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February 18, 2011

Manufactured Runs

Projecting Pujols

by Colin Wyers

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Albert Pujols is looking for Alex Rodriguez money, which means a contract that will likely last him the rest of his career—he wants ten years, and at a hefty fee per annum. The Cardinals couldn’t bring themselves to make an offer of that magnitude, which leaves matters at a standstill for the foreseeable future.

The Cardinals have some difficult questions to answer, not just about Pujols, but about themselves. Even if Pujols is worth the sort of money he’s asking for, that doesn’t mean they have it to spend. And if they do have it to spend, it’s not clear that it’s prudent for them to sink all of it into a single asset, even one as good as Pujols. A contract as large as the one Pujols is seeking can cripple a franchise financially, even if the player performs well—A-Rod provides us with an object lesson in how a franchise like the Yankees is better suited to take on that sort of large deal than a franchise like the Rangers. The Cardinals are much closer to being the Rangers than the Yankees in terms of cash flow.

But aside from the particulars of the Cardinals’ finances, is it a prudent idea for any baseball team to give Pujols the sort of money he’s seeking? Obviously his past ten seasons have been more than worth the sort of outlay he’s looking for, but his contract does not bring with it a time machine—teams are being asked to pay for what they think he’s going to do, not what he’s already done.

So let’s talk in terms of how we think he might age. Rumors and innuendo aside, we’ll take him at his word that he’ll be 31 years old for the duration of this season. (Obviously, if it were our money we were spending, we’d make very sure to double-check that, just in case.)

To answer this question, we'll draw upon PECOTA, which looks at similar players as a means of determining the way in which we expect a player to age. Comparable players are selected based upon a variety of factors, including age, body type, position, skill set and performance level. So let’s consider a subset of the eligible player pool—those who have finished playing (in other words, excluding active players). From that grouping, let’s find Pujols’ top comps and see how long their careers lasted:

NAME

YEAR

AGE

YEARS LEFT

Wade Boggs

1987

29

12

Barry Bonds

1994

29

13

Wade Boggs

1988

30

11

Ted Williams

1950

31

10

Barry Bonds

1996

31

11

Wade Boggs

1989

31

10

Frank Thomas

1997

29

11

Morgan Ensberg

2006

30

2

Frank Robinson

1966

30

10

That’s a good group of players to have as comps—outside of the curious inclusion of Morgan Ensberg, the system places Pujols in the company of elite hitters. And if his comps are any guide, Pujols may well have more than ten seasons left in him. (Matters are further confused by the inclusion of Barry Bonds, whose career was cut short by legal problems, rather than by decline or injury.)

If we expand the comps list to about 40 players (all of the players among Pujols’ top 100 comps who have finished their careers) and weight their remaining years by how similar they are to Pujols as measured by PECOTA, we come up with an average career length remaining of about eight years. Pujols is a better player than most of his comps, and modern players seem to age a bit more gracefully, so it seems easy to talk ourselves into taking the over. But there’s still reason for concern.

PECOTA gives us, for instance, the cautionary tale of Jeff Bagwell, whose post-age-30-season self seems to have been a reasonable stand-in for what Pujols is now—a highly productive first baseman both with the bat and with the glove.  But Bagwell would play only seven more seasons, and his final campaign was well below his usual standards: he played in only 39 games, was below average at the plate (for anyone, much less a first baseman) and couldn’t throw across the infield. His value had been sapped by shoulder problems that caused him to sit out the final season of his contract.

But even aside from the risk of a career-ending injury, we know that ballplayers tend to decline with age. How does the rest of Pujols’ career look? If we assume that he spends the next eleven years (the upcoming season, plus the hypothetical ten-year extension) of his career playing, without losing significant time to injury, we can estimate the slope of his career based upon how his comparable players declined:

AGE

PA

AVG

OBP

SLG

HR

31

671

.312

.422

.576

37

32

631

.308

.412

.557

33

33

611

.302

.403

.554

32

34

590

.303

.407

.551

30

35

556

.299

.408

.551

30

36

564

.303

.416

.565

32

37

529

.306

.420

.576

30

38

578

.311

.427

.577

33

39

557

.303

.413

.551

29

40

529

.303

.419

.554

28

41

467

.284

.400

.505

22

While it wouldn’t be fair to assume that Pujols will remain the hitter he’s been, his forecast here looks like a pretty good one—at no point does he look like he’d be a liability with the bat as a first baseman. Again, we’ve assumed that he’ll avoid the sort of career-ending (or at least career-limiting) injury that would keep him off the field for extended periods of time—we’re being optimists about his playing time, in other words.

But if he can do that? Then he’s got a real shot at breaking some records. Right now, Pujols sits at 408 home runs. If he hits 336 more over the next eleven years, as this projection suggests he might, he'd sit behind only Barry Bonds and Hank Aaron on the career home-run leaderboard (if A-Rod doesn’t beat him to it and raise the bar, of course). At that point, he'd likely attempt to stick around long enough to claim the record, assuming his body cooperates.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Colin Wyers is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Colin's other articles. You can contact Colin by clicking here

27 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

pikapp383

Rumors and innuendo aside, we’ll take him at his word that he’ll be 31 years old for the duration of this season. (Obviously, if it were our money we were spending, we’d make very sure to double-check that, just in case.)


I'll take the word of U.S. Customs on this issue. After 9/11 about 300 players from Latin America had to re-state their age due to stricter document requirements.

Pujols was not one of them.

Feb 18, 2011 08:28 AM
rating: 3
 
evo34

Nor was Alfonso Soriano...

Feb 19, 2011 00:23 AM
rating: 1
 
Shaun P.
(676)

True - but the Yanks (and later, the Rangers) knew Soriano's actual age, even if the public did not.

Feb 19, 2011 11:17 AM
rating: 0
 
TangoTiger

Colin:

From age 32 through age 40, his OBP+SLG numbers are extremely flat.

I also presume that of the 40 comps, Bonds makes up 3 of them (age 29, 30, 31), or 8% of the comp?

What does it look like if you remove Bonds from the comp group?

Feb 18, 2011 08:29 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Colin Wyers
BP staff

Just to be clear - that's what the curve looks like if he plays for over a decade from now. What I was trying to do was illustrate two potential paths for Pujols - a somewhat more pessimistic one, where his career is cut short and one where he enjoys a longer career. Obviously there's selection bias if we look at an aging curve based upon ONLY those players who survived - the 10-year forecast that goes on the cards will of course be a middle position between best and worst case scenarios. But for the article, instead of simply averaging the two together, I showed some examples of what might happen in both cases.

Feb 18, 2011 20:32 PM
 
jrmayne

But some people are phased out due to ineffectiveness, not injury, right? If a guy's a 1B who goes from a 970 to an 815 OPS from his age 31 to age 38 season, we figure that's a likely decline on this methodology. But if he goes from 970 to 715, he's not playing any more, so that's not counted.

I'm not saying something like this for Prince Albert isn't possible; guys of this quality often age well. But I think that measurement isn't the right one, leading to the funky projected rise in numbers in Albert's late 30's.

--JRM

Feb 19, 2011 10:28 AM
rating: 0
 
evo34

I agree. To me, the article is basically saying, "here is what his career would look like IF he stays really healthy and really good... Guess what? Under those assumptions, his value would be really high." I don't see the value of this.

Feb 19, 2011 11:43 AM
rating: 0
 
Sky Kalkman

What do his projected WARPs look like?

Feb 18, 2011 08:39 AM
rating: 0
 
Nater1177

I had similar thoughts to Tango. How much is Bonds skewing the HR totals at the upper ages.

Feb 18, 2011 08:57 AM
rating: 0
 
TangoTiger

You know, presumably that Age 41 is where Bonds either was hurt, or had the huge dropoff from his preceding 4 other-worldly years. I think if you were to draw a more smooth line from his age 31 comps to his age 41 comps, you might see something more reasonable. Flat for 10 years simply tells me that you've got some unrepresentative player or players that skew the results. Basically, too much weight being placed here.

Basically: age 31, 32, even 33 seems believable. Age 41 seems believable. Age 34-40 seems too optimistic.

Feb 18, 2011 09:43 AM
rating: 0
 
nateetan

I think we're still waiting for Colin's detailed post regarding the all of the ins and outs of PECOTA's comp process.

Feb 18, 2011 09:47 AM
rating: 1
 
Flynnbot

wait, why are the comps on Pujols' PECOTA player card completely different?http://www.baseballprospectus.com/card/card.php?id=PUJOLS19800116A

Feb 18, 2011 10:11 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Colin Wyers
BP staff

Because those are still last year's cards.

Feb 18, 2011 20:24 PM
 
Richie

Bill James has reached a set conclusion on why modern players have aged more "gracefully". Figure Pujols won't have access to that anti-aging 'regimen', and you got reason to put those projections down some.

To that add the possibility that he's indeed older than he says, the possibility that of course he could (more likely) get injured in his 30s. Can't see how it makes sense to break the bank for Pujols other than marketing-wise, reap some $$$ benefits as passes various notable milestones. And given how close the Cards already are to 100% attendance, I'm not sure how much they have to gain there, either.

Feb 18, 2011 11:20 AM
rating: 0
 
Robotey

Good point on Cards close to 100% attendance, however, what is the fallout of a Pujols departure? Especially if returns 9 times a year in Cubbie blues? One can envision a Doomsday scenario for the Cards like this, so in essence what Dewitt must face in negotiations is what price will he pay to avoid that possibility? Could the Cards survive Albert's exit? Perhaps.

Feb 18, 2011 13:11 PM
rating: 1
 
Berselius

The Cardinals might not be able to spend enough money to sign the best player in the game, but that doesn't mean their hands are tied in general. Even without Pujols I expect them to put together some pretty good teams.

Feb 18, 2011 14:00 PM
rating: 0
 
saint09

Apologies as I haven't read the bill James theory on modern players aging gracefully. Care to elaborate? I'm assuming HRT, but would rather not assume. Thanks.

Feb 18, 2011 15:20 PM
rating: 0
 
Llarry

It's not that signing Albert will increase attendance as much as fear of the decrease if they don't.

Feb 18, 2011 16:06 PM
rating: 1
 
Llarry

I have some issues with the comparison to A-Rod in Texas. I've seen many an analysis on this very site that the problem was not so much A-Rod's contract, but how poorly the Rangers spent the rest of the money that Tom Hicks didn't have.

Feb 18, 2011 16:05 PM
rating: 4
 
Matt Kory

That bothered me as well. Glad you brought that up.

Feb 18, 2011 17:53 PM
rating: 0
 
Richie

Bill James concludes that steroids kept players young, I presume through their efficacy in rebuilding muscle tissue, and that they are pretty much out of the game now. (is that what HRT stands for?? never seen the acronym before)

Feb 18, 2011 16:31 PM
rating: 0
 
Richie

The Cardinals are very, very much an institution in St. Louis. So long as they didn't mangle that departure a la what the Packers did with Favre, I'd foresee some but not much short-term damage to the bottom line.

Though now being 3+ years removed from St. Louis, I don't have a finger on the current pulse regarding Pujols.

Feb 18, 2011 16:36 PM
rating: 0
 
saint09

HRT is hormone replacement therapy. (hgh, test.). Thanks.

Feb 19, 2011 11:41 AM
rating: 0
 
saucyjack88

Not sure, but why does it state in last paragraph that Pujols has 398 homers when he has 408?

Feb 19, 2011 15:54 PM
rating: -1
 
SC

If Pujols hits the market, I think he might get two completely distinct sets of offers from different clubs. Some clubs (Cardinals, Cubs, Dodgers) will offer him lots of years for lots of money, say 8/$240m ($30m/yr) or so. But I think there could be a few clubs that would offer a somewhat radical contract like 2/$70m or 3/$100m.

The much higher annual value is offset by the lack of long-term certainty for Pujols. However, if he is in fact his stated age (and certainly at least Pujols himself knows how old he is) a shorter deal that offers another chance to hit the market while still in his prime could be appealing, as well as the potential to earn the highest single-season salary (since it seems likely he may not top ARod's total value in a long-term deal).

If I were a club like the Rays, White Sox or Angels (off the top of my head) a short-term, mind-blowing offer might be the better play if you think your window is open now (in 2012) and won't be forever.

Feb 20, 2011 17:25 PM
rating: 0
 
Hoff

You don't leave 100 million on the table. He won't sign for less than 200 million, even if it was for super short years.

Feb 20, 2011 21:37 PM
rating: 0
 
dREaDS Fan

I think in my mind the question I'd like to see addressed is: What is Pujols worth (in $) over a 10-year period starting 2012?

Couldn't you in Fangraphs-like fashion put a $ value on his next ten years, assuming
-a revised aging curve based on comments above
-resulting WAR/WARP
-inflation adjusted $/WAR(P)projections?

And, for fun, could you - paying heed to the "rumors and innuendo" (which BP's own podcast perpetuates!) assume Albert is really 2 years older than stated and see how that impacts what he's worth over the next 10 years?

Feb 21, 2011 08:10 AM
rating: 0
 
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