Albert Pujols is closing in on what figures to be the last truly historic milestone of his illustrious career. Some time in the next couple weeks, Pujols will notch his 3,000th hit, making him just the sixth player with that many hits in a career that also includes at least 500 home runs, and just the fourth to have at least 600 dingers among 3,000 or more hits.
Given that level of overall greatness, however, the last half-decade of Pujols’ career has been disappointing. He was the worst everyday position player in baseball last year, and posted the second-worst WARP in an age-37 season in our database (which goes back to 1950)—if, that is, he was really 37. Though his listed birthdate is January 16, 1980, he’s probably not 38 years old now. Increasingly, the preponderance of evidence—a sufficient amount to merit a change to the official record—suggests that Pujols is 40 years old.
To anyone who followed baseball closely around the time of Pujols’ explosion onto the scene in 2001, this will come as no great surprise. Four of Pujols’ first six player comments in Baseball Prospectus Annuals make reference to the rumored discrepancy between his listed and real ages. Pujols’ age became a topic of some discussion in the run-up to his hitting free agency in 2011, and a panel of experts that included industry-leading writers and front office members alike formed a near consensus that he was older than listed. It’s been several years since the issue has been treated or talked about seriously, but my recent Twitter poll asking respondents how old they think Pujols is (noting that he’s listed at 38) found just 35 percent believed the party line.
Firstly, let’s make sure to say this: I am not accusing Pujols of what I would consider unethical or truly fraudulent behavior. Pujols’ background and early life story are unique, involving living in the Dominican Republic until mid-adolescence, then immigrating to the United States. He and his family were in a difficult position, when they came here in 1996: Pujols would not be eligible to attend American high school, at least in a normal setting, if he were 17 or older. That didn’t just put his baseball future at risk; it threatened his chance to pursue opportunities of all kinds on even footing with his peers.
That sets Pujols somewhat apart from the other Dominican players whose ages have been adjusted, corrected, or just whispered about in recent years. At the core of them all, however, is the same truth—that teams value youth. If two players show up with the exact same body (size and build), skills, and personality, teams might pay twice as much for the younger one. And they might not be willing to sign the older one at all. Scouts use age-versus-level as a heuristic even when a 23-year-old is up for evaluation in the Pacific Coast League. When the players in question are all teenagers and there are several years between the potential signing and a player’s matriculation to the majors, they lean even more heavily on crutches like that.
Back when Pujols’ age became an issue in 2011, Rob Neyer offered (by way of playing Devil’s Advocate) the possibility that teams who badly missed on Pujols (after all, he went undrafted once, then was drafted in the 13th round out of junior college) were trying to cover themselves by spreading this rumor—that scouts who looked right at Pujols and couldn’t see the future Hall of Famer within him were using this to explain away their incompetence. If that’s what happened (and, we’ll get into this, but it isn’t what happened), it was a thin cover, indeed. The only thing the notion of scouts fabricating this kind of discrepancy reveals is how foolish the idea of age-versus-level is in the first place.
This is something Octavio Dotel (make note of and remember the name) said six years ago, when the journeyman reliever opened up in an interview about the experience of his own age being corrected in the wake of 9/11. Dotel was 19 when he signed with the Mets in 1993, but he claimed to be 17. Dotel said he was throwing only in the mid-80s when he signed, and that the team never would have signed him if they had known his real age, based on his body and ability at the time. Once he signed and spent some time in America, getting better nutrition and instruction, he achieved the velocity gains he knew were always possible.
In that piece, Dotel said that Dominicans develop late, in general. He also encouraged countrymen who had already reached the majors to fess up to any age discrepancies. In his opinion (at least at the time), once a player proves himself, his age shouldn’t matter. Given the reason why players (or, as is often the case, their parents, coaches, or representatives) mislead teams about their age, as Dotel expressed it, that’s correct.
Widening the lens, though, players’ ages do matter. When teams need to make roster decisions that can have consequences for the following several seasons, and are trying to project how one or more players will perform over that long arc, ages matter. When players hit free agency, ages certainly matter. When we try to understand the careers of players, especially as those careers draw near to the end, ages certainly matter. If I were advising a player harboring the secret that he was a year or more older than the baseball world believed, right now, I would tell him to keep that secret, especially if he still had free agency in front of him.
Pujols, of course, doesn’t. He’s already made his fortune, and when previous stars like Vladimir Guerrero and Miguel Tejada have admitted that their listed ages were incorrect (Guerrero was one year older than he’d said; Tejada was two years older), there have been no legal actions taken against them. Still, this is a sensitive topic, and before offering evidence in support of the motion to change Pujols’ age, I want to make clear that I see no malice in the decision made by any player in this sort of position. Again, if a talent like Pujols can slip under the radar based even partially on concern that he was older than he said, then the problem is with baseball’s obsession with age, not with the birthday on anyone’s driver’s license.
Earlier this month, Pujols gave an interview with Tim Brown, of Yahoo! Sports—the reporter who first broke Guerrero’s age discrepancy. It aired on the first edition of the Yahoo! MLB Podcast. In it, Brown asked Pujols to take him back over a story that Pujols had told Brown before, about his first over-the-fence home run.
“I actually hit it off Octavio Dotel, I think I told you that,” Pujols said with a laugh. (Brown didn’t remember that.) “I was about about 12, 13, almost 13 years old,” he continued.
Pujols talked about how giddy he felt, about the excitement and disbelief. “And we go back, you know, 28 years later, and here I am.”
I’ve listened to this four times, because I didn’t want to report that Pujols is 40 (or 41, I guess) based just on something like this, but I needed to know how much to trust it. Very often, in conversations like these about old times, people get imprecise. They throw a number out. When Guerrero was revealed to be a year older than he’d let on, the official record had him as 33, but he slipped up in an interview and said he was 34 while laughingly talking about the difficulty of recovering from an injury. It was that simple. It could have been a mistake. I told someone I was 28 just a week ago, forgetting my recent birthday. Yet, the reporters to whom Guerrero had been talking caught it, and when they followed up, he simply admitted the truth. It was because he’d said his age with such certainty, though, that the reporters decided to follow up.
In this case, I have that same instinct. Pujols’ cadence during that recollection wasn’t that of someone estimating or casually tossing off the number. The degree of vividity with which he described the moment and his feelings about it left me feeling like he was locked into the memory, engaged with it. It seemed fixed in his mind. That’s not the hammer, but it’s worth noting.
Brown, titillated by the detail he’d forgotten in this treasured story, followed up on Dotel.
“Well, Dotel, I believe he’s like three or four years older than me,” Pujols said. “He was in the league above me, and it was actually like an intrasquad game.”
Now, we’re cooking with gas.
Dotel, whose birthdate we know for sure because it was corrected and verified well after his career began, is 44. He was born in late November 1973. Dotel signed with the Mets in March 1993, so it’s technically possible for Pujols to have hit that homer at age 12 or 13, against Dotel, and still be 38 now. However, that would be a shocking age disparity for the two players at the time. More importantly, though, Pujols himself said Dotel is “three or four years” older than he. That would put Pujols’ actual birthdate in either 1977 or 1978.
Those two little things in Pujols’ recounting of that event are all of the new evidence I can add to the ledger, but I think it really could be enough. If he misspoke, he did it twice, and the mistakes were consistent with each other. It seems more likely that he simply spoke plainly, in the company of a writer he knows well, and forgot to maintain the timeline on which we’d all previously settled.
So, the balance of probability says that Pujols is now 40. Why does that matter? It’s not just that, perhaps, his atrocious 2017 makes a bit more sense, and it’s not just the way we can adjust our expectations of his output over the final four years of his contract. If Pujols is 40, his career makes a little bit more sense, and is a bit easier to put into its proper historical frame.
In baseball history, there have been 22 players who were not merely Hall of Famers before they turned 30, and not only Hall of Famers, but no-doubt guys. Many of them had won multiple MVPs by that age. The cool thing—the thing that speaks to Pujols’ greatness—is that he’s one of those 22 no matter whether you think he was born in 1978 or in 1980. Here are those players, with their WARP totals through age 30, and the same from age 31 onward.
Note: For the several players on this list who played a significant chunk of their careers prior to 1950, the given numbers are all Baseball Reference WAR. Our database for WARP and other advanced metrics goes back only to 1950. I’ve starred those players’ names below.
|Player||WARP, Through 30||WARP, After 30
|Albert Pujols (b. 1980)||91.9||16.9|
|Ken Griffey Jr.||72.6||10.5|
|Albert Pujols (b. 1978)||68.7||40.1|
|Cal Ripken Jr.||58.4||15.3|
Looking at this list, the Pujols who’s only 38 stands out like a sad, sore thumb. He’s better in his 20s than any other player since the dawn of the expansion era, by a huge gap, but he’s also worse from age 31 onward than anyone who’s anywhere near him on the list—even worse than Jimmie Foxx, who lost almost two full seasons to World War II in his mid-30s.
Comparing these figures—which are on two different scales, since WARP and bWAR aren’t precisely the same, and which are for players who came up under disparate systems of player procurement and development, faced different challenges and enjoyed different advantages—is an imperfect way to lay this out, but the point is clear. Pujols’ career makes much more sense if he were born in 1978. He looks less superhuman in his 20s, but then he was playing against tougher competition than perhaps anyone else on this list in their 20s, and maybe if his real age had been known and his talent had been properly scouted, he would have reached the majors two years earlier anyway. In his 30s, he doesn’t fall off a cliff in such an inexplicable way. His career arc maps nicely to those of players to whom he seems most similar, like Robinson, Rodriguez, Musial, Williams, and Gehrig.
When Pujols collects hit no. 3,000, it will be a great moment to take stock of how great he is, and to appreciate the relatively graceful way he’s aged. We might all appreciate it more if we also keep in mind that the man attaining that milestone is probably 40 years old, since that will make the fact that he’s a shell of his former self much more palatable. In fact, that should make everything about Pujols’ remaining seasons a bit easier to understand, and less frustrating for all involved.