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April 23, 2014

Overthinking It

Pujols Rewrites the Script

by Ben Lindbergh

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Not long ago, it looked like Albert Pujols’ 500th home run, whenever it came, would at best be an opportunity for us to revisit the better days behind him. And that wouldn’t have been the worst thing, since Pujols’ past—thanks to his four-season streak of declines and his injury-shortened 2013—has already become chronically underappreciated.

Compare Pujols and the consensus top right-handed hitter du jour, Miguel Cabrera. The two were similarly productive at the plate in their best offensive seasons: Pujols posted a .373 True Average over 700 plate appearances in 2009, while Cabrera achieved a .372 mark in 652 PA last season. Scan the single-season TAv leaderboard, though, and you pass five more Pujols seasons before you get to Cabrera’s second strongest. Add in Pujols’ superior defense and better baserunning, and the gap between them grows: Pujols has had eight seasons that WARP says were worth more than Cabrera’s best.*

*Don't worry! I’m not trying to revive an MVP debate we’re all tired of talking about.

For most of the 25 men who made up the 500-homer club before Pujols went deep twice on Tuesday, making it to the milestone was a signal that the player was about to be past his sell-by date. If we assume that Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez have hit their last major-league home runs—a bigger assumption in A-Rod’s case—then on average, the members of the club (excluding Pujols) hit 585 homers. In other words, when they hit their 500th, they were, as a group, over 85 percent of the way to their career totals. Ernie Banks, Eddie Murray, Eddie Mathews, and Gary Sheffield, among others, called it quits just 200–300 plate appearances after limping across the finish line.

The 22 500-homer club members who played post-1950—everyone except Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, and Mel Ott—lingered on for an average of 407 games and 1601 plate appearances (about 2.5 full seasons) after striking the big blow. They triple-slashed a solid-but unspectacular .278/.368/.445, which was good enough to keep going but wouldn’t have gotten them close to where they were had they settled in at that level sooner. (Of course, I’m not adjusting for anything here: not seasonal offensive environment, not ballpark, not the fact that baseball superstars were once subject to the draft, not the atypical aging curve of the PED era.)

A month ago, it was easy to imagine Pujols easing into that kind of comfortable mediocrity, or worse, taking the next step in a decline that seemed to pick up pace with his injury issues and related performance deficits last season. Instead, with his formerly injured foot repaired and both his lower-half stability and balance largely restored, he’s seemingly rediscovered his swing and foot speed to the point that he no longer hobbles to first like a mix between Billy Butler and, well, a guy who has to have foot surgery. As it turns out, the ability to take steps without pain is probably pretty important.

Pujols is slugging .619 despite a .221 BABIP that has kept his batting average just above .220. He’s taking a few more pitches outside the strike zone, curbing an increasing tendency to chase. And his contact rate within the strike zone is higher than it has been since 2009, his last monster season. As a result, his 500th homer not only made history but also put Pujols into sole possession of the major-league home run lead, making him much more than a nostalgia act. Milestones are much more fun this way than when they’re reached through longevity alone. (Sorry, Craig Biggio.)

All of which is to say that I owe PECOTA an apology. Let me pull aside the curtain and explain. Each spring, after PECOTA spits out its projections but before we release them to the public, we circulate the spreadsheet internally, giving the system’s output a once-, twice-, and thrice-over in search of any bugs or biases. Sometimes we’ll spot something that looks fishy—maybe the spread in one statistical category seems too narrow, or the guys who played at a certain minor-league level look like they’re getting too big a boost. We’re not interested in massaging the stats until they look exactly like we’d expect them to, since a projection system without the capacity to surprise probably isn’t worth paying for. But there is an occasional error introduced at some point in the process, so it does help to have humans sanity-check the system’s work.

PECOTA projected a .316 TAv for Pujols, which was tied with Ryan Braun for the fifth-highest in baseball. (His TAv today: .322.) I flagged that projection, among others, as one that might attract some scrutiny from our subscribers. PECOTA uses five seasons of performance data when it generates its projections, whereas other systems tend to stick to three. Colin Wyers, who breathed much of the life into the current incarnation of PECOTA before joining the Houston Astros, believed that the extra data made the system more accurate, but that lesson is tough to internalize for those of us whose flesh and blood insist that 2009 seems like a long time ago. “Do [we] really believe that Albert Pujols, at age 34 and coming off three decline years, is going to bounce back by ~40 TAv points and be the fifth-best hitter in baseball because of his performance 4-5 years ago?”, I asked some other staffers via email.

Ultimately, we concluded that yes, PECOTA was working as intended, and we prepared a potential response to questions about the Pujols projection, explaining how the weighting scheme works. To be honest, I still had some doubts. But we haven’t had to use the response, because Pujols has held up his end of the bargain. PECOTA, which produced that projection because it saw elements of the old Pujols where some of us—perhaps overly influenced by a correctable injury that PECOTA wasn’t aware of—saw fragility and a downward trajectory, would tell us not to put too much stock into a hot three weeks, just as it warned us not to be so sure that 2013 reflected the true talent level of a player who was just three years removed from a 10-win season. For now, though, it looks like Pujols, who became the third-youngest player to satisfy the 500-homer club’s entry requirements at the relatively tender age of 34 years, three months, and six days, has enough left to tack on quite a few more to his total. And that means that the Angels can still salvage some value from a contract that many were quick to call one of the worst in baseball.

We knew that Pujols’ 499th and 500th homers would happen at some point this season, barring a complete catastrophe. What we couldn’t know was whether the circumstances would be bittersweet or celebratory. Now we know: We can recognize Pujols’ 500th homer not just for what it says about his success in the past, but for what it tells us about his still-considerable skills in the present.

Thanks to Andrew Koo for research assistance.

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

Related Content:  Albert Pujols,  500 Home Runs

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