In the 21st century, the debate about the best overall hitter in baseball is likely to come down to Miguel Cabrera vs Albert Pujols.
While there have been other great hitters over the first 20 or so years of the 21st century, the comparison of Pujols vs Cabrera is inevitable.
Both have had distinguished careers and will go down as two of the best hitters of all time. But between the two of them, who had the better career? With both ready to call it a career after the 2022 season, this seems like the perfect time for this debate.
Miguel Cabrera vs Albert Pujols
Most fans could debate the Pujols vs Cabrera stats all day. The numbers on both sides are so good that it’ll make your head spin. To make a decision on Cabrera vs Pujols, we might have to dig a little deeper.
Of course, there is no wrong decision here, but with both careers near their conclusion and both players destined for Cooperstown, we wanted to make a choice and decide which player had the better career, Miguel Cabrera or Albert Pujols.
The early years
There are few players who hit the ground running in their big league career the way Pujols did. He made his MLB debut in 2001 at the age of 21 and was an instant star. The veterans in the St. Louis clubhouse wanted Pujols to make the opening day roster, which he did. Pujols joined the shortlist of rookies to hit 20 home runs before the start of July. But he didn’t stop at the midway point of the season, Pujols finished his rookie year batting .329 with 37 home runs and 130 RBIs, making him the unanimous choice for Rookie of the Year.
His rookie year was no fluke either. While there was some dip in his second season, Pujols still finished the year with a .955 OPS. He made up for it the following year, batting a career-high .359 with an OPS of 1.106 in his third MLB season.
As for Cabrera, he was good but not quite that good during the early part of his big league career. He played just over half a season with the Marlins during his rookie season, batting .268 with an OPS of .793. Of course, Cabrera settled in nicely during his second season in the majors, batting .294 with 33 home runs. He would match those 33 home runs in his third season while also hitting over .300 for the first time, batting .323 with an OPS of .946 during his third season in the majors.
However, he didn’t quite make the same immense impact that Pujols did early in his career.
In their prime
While Cabrera was just 20 when he reached the majors, it didn’t take him long to move into the prime of his career. As mentioned, he hit over .300 in his third MLB season and would hit over .300 in all but one of the next 12 years.
During those 12 seasons, he averaged 33.4 home runs per season with a minimum of 103 RBIs in all but one of those 12 seasons. During that time, Cabrera was a perennial all-star and one of the most feared hitters in the majors, not to mention one of the most consistent. However, while his OPS was consistently over .900, it only eclipsed 1.000 three times.
Meanwhile, Pujols posted an OPS over 1.000 in eight of his first 10 seasons. Much like Cabrera, it didn’t take him long to settle into his prime. He hit a minimum of 30 home runs in each of his first 12 big league seasons.
In the 10 years between 2003 and 2010, Pujols surpassed 40 home runs eight times, averaging 40.4 home runs per season during those 10 years. Across that 10-year span, there was just one time that Pujols failed to reach 100 RBIs and just three years in which he didn’t produce an OPS over 1.000.
Both Cabrera and Pujols continued to produce into their late 30s with Pujols playing into his 40s. Pujols started to see his numbers decline somewhat quickly after the 2012 season, which was his first season after signing a 10-year deal with the Angels. Starting with the 2013 campaign, Pujols never posted an OPS of .800 or higher. Despite mashing 40 home runs during the 2015 season, that was just one of two seasons after 2012 that he reached the 30 home run plateau.
His ability to hit for a high average also dropped considerably after 2012, never finishing higher than .272 during the final decade of his career.
Naturally, Cabrera saw his numbers start to drop, but not until after his 14th season in the majors whereas Pujols saw his numbers undoubtedly decline after 12 seasons.
After hitting 38 home runs in 2016, Cabrera’s power disappeared, relatively speaking. After that year, he never hit more than 16 home runs or 22 doubles in a given year. But to his credit, Cabrera continued to hit for a high average, never seeing his average dip below .249 in a season. In fact, he hit .299 with an OPS of .843 in 2018 despite being limited that year due to injuries.
The final numbers
Looking at their career numbers in the Miguel Cabrera vs Albert Pujols comparison, there is no doubt both are among the elite hitters in MLB history and deserve to be first-ballot Hall of Famers. Both have eclipsed 3,000 hits with Pujols having a few more career hits and RBIs because he reached the big leagues two years before Cabrera.
In terms of power, Pujols has a reasonable edge with over 680 home runs, giving him a chance to push for 700 by the end of 2022. Cabrera, on the other hand, only surpassed 500 career home runs late in the 2021 season and won’t come close to matching Pujols in that category, even if he plays a few more years.
Yet, Pujols and Cabrera have an identical career OPS of .918. Also, Cabrera has been the better contact hitter over his career, owning an average of .310 while Pujols has seen his career average drop to .297 in recent years.
In terms of awards and distinctions, Cabrera was an 11-time all-star while Pujols was only selected to the Midsummer Classic 10 times. Of course, Pujols was an MVP three times while Cabrera only won MVP honors twice.
Pujols was also Rookie of the Year, an award Cabrera can’t claim as his own.
Cabrera was also a four-time batting champion, two-time home run leader, two-time RBI leader, and won the Triple Crown in 2012. For comparison, Pujols won just one batting title while leading his league in homers twice and RBIs just once.
However, Pujols does have a slight edge on the defensive side of the ball, winning the Gold Glove twice and the Fielding Bible Award five teams. Cabrera, meanwhile, was never considered a strong defensive player, although he did offer more versatility than Pujols during his career and has been relegated to DH duty far less often than Pujols.
There are truly no losers in the Miguel Cabrera vs Albert Pujols comparison.
As a well-rounded hitter who can hit for average and power, Cabrera surely gets the edge over Pujols. It also took him longer until his skills began to diminish.
That being said, in terms of the overall impact made during their careers, Pujols has a decided edge in both power and defensive contributions. The fact that he has one more MVP award, won Rookie of the Year, and was an immediate superstar as a rookie tips the scales toward Pujols when comparing what player had the better overall career.