St. Louis Cardinals: Albert Pujols and the MVP awards that should’ve been

Albert Pujols’ run in the 2000s for the St. Louis Cardinals included three MVP wins. However, he should’ve won two more of them.

On Saturday and Monday, MLB Network is giving some love to former St. Louis Cardinals’ legend, Albert Pujols. They are playing 10 different games from Pujols’ career between Saturday and Monday and with no surprise, seven of the 10 games feature Pujols in a Cardinals uniform. Of the three other games, one is his return to St. Louis.

It’s clear that Pujols’ time with the Cardinals had a ton of huge moments, and the stats back it up. There’s a reason that Pujols has the nickname, “The Machine.” After breaking into the league in 2001, Pujols had one of the best 10-season stretches in MLB history.

From 2001-2010, Pujols batted a slash line of .331/.426/.624, averaging 41 homers and 123 RBI per season. Not surprisingly, Pujols won a lot of awards over that time.

Starting with his Rookie of the Year award in 2001, Pujols finished in the top four in MVP voting nine times. The time that Pujols didn’t finish top four, he still finished ninth. Of those nine top-four finishes, Pujols won three MVPs (’05, ’08, ’09). For any mere mortal, three MVPs in 10 seasons would be just fine. However, there is a great argument that he should’ve won two more. Was Pujols snubbed?

First miss: 2006

It seems that in 2006, the debate of whether the MVP has to come from a great team had a counterpoint. As you may know, in 2006 the Cardinals won the World Series with a team that had just 83 wins.

On the year, Pujols batted .331 with 49 bombs, 137 RBI, a whopping .340 ISO, and a wRC+ of 174. Pujols had a minuscule 7.9% strikeout rate and a 14.5 walk percentage. His fWAR was 8.1 (1st in the MLB) and looking back, I think it’s fair to say Pujols was a cheat code. However, he didn’t win the MVP.

In 2006, the honor went to Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard. Howard (10th in the MLB with an fWAR on the year of 5.9) also had a great year, but the advanced numbers shouldn’t have let the voting be close. The slugging first baseman hit .313 with 58 homers, 149 RBI, a .346 ISO, and a wRC+ of 162.

Howard was the king of counting stats in 2006, but the difference in wRC+ between him and Pujols comes from Howard’s lower slugging percentage (.671 vs. .659) and his strikeout rate of 25.7%.

There is also the classical argument that the MVP should always come from a playoff team. In 2006, the Phillies finished the season 85-77, which would’ve put them two games ahead of the Cardinals, but in the NL East, they were second behind the 97-win Mets.

The voting happened before the postseason began, so the Cardinals’ WS win wasn’t a factor. Pujols, whom everyone believed was snubbed, received just 12 first-place votes to Howard’s 20. In an article from the Associated Press, Pujols said, “I see it this way: Someone who doesn’t take his team to the playoffs doesn’t deserve to win the MVP.”

I can’t help but chuckle a little bit given the two team’s records at the end of the year, but he has a fair point.

2006 is an example of a time where counting stats tell a different story. Pujols was a victim of the times, and despite plenty of evidence that Pujols had a much better season than Howard, the homers and RBI won Howard the award.

Second miss: 2010

While 2006 was a true snub, 2010 takes a little more creativity to argue. In his second-to-last season in St. Louis, Pujols batted .312 with a 1.011 OPS, 42 homers, 118 RBI. He kept his stellar batting profile with a 14.7% walk percentage and 10.9% strikeout percentage. This all came together for a 164 wRC+ and a 7.5 bWAR.

The winner of the award was Joey Votto, who led the Reds to a division-winning 91 wins. Votto hit .324 with a 1.024 OPS, 37 homers, and 113 RBI. Votto, known for his walking skills, had a 14.0% walk percentage and a 19.3% strikeout percentage. Votto did lead Pujols with a 172 wRC+, but he had half a bWAR less than Pujols at 7.0.

Votto received 31 first-place votes compared to Pujols’ one, but Pujols was 13 batting average points away from winning the Triple Crown. That had no weight with the voters apparently.

What an interesting switch from 2006 to 2010. Ryan Howard won the MVP leading the league in homers and RBI.

It’s not like the Cardinals had a bad year either. With 86 wins, the Cardinals were 5.0 games back of the Reds, but Votto and Pujols were neck and neck, it should’ve been closer than a 31-1 landslide in voting.

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In these two years, we are seeing the shift and bias of MVP voters. One year, the counting stats make all the difference. Just four seasons later, the counting stats don’t mean anything. It’s for this reason that most people dismiss awards as player comparisons, but it would’ve helped Pujols’ legacy if he had won five MVPs in his first 10 seasons in the league.