Ranking Pujols-Miggy vs. Aaron-Mays and more

Ranking Pujols-Miggy vs. Aaron-Mays and more post thumbnail image

It was June 20, 2003. MLB still sought to make interleague play a kind of in-season showcase on the schedule, so all but one of the 14 matchups on the slate were AL vs. NL rivalries. The Anaheim Angels, Florida Marlins and Tampa Bay Devil Rays were still existing brands, as were the Montreal Expos. Jackson Holliday, the first pick of this year’s draft, had not yet been born.

In other words, it was a pretty long time ago. That night in St. Louis, Albert Pujols struggled, going 0-for-5 against a surprising Kansas City Royals team. No worries: That off-night against K.C. dropped Pujols’ season average to .376.

Meanwhile, at Pro Player Stadium in Miami, touted 20-year-old masher Miguel Cabrera was making his MLB debut. After starting his career by going 0-for-4, Cabrera stepped to the plate against Devil Rays reliever Al Levine in the 11th inning of a 1-1 game. He sent a drive to straightaway center. Devil Rays center fielder Rocco Baldelli turned and gave chase, but the drive cleared the wall, ending the game and setting in motion a celebratory mob around Cabrera at home plate. A star was born.

A lot has changed since then, in baseball and elsewhere. But with Cabrera rolling off the IL on Monday and stroking an RBI single in his first at-bat in Baltimore, both he and Pujols are still with us, doing their thing. While they’re not what they once were, both have the stature of stars headed to the Hall of Fame.

Both have enjoyed a kind of split season in 2022. While Cabrera enjoyed a solid first half, injuries flared up and his numbers began to sink, a dynamic that has marked the twilight of his career. Meanwhile, Pujols started slowly but his second-half explosion has miraculously put him on track to reach 700 career homers and he has become one of the iconic storylines of the season. Twenty seasons into their time together in the majors, Cabrera and Pujols are still attracting our attention.

Alas, the Pujols-Cabrera era is entering its final stretch. The Tigers’ season will end on Oct. 5. While Pujols will play into October with the playoff-bound Cardinals, when his season ends, so will his career. And when the 2023 season begins, for the first time since June 19, 2003, Pujols and Cabrera will no longer be active at the same time.

It’s tempting to compare these two, but why? Pujols has higher counting totals than Cabrera but percentage-wise, it’s a virtual wash. Pujols has a career 144 OPS+, just ahead of Cabrera’s 142. They are true historical peers. They are both among the best ever, as two of the five right-handed hitters to surpass both the 3,000-hit and 500-homer milestones. Rather than comparing them to each other, perhaps we should focus on thinking of them in tandem as an acknowledgment of how privileged we have been to see both of them in action at the same time for so long.

So where does the Pujols-Cabrera era, featuring two of the best right-handed hitters in history, rank among such historical tandems? Are these the two most prolific concurrent righty hitters in baseball’s annals?

Well, no. It’s a fair question but any student of baseball history immediately knows that they are not the most prolific and you don’t even have to look up a single statistic. That doesn’t diminish Cabrera and Pujols in any way. It only means they have passed through rarefied historical air into a pantheon that features Hank Aaron and Willie Mays.

To slot the Pujols-Cabrera era into a historical context, we decided to use the version of runs created from fangraphs.com to calculate the combined totals of the best right-handed combos ever, but only for the seasons in which their careers overlapped. For Pujols and Cabrera, that’s 2003 to 2022. (And their total is still growing, which actually will likely matter by the end of the season. Stay tuned.)

For Aaron and Mays, those seasons were 1954, when Aaron debuted, to 1973, when Mays retired. And so on. We did this calculation for all possible overlapping combinations among the top 300 right-handed hitters in history by runs created. Let’s run through the top 10.

The 10 greatest right-handed hitting contemporaries of all time

1. Hank Aaron and Willie Mays (1954 to 1973)

4,474 combined runs created while they were both active

The top two right-handed hitters in history by runs created are Aaron and Mays. Like Pujols and Cabrera, they were active for 20 concurrent seasons. During those seasons, Aaron had a 159 OPS+, while Mays was at 158. They combined for 1,349 homers, 6,635 hits, 4,046 runs and 3,945 RBIs during that span. Either one is worthy of being declared the best right-handed hitter in history but whoever you prefer in that debate, there is no good argument for any other pair.

2. Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson (1956 to 1976)

4,359 combined RC

In some ways, you have to feel for Frank Robinson. During most eras, he would have unquestionably been considered the best righty hitter of his generation. But his Hall of Fame career just happened to overlap with the best years of Mays and Aaron. Robinson had a career 154 OPS+ so while he might not have quite been at the level of Aaron or Mays, he was pretty darned close to it. During their 21 overlapping seasons, Robinson and Aaron combined for 1,301 homers, 6,394 hits and 3,934 RBIs.

3. Hank Aaron and Al Kaline (1954 to 1974)

4,183 combined RC

Kaline ranks among the top 20 of all time in runs created, so he’s yet another Mays-Aaron era star righty who ends up a bit overshadowed in a historical context. Aaron does the heavy lifting in this combo, as Kaline finished with a 136 OPS+, but the latter certainly contributed. The duo combined for 6,600 hits, with Kaline landing at exactly 3,000 during their overlapping campaigns.

4. Hank Aaron and Harmon Killebrew (1954 to 1975)

4,049 combined RC

About 61% of the production here belonged to Aaron, but Killebrew hit 573 homers while he was concurrently active with Aaron and they combined for 1,318 dingers. Incidentally, if you are starting to think that the era from the mid-1950s through the mid-1970s was a heyday for star-level right-handed hitters, you would not be wrong.

5. Al Kaline and Willie Mays (1954 to 1973)

3,917 combined RC

And finally we get to the champs of the non-Aaron class, though we’re still in that era of baseball that took us from “Leave It to Beaver” to “Happy Days.” Kaline and Mays combined for 5,987 hits and 1,022 homers during their overlapping seasons. One technical note: Mays did not appear during the 1953 season because of military service. Here we’ve decided to define the Kaline-Mays era for the 20 years in which they both played. But if you disagree with that because Mays was active before 1953, you can tack on the three runs created Kaline posted during his debut season, when Mays was serving in the army. As you can see, it doesn’t affect the overall standings either way.

6. Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez (1994 to 2011)

3,900 combined RC

Now we jump ahead a few decades and start to get into some of the contemporaries to Pujols and Cabrera. Topping the list for the wild-card era are A-Rod and Manny, a pair of sluggers who are representative star hitters for the era in which they played. Together, they posted 5,340 hits, 1,182 homers and 3,719 RBIs. Rodriguez put up bigger counting numbers, as he had about 1,000 more plate appearances. But Ramirez put up a 155 OPS+ during this era, compared to 145 for Rodriguez. Their hold on the sixth slot in these rankings appears to be highly tenuous because …

7. Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera (2003 to 2022)

3,899 combined RC (and counting)

Pujols and Cabrera have accounted for almost an equal portion of this runs created total. Through Tuesday, Pujols was at 1,960 and Cabrera was at 1,939. With two weeks to go in the season, both of them currently healthy (or at least not on the injured list) and both still producing, it is inevitable that they will jump past Ramirez and Rodriguez for the sixth spot, which would bolster their claim to the title as the best right-handed-hitting duo of their generation.

After Cabrera, the next five highest-ranked combo partners for Pujols among righty hitters are Adrian Beltre, Rodriguez, Aramis Ramirez and Torii Hunter. For Cabrera, the list is Beltre, Matt Holliday (Jackson’s father), Nelson Cruz and Edwin Encarnacion.

8. Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter (1995 to 2013)

3,890 combined RC

Rodriguez and Jeter were teammates with the Yankees beginning with the 2004 season, so they clearly comprised one of the most prolific left sides of an infield in history. Another technical note: Rodriguez was suspended during Jeter’s farewell season of 2014, so we have not included that as part of their era. If you disagree, you can add the 53 runs created Jeter posted that season, which pushes this tandem to 3,943 altogether. That would nudge them up a few spots in the rankings.

9. Frank Robinson and Willie Mays (1956 to 1973)

3,850 combined RC

One last combo from the golden era of right-handed hitters. Robinson and Mays both played in the National League for the first 10 seasons of this span, as did Aaron. During that decade, Mays led the way with 1,287 runs created, followed by Aaron (1,240) and Robinson (1,166). The only other NL hitter over 1,000 was Aaron’s longtime teammate, Eddie Mathews. Aaron, Mays and Robinson combined for more than 1,000 homers, 3,000 runs and 3,000 RBIs during that magical span, and all three hit better than .300.

10. Nap Lajoie and Honus Wagner (1897 to 1916)

3,769 combined RC

Before the great right-handed hitters of the integration era arrived, here was your all-time most productive right-handed tandem. This deadball duo combined for 6,545 hits, 3,192 runs, 3,265 RBIs and 1,091 stolen bases while hitting .333 between them. Lajoie and Wagner barely edged a much more recent duo for the last spot in our top 10. Frank Thomas and Gary Sheffield (overlapping seasons from 1990 to 2008) landed at 3,767.

Who’s next?

According to the Baseball-reference.com version of runs created, Pujols is the active leader with 2,288, followed by Cabrera at 1,990. (Those are career totals, not just for their overlapping seasons.). No. 3 on the active list is Mike Trout at 1,324, so that’s a pretty steep drop.

Any tandem made up of active players that eventually creeps onto the all-time leaderboard would figure to include Trout, who is still just 30 years old. Through age 30, Pujols had created 1,506 runs and Cabrera 1,381, so both of them outpaced what Trout has done so far. Of the nine active players with 1,000 or more runs created, all of them are into their age-32 seasons or older, other than Trout.

If we skip down to those as young or younger than Trout, you get to Manny Machado, who is at 919 runs created in his age-29 season. Trout debuted one year before Machado but didn’t do much in his cup-of-coffee season of 2011, posting 14 runs created. So he and Machado have overlapped for 2,229 runs created so far, or less than half of the Mays-Aaron era.

Other combos are possible. You can take your pick among Trout, Machado, Nolan Arenado, Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts. But all of them have a long, long way to go to get to where Pujols and Cabrera already are, as one of the 10 best right-handed hitting tandems in baseball history, and the best of their generation.

We should enjoy Pujols and Cabrera, together, while we can, because who knows if we’ll see another two right-handed hitters together who stay as productive as they have for as long as they have. We only have them together for two more weeks. We should relish it.

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