June 7, 2017
Albert Pujols, From 0 to 600
As a teenager, I took an annual trip to Arizona with my uncle to watch baseball. It started with going to spring training in March, but later we opted for the Arizona Fall League in November and I came to enjoy those trips even more. There were rarely more than a few hundred people in the stands, and the game results themselves mattered little; it was all about prospects furthering their development. As a young baseball fan who had begun down the path to baseball obsessive, I spent weeks before every trip reading up on prospects so that I’d know who to look for, and could impress my uncle with tidbits about players.
Our last trip to Arizona was in 2000. I was 17 years old and had started reading Baseball Prospectus, Rob Neyer, Baseball America, and old-school Bill James, so I was fully prepared for serious prospect spotting. Three times during our week-long stay we saw Albert Pujols' team. We sat a couple of rows behind the first-base dugout, which gave us an excellent view of the 20-year-old third baseman. I remember my uncle immediately making note of how huge Pujols was for the position. I dumped my prospect notebook, telling him that Pujols was a former 13th-round pick who crushed Single-A to get on the prospect map.
That was the extent of my knowledge. Pujols was a good prospect at the time—Baseball America ranked him as the Cardinals’ second-best, behind left-hander Bud Smith, and later included him on their annual top-100 list—but because he’d played just a handful of games above Single-A, one year removed from being a mid-round draft pick, the hype train hadn’t left the station yet. Right-hander Chad Hutchinson, the Cardinals’ third-ranked prospect, started for Pujols’ team in one of the three games we saw, and that was a big deal at the time. He was 24, with a huge signing bonus and a mid-90s fastball. He also got rocked.
That week I formed lots of strong opinions about prospects, Hutchinson included, and always came home with a handwritten list of the best prospects I saw. Pujols was not on the list and the only thing I really can remember about seeing him is that he was built like a linebacker and his last name struck 17-year-old me as funny. Nearly two decades later, the only names I recall writing down from that trip were Hank Blalock, Bobby Jenks, and Lee Marshall—who was a 24-year-old reliever in 2000 and never reached the majors. It could perhaps be argued that I was not the world’s best scout.
In fairness, Baseball America didn’t name Pujols among the AFL’s top 10 prospects—Blalock held the top spot, Jenks was eighth, and let’s just say Marshall probably wasn’t 11th—and in Pujols’ top-100 list scouting report his ETA was listed as 2003. Good prospect, sure, but one big season at Single-A does not a future superstar make. “Pujols will likely start 2001 in Double-A and could be in the big leagues in 2002, though the Cardinals try to temper expectations,” wrote Will Lingo of BA. A couple of months later Pujols made his Baseball Prospectus Annual debut, receiving this comment:
Three months after that comment was published Pujols was the Cardinals’ Opening Day third baseman, and 17 years and two months after that he was hitting his 600th career home run.
It turns out that 20-year-old who I watched and made no note of was already one of the best players in the world and will forever be remembered as one of the best players of all time. Pujols’ origin story is well known now, but it boils down to this: Less than two years after being the 402nd pick in the draft out of Maple Woods Community College in Missouri, he was a fully-formed superstar who hit .329/.403/.610 with 37 homers and 47 doubles as a 21-year-old rookie, and basically repeated that every year for the next decade. (He didn’t stick at third base very long, though. At least my uncle was right about that.)
I’m fascinated by how different the Pujols we saw in the AFL seemed from the immediate superstar in St. Louis, and in turn how different that Cardinals great is from the Angels version. Cardinals fans’ collective memory of Pujols is The Machine, a three-time MVP and inner-circle Hall of Famer whose 11-year stretch was as good as nearly any player has ever given a team. Angels’ fans collective memory of Pujols is that of a 10-year, $240 million free agent signing with a sub-.800 OPS, zero MVP consideration, just one All-Star game, and a body that is rapidly breaking down with $125 million still remaining on the deal.
Pujols will likely end up spending just one fewer season with the Angels (10) than with the Cardinals (11), but it's difficult to truly separate the Cardinals version and the Angels version, at least on an emotional level. Pujols will forever don a Cardinals hat on his Hall of Fame plaque, his exit from St. Louis—and general manager John Mozeliak’s controversial decision to bow out of the bidding war—is one of the biggest moments in the history of free agency, and his time in California has been filled with injuries and mediocre production. From a purely numbers standpoint, though, we can easily separate the two versions.
Pujols debuted for the Cardinals two months after his 21st birthday and departed as a free agent following his age-31 season, hitting .328/.420/.617 with 445 homers during 11 seasons in St. Louis. He won three MVP awards and finished runner-up for four others, made nine All-Star teams, and won two World Series while hitting .330/.439/.607 in 74 playoff games. Pujols led National League hitters in Wins Above Replacement six times in those 11 years, finishing among the top 10 in all but one of them. His total of 86.4 WAR is the fifth-highest in baseball history from age 21 to age 31.
The names on that list obviously speak for themselves, and it’s worth noting that Pujols trails only Aaron in post-1950 WAR from 21-31. WAR accounts for defense and baserunning in addition to hitting, and the Cardinals version of Pujols thrived in all three areas. He won a pair of Gold Glove awards and posted the huge defensive numbers to match, and despite his size he graded out as a plus baserunner who even stole double-digit bags three times.
Pujols’ bat always did most of the talking, so let’s focus on his hitting-only numbers now. He produced 1,613 Runs Created for the Cardinals, which is the second-most of all time from age 21-31:
1,719 — Jimmie Foxx
Once again, nothing but inner-circle (or destined-to-be inner-circle) Hall of Famers. Runs Created is a counting stat, so let’s also look at the leaderboard for a rate stat, OPS+, from age 21-31. Pujols logged 7,433 plate appearances from 21-31, so let’s set the minimum at 5,000 to inclusive.
Pujols falls to “only” ninth-best all time in OPS+ from 21-31, although he’s second to Mantle post-1950.
It could reasonably be argued that Pujols had the greatest run from age 21 to 31 of any player in modern history, and at the absolute worst he’s in the top five. No wonder the Angels gave him $240 million!
Now let’s run the same numbers—WAR, Runs Created, OPS+—for his time with the Angels so far, which means comparing Pujols to everyone else from age 32 to 37.
Up first, WAR:
59.4 — Babe Ruth
The top of the list is more inner-circle Hall of Famers, but this time Pujols falls all of the way to 196th place, sandwiched between contemporaries Steve Finley (14.5) and Mark Grudzielanek (14.3). He still has 100 or so games remaining in his age-37 season, but rising higher than the top 150 is likely.
Up next, Runs Created:
Pujols falls to 161st in Runs Created, and even with a strong finish to 2017 he’s not cracking the top 100.
Finally, here is OPS+, with a minimum of 2,500 plate appearances (Pujols has 3,341 and counting):
210 — Babe Ruth
Pujols has a 120 OPS+ for the Angels, which ranks 121st all time from age 32-37, tied with Mark Grace.
Of course, he's not the first great player to decline significantly in his 30s. In fact, the lengthy list of Hall of Famers with a lower WAR than Pujols from 32-37 includes fellow sluggers Reggie Jackson, Jimmie Foxx, Eddie Murray, Al Simmons, Mike Piazza, Jim Rice, Orlando Cepeda, and Ernie Banks, with Frank Thomas, Tony Perez, and Eddie Mathews each less than 1.0 WAR ahead of his current 32-37 total of 14.4. The level to which he's declined is not an uncommon one for great players, but the distance he fell to get there is steeper than most because of how spectacular Pujols was from 21-31.
All of which isn’t to suggest that Pujols has been bad for the Angels. He’s been solid, the common player type of a low-average slugging first baseman, giving back runs defensively and on the bases. He’s hit .265/.323/.469 with an average of 30 homers per 150 games and his 120 OPS+ from 2012-2017 puts him in the range (115-125 OPS+) of first basemen and designated hitters like Victor Martinez, Lucas Duda, Adrian Gonzalez, Adam Lind, Joe Mauer, and Carlos Santana. So far, Pujols has averaged 2.4 WAR per season for the Angels, which is probably worth two-thirds of his salary. But the problem is the “so far.”
While it was nothing compared to even his worst Cardinals season, Pujols started off pretty damn strong for the Angels by hitting .285/.343/.516 in 2012, which was good for a 138 OPS+ and 4.8 WAR. However, his OPS+ fell to 122 in 2013-2014 and then to 115 in 2015-2016, and this year he’s been a below-average hitter for the first time with a 91 OPS+. Pujols also has a negative WAR this season after managing just 1.4 WAR in 152 games last season. He’s played better recently and is a decent bet to get his OPS+ above 100 by season’s end, but the line separating Pujols from a replacement-level player is very thin.
Had he merely been a good player who changed teams at 32 to sign a normal contract—say five years and $120 million instead of 10 years and $240 million—Pujols would have provided reasonable value on a deal that ended last season. Right now he’d likely be playing elsewhere on a modest one-year pact, like Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday, and Mike Napoli. But when you producing like Mark Grace for 5.5 seasons after producing like Stan Musial for 11 seasons, and you’re fading rapidly with another 4.5 seasons and $125 million left to go … well, like I said, it’s difficult to separate the two versions of Pujols.