This past Tuesday, ESPN started their MLB top-100 all-time list by revealing numbers 100-51. While there were some questionable choices to make the list (i.e.: Bryce Harper, but that might just be my bias showing up), the list was generally viewed fairly well. Nobody was too upset with where everyone was placed. Then Wednesday rolled around and everything went to hell.
Just this tweet from ESPN was enough to send many baseball fans into a frenzy. Why? Because of where Albert “The Machine” Pujols was placed, and who was ahead of him.
Albert Pujols at number 30. Derek Jeter at number 28. Those were the rankings that really ruffled some feathers. How in the world was Derek Jeter a better baseball player than Albert Pujols? That’s just...insanity.
There are a bunch of different ways we can evaluate these two players: accolades, base statistics, postseason success, impact on the game, etc. If you’re looking at these rankings based on each players’ recognizability and impact on baseball as a whole, I could understand why you’d want to put Jeter ahead, but that doesn’t explain other rankings on this list, such as Jackie Robinson’s placement at number 38 and Mike Trout at number 15. Obviously, the guy who’s known for not being a marketable superstar is not more impactful on the game of baseball than the man who broke the game’s color barrier, so clearly the voters were not using that as one of their main arguments when creating this list.
With that in mind, in what other categories does Jeter outpace Pujols? World Series titles, batting average, hits, OBP, stolen bases, and Gold Gloves won. That’s not very many things. Sure, his postseason success is incredible, but Pujols’ success is arguably more impressive given he was never surrounded by the same level of talent that Jeter was, and in half as many postseason plate appearances, Pujols finished with one fewer home run, seven fewer RBI, and only 16 fewer walks. Pujols also recorded a higher postseason batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and WPA (although recording more plate appearances is bound to lead to lower career totals, so take those numbers how you will).
“What about defense?” HAHAHAHAHAHAHA, don’t make me laugh. Jeter may have accrued more Gold Gloves over the course of his career than Pujols, but Pujols was clearly the superior fielder. Per Baseball Reference, Pujols had a career 141 Defensive Runs Saved from 2003 until the end of his career (DRS wasn’t recorded prior to 2003). Pujols also only ever recorded negative defensive runs saved at first base after he turned 36 years old. It took Pujols FIFTEEN YEARS to become a below-average fielder at first base. Jeter, on the other hand, recorded a negative defensive runs saved at shortstop in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014. The only reason there aren’t more years listed is because, as I said earlier, defensive runs saved wasn’t a measured statistic until 2003. However, Jeter also recorded a negative Total Field Runs Above Average at shortstop in 1995, 1996, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2001, and 2002.
Jeter won his Gold Glove Awards on pizazz and wow factor. He was never actually an elite defensive shortstop, just one that could make crowds ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ better than anyone else. Oh, and by the way, Pujols has a better DRS/year metric as an outfielder than Jeter does at shortstop. Think about that for a second.
On offense, Pujols was clearly better during his career than Jeter. That shouldn’t even be up for debate. I shouldn’t even have to make that an argument about that. However, there’s still the argument that Pujols should be a better offensive player because he played a more offensive position. Everyone expects first basemen to hit nukes and drive in runs. Shortstops are supposed to be leaders, and the best of the best at the position routinely get on base in front of their power guys, score runs, and maybe steal some bases along the way. That’s all true, and shortstop is obviously a less pivotal offensive position than first base. Still, Jeter doesn’t stack up to Pujols when the two are compared to their positional counterparts.
Here’s where each of them ranks all-time amongst players at their position:
rWAR: Jeter (13th among SS); Pujols (second among 1B)
fWAR: Jeter (6th among SS); Pujols (5th among 1B)
BA: Jeter (10th); Pujols (62nd)
OPS: Jeter (17th); Pujols (16th)
wRC+: Jeter (15th) ; Pujols (20th)
+WPA: Jeter (3rd); Pujols (1st)
HR: Jeter (6th); Pujols (1st)
BB%: Jeter (165th — likely lower than expected because pitchers were forced to pitch to him for fear of the hitters who came after); Pujols (165th) Hey that’s neat!
Jeter has some edges on Pujols in terms of positional comparisons, but overall it’s pretty clear that Pujols was more impactful with a bat in his hands, even when taking into account the positional discrepancies. For goodness sake, for most of his career, Jeter wasn’t even the best shortstop on his own team, whereas Pujols always was the best position playerwas always, until he moved out West to Anaheim, the most feared first baseman in all of baseball.
This isn’t a hit piece on Jeter either. I think he’s placed exactly where he should be. This is only to point out how under-appreciated Pujols was on this list. When The Machine finally makes his way onto Hall of Fame ballots in 2027, or later, depending on when he officially announces his retirement, he better be the second-ever unanimous decision. The Hall of Fame has made some questionable decisions recently, but this should be an absolute no-brainer. Pujols might not be a top-10 player all-time, but he’s definitely top-20. Keep in mind that Pujols’ first ten years in the league were arguably better than Trout’s, and Trout is already considered a top-20 player according to this list.
Yes, Pujols’ career with the Angels and short stint with the Dodgers were underwhelming and filled with inconsistency, but that recency bias shouldn’t take away from someone who finished top-five in MVP voting in each of his first six seasons and nine of his first ten all while competing with Barry Bonds for the honor in many of those years.
Come on, ESPN! Give Pujols the respect he deserves.