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May 8, 2012
Believe it or not, most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.
Matt Welch is Editor-in-Chief of Reason, contributor to Halos Heaven, and co-author (with Nick Gillespie) of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America.
By now we all know the story: after a spring dominated by press coverage of his contract, Albert Pujols stumbled out of the gate with his worst full month in a decade. Given that his early struggles arrived on the heels of a couple of decline years (albeit from the loftiest of starting points), people started audibly grumbling the unthinkable: Is the best player of his generation facing a sudden early-30s decline?
Yes, that's the Albert Pujols story. Of 2011.
From 2003-2010 (ages 23-30), when Pujols established his consistently high performance level (an average of .334/.433/.635, OPS+ of 177), his worst two non-injured months looked like this:
But in 2011, after a month of uncomfortable and unprecedented attention to his contract situation, Pujols came out of the gate looking more like Vernon Wells:
It was the subject of agonizing attention in St. Louis. He looked out of sorts at the plate. People started pointing out negative trendlines even in his otherworldly numbers of the previous three seasons—his batting average had declined from .357 to .327 to .312! OBP and slugging down each year, too! All the way through May 29, 2011, El Hombre was putting up a Cameron Maybin-style slash line of .257/.326/.395.
We all know how the 2011 story ended for the Cardinals. After shaking off the bad vibes, Pujols closed out the rest of the season hitting almost exactly like he always did: .322/.388/.623, for an OPS+ of (yep!) 177. MVP voters put him in the Top 10 for an amazing 11th season in a row.
The $240 million question: Can he pull out of another nosedive? And even if he does, how will that contract look five years from now, let alone 10?
I'm an Angels fan who edits a political magazine for a living, so there are certainly better people to ask. But every year over at Halos Heaven I like to tinker with various players' historical comps, and the exercise usually yields an insight or two.
The basic formula works like this—using Baseball-Reference's great Play Index feature, I assemble hitters since 1901 at the same position, who by the same age compiled +/- 25% of the player's plate appearances and +/- 10 points of OPS+. That usually produces a couple dozen comps, which I then whittle down to 10 or so using Wins Above Replacement and some eyeballing.
That's not enough to make a meaningful comparison (though it's plenty sufficient to remind us that Pujols has been nearly incomparable), but expanding the search to include those who played RF, LF, and DH yields just three more (phenomenal) players: Barry Bonds, Stan Musial, and Dick Allen. Since six ain't enough, I widened the OPS+ band by 5 more points in each direction, finally cobbling together a solid selection of 11 comps for Albert Pujols.
Here they are, ranked by OPS+ through their age-31 seasons. It sounds like a Strat-o-Matic Hall of Famers set: Aaron, Foxx, Pujols, Gehrig, Musial, Ott, Bonds, Robinson, Bagwell, Allen, Thomas, and Manny. Take a moment to luxuriate in their awesomeness:
In this list of inner-circle Hall of Famers and are-you-effing-kidding-me hitters, Albert Pujols through age 31 had the most doubles, the second-most home runs, the third-highest slugging percentage and OPS+, and the fourth-best batting average and run/RBI totals. Those numbers benefited from Pujols’ playing 162-game, strike-free, war-free seasons in a mostly offense-friendly era—creating some distortions that we will smooth out below—but the fact is he compares favorably to his fellow incomparables.
So how did these hitters age? It's a surprisingly complicated question. That's because some of these players, above and beyond being historical outliers, had among the most bizarre career second-acts in Major League Baseball history. I am not exaggerating. Consider:
That leaves us with a group of seven other players, which is still too small for non-government work but will have to do. Albert Pujols is 32, so what did his comps do at that age?
They flat-out raked. Four of the seven had more than 40 home runs, four hit over .300, four had OBPs over .400, four slugged over .600, four had more than 100 walks; you get the idea. Six of the seven received MVP votes. Here's a full list.
If you adjust each season for an 162-game schedule, in a park and league context of 4.42 runs per game, and then take the average and median of those adjusted seasons, you get an aggregate age-32 performance like this:
It's basically Prince Fielder 2011 territory:
Since the American League in 2011 averaged a nearly neutral 4.46 runs per game, and since we're doing things like trying to compare Frank Robinson's 1968 with Jeff Bagwell's 2000, these neutralized average and median performances of Pujols' comps give us a pretty good baseline of what we might expect going forward.
Here's what Albert's peer group did from 33-36, adjusted and neutralized:
Note that they never stop hitting. They just slowly miss a few more games each year (especially Frank Thomas). Manny Ramirez at age 36 hit .332/.430/.601, with 37 homers, 121 RBIs, and 87 walks. And that probably wasn't as good as Stan Musial's 36, when he led the league in batting (.351), OBP (.422), OPS (1.034), and was MVP runner-up. Hank Aaron hit .298 with 38 home runs (though he was much better the next year, at 37, when he led the league with a career high OPS+ of 194). Mel Ott hit .308/.411/.499 and finished 13th in the MVP vote.
You see what I'm saying here? Albert Pujols' comps, when they were four years older than he is now, when they were the equivalent of halfway through his monster contract, could still on average hit the cover off the baseball.
Ah, you ask, but it isn't really fair to compare Albert to the average of a group of Hall of Famers, is it? And you're right! It isn't fair—to Albert.
If you break up Pujols' career to date in half-decade chunks and stack it up to the careers (adjusted and neutralized) of his comp set from the same age, you will see that Albert consistently hit more home runs and had a higher slugging percentage than anybody, while being third in batting average and among the top three in OPS+. Look how he compares to the average and median of his comps:
If for the next five years he retains his current positioning within his comp list, Pujols would hit something like this from 2012-16:
So is Albert Pujols going to put up MVP-caliber numbers for the remaining 132 games of 2012 and the four years after that? I don't know, and neither do you. But to believe that he won't means you have to think that he is suddenly going to perform not just at a much worse level than his own established history, but also below that of a Hall of Fame peer group in which he has been one of the consistently leading lights.
I prefer the simpler explanation: the man got stressed out (again!) about the expectations surrounding his contract and subsequent bad performance and will soon reassert himself as a .320 hitter with monstrous power and terrific strike-zone judgment. Inner-circle Hall of Fame hitters are such outliers that we forget they don't generally fall apart at age 32, particularly when they take excellent care of their bodies and don't play demanding defensive positions. It's a half-educated guess, but my bet is on Albert figuring it out.
Thanks to Rob McQuown and Hudson Belinsky for formatting assistance.