In professional baseball, unlike the other major professional sports, twenty years is a benchmark of sorts for a career.
Sure, a player can go to the Hall of Fame having played 18, 15, or even 10 seasons, but 20 seasons is generally held out as the symbol of full career as a major league baseball player.
To that end, then, the 2011 season represents the beginning of the second half of the careers of three of the most unique players of all time: Ichiro Suzuki, Adam Dunn, and Albert Pujols.
It is hard to believe that it has already been ten years since the 2001 baseball season.
With President George W. Bush only recently inaugurated, and before Barry Bonds set the world on fire and then turned it on its head, Suzuki, Dunn, and Pujols all reported to camp in the spring of that year hopeful for things to come.
For Adam Dunn, spring training 2001 was just the next step in the progression towards inevitable super-stardom.
Drafted in the second round by the Cincinnati Reds in the 1998 draft, Dunn had ripped apart Single-A in 2000, hitting 16 home runs and scoring 101 runs in 122 games. He also had 100 walks and 24 stolen bases. His batting average of .281 was fine, but his .428 on-base percentage jumped off the page.
Dunn pretty much knew he wouldn’t be joining the Reds out of camp, but he knew his days as a minor leaguer were numbered.
Ichiro Suzuki entered spring training of 2001 as a Japanese superstar and a burgeoning international celebrity. Already a veteran of nine seasons of Japanese ball by the age of 26, Ichiro came to the U.S. with nothing left to prove in Japan but everything to prove to an excited but slightly skeptical American public.
All eyes were on Ichiro as a curious Mariners fanbase wondered what to expect.
All eyes were not, however, on Albert Pujols in the spring of 2001.
Drafted in the 13th round of the 1999 draft, Pujols an excellent season split between Single-A and A-plus ball, with a cup of coffee at Triple-A. But at 21 years of age, Pujols came into the spring just hoping to find a spot on a team that was coming off of a division title and trip to the NLCS the previous year.
Indeed, that spring all eyes would have been on the aging and injured Mark McGwire, who’d hit 32 home runs in just 89 games, and was hoping to be able to stay healthy for one more great season.
The rest, as they say, is history.
In his first game as a major leaguer, Ichiro went 2-for-5 with two singles, a strikeout, and a run scored. He would end up living up to every top billing, leading in the American League in plate appearances, at-bats, hits, and stolen bases and winning the batting title with a ridiculous .350 batting average while leading the Seattle Mariners to an absurd 116 wins.
He also became only the tenth player since 1901 to win a batting title while leading the league in plate appearances.
For his 2001 performance, Ichiro won the American League Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year Awards, the second player in history to accomplish that feat.
Dunn did, in fact, start the season in the minors, with the Reds’ Double-A affiliate. But he wasn’t there long; in 39 games Dunn hit 12 home runs, scored 30 runs, and batted .343 with a 1.113 OPS.
Progressing to Triple-A, he then hit 20 more home runs in 55 games with 53 RBI and 44 runs scored, while batting .329 with a 1.117 OPS. By late July, he was in Cincinnati, where he hit 19 more home runs with 54 runs scored in only 66 games.
Dunn had arrived.
As for Pujols, he did break camp with the big club, and in his major league debut he went 1-for-3 with one caught stealing while playing left field in an 8-0 loss to the Colorado Rockies.
The next day he went 0-for-5 while playing right field.
Two days later, he went 3-for-5 with a home run and two runs scored, and two days after that he was moved to third base full time.
By the end of April, the rookie was batting .370 with a 1.171 OPS and eight home runs.
By the end of May, he was still hitting .351 and had 16 home runs.
The 21 year old kid no one had ever heard of stay hot all summer and into the fall, and by the end of the season he had 47 doubles, 37 home runs, 130 RBI, 112 runs scored, a .329 batting average, a 1.013 OPS, and a Rookie of the Year Award.
A new era of major league baseball had begun, just in time for the 21st Century.
Incredibly, what began as an amazing and delightful 2001 season for Ichiro, Pujols, and Dunn has essentially continued for ten years.
Ichiro has continued to rack up hits, score runs, and hit .300 or higher at a record breaking pace.
Dunn has become one of the purest expressions of all-or-nothing power in baseball history, hitting 38 or more homeruns for each of the last seven seasons while drawing 100 walks and striking out nearly 200 times, seemingly, every season.
Meanwhile, Pujols has emerged as nothing less than one of the greatest overall hitters of all time, already having hit 408 homeruns in only 10 seasons, while batting .331 with a 1.050 OPS, and nearly 300 fewer strikeouts than walks for his career.
The Baseball Hall of Fame's requires a player to have ten years of playing time at the major league level to be eligible for entry into the Hall, which means that Ichiro, Pujols, and Dunn all became eligible when they played their first game last season.
Incredibly, Ichiro and Pujols are almost certainly already slam-dunk Hall of Famers.
And so on this, their collective 11th season, it would be tempting to ask the question “Where are they going?” and to attempt to answer that question by simply multiplying their stats by two.
Incredibly tempting, in fact. Afterall, if Ichiro, Pujols, and Dunn can do for the next ten years what they have done for the last ten years, they will put up the following staggering statistics:
Ichiro : 4,488 hits; 2094 runs scored; 788 stolen bases.
Dunn : 1,730 runs scored; 1,660 RBI; 708 homeruns; 1,980 walks; 3,264 strikeouts.
Pujols : 2,372 runs scored; 3,800 hits; 852 doubles; 816 homeruns; 2,460 RBI; 1,828 walks; 7,060 total bases.
It simply boggles the mind.
But “simply” is an appropriate word, because this kind of analysis is far too simple.
After all, we’ve all been here before.
What was it that we thought Ken Griffey, Jr., was on his way to accomplishing as he entered his thirties.
Every statistic Sandy Koufax ever compiled came by the age of 30; he retired before he turned 31 because of a chronically injured elbow.
Addie Joss died at the age of 30. Dale Murphy simply stopped hitting at the age of 32. Shawn Green stopped hitting at 31.
Dwight Gooden went over 200 innings for the last time at the age of 28.
Darryl Strawberry played over 63 games only once after the age of 29.
And there are, of course, other factors.
Ichiro, for example, is already 37 years old. While we wouldn’t put it past him to play ten more years, it would certainly be surprising.
Dunn, meanwhile, has a style of play that seems tailored to the previous power-centric era in a league that appears to be moving into a pitchers’ era.
As for Pujols, well, it would appear as though only injuries can stop this guy.
Albert Pujols is the 21st Century’s answer to Stan Musial, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, and Rogers Hornsby—guys who never stopped being able to hit, and just got too old, tired, or sick to keep going to the ballpark every day.
Pujols is Musial’s only challenger for greatest Cardinal of all time, Gehrig’s only challenger for the greatest first baseman of all time, Hornsby’s only challenger for greatest right-handed hitter of all time, and Williams’ only challenge for greatest hitter of all time.
And after that, there is only one thing left to challenge, and only one player left to challenge for it.
Might Albert Pujols one day surpass Babe Ruth as the Greatest Player of All Time?
Ask me again in ten years.