game-winning RBIs. And his home run rate was his best ever - one every 10.9 at-bats.

Right now, he's averaging nearly 42 home runs per season. Let's say that average dips to 35 from here on out - he could play as long as Aaron did and retire with more than 800 homers. The possibilities are insane.

"I'm going to tell you something," Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson said, "it ain't fair. I sit there and I watch him and he's the only guy that I honestly can say I truly enjoy watching hit right now."

Anderson's been around plenty of good hitters, too. (And for a few more days, he's still the only manager to win World Series titles leading teams from both leagues.)

Pujols already has won the Rookie of the Year, league MVP, NLCS MVP and a batting title. Down the road, a Triple Crown is a possibility, but right now, he's sorely lacking what most of the great hitters before him found - a World Series title.

That could change tonight.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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