Albert Pujols has been the best player in baseball since his rookie year of 2001, and hardly anyone, position player or pitcher, is even remotely close. Pujols had an OPS of .9o6 in 2011 and to give you an idea of how incredibly good this is, there are only 58 players in the history of major league baseball who have finished their career with a mark better than this and it was Pujols’ worst effort in his 11 year career. Only 5 players have a better career OPS mark than Pujols – Jimmie Foxx, Barry Bonds, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams and Babe Ruth. Pujols is a surefire, first-ballot hall of famer even if he never plays another inning.
After 11 seasons with the Cardinals, Pujols signed with the Angels for a contract worth $240 milliona for ten years, though additional incentives could push the total value of the contract closer to $270 million (for instance, Pujols will get $3 million for reaching 3,000 hits and $7 million for a record 763rd home run, milestones he will struggle mightily to achieve.) Along with his salary, Pujols receives a hotel suite on the road, a luxury suite at Angels Stadium for his charity group for ten games a year and the right to buy a luxury suite for all home games. In addition, he will enter into a 10-year personal-services agreement following the end of his playing career that will pay an additional $1 million annually. His contract is backloaded, which means in the final year of the deal, 2021, Pujols will earn $30 million dollars. It is, I believe, the richest contract ever afforded a professional athlete, though I can’t be certain without doing some research, which I’m too lazy to do.
The big question is whether or not he’s worth those perks and that kind of money. (Spoiler: Nope. Not even close. Not even remotely It’s almost comical how far away Pujols is from being worth it. So, in a word, no.)
St. Louis fans hate Pujols, largely for the manner in which he left the Cardinals after 11 seasons there, and while I understand their anger, the issue for me is less his monstrously self-absorbed behavior (though how anyone can root for him at this point is a little beyond me) but more the shocking inability of the Angels to recognize that Pujols is done as a superstar.
So far this season, Pujols has put up a line of .204BA/.248OBP/.282SLG through 26 games. These are stats my fictitious kid sister who walks with a limp could put up, and of course Pujols is going to improve on these numbers, especially his home run total which currently sits at zero, but it seems blatantly obvious to me that this level of production is less an abberation and more the inevitable decline that all baseball players suffer as they get older.
In baseball, a player’s prime, overwhelmingly throughout the history of the game, is between the ages of 28-32. The steroids era changed that, allowing many players to produce career-best seasons well into their 30’s. That era is over now, we can only hope, and with it comes the harsh truth that athletes, with very rare exceptions, do not get better as they move up in their 30’s, that the exact opposite is the case, that they in fact experience a marked and rapid decline. I love watching Jamie Moyer, but this is in large part because he is the exception, not the rule.
Albert Pujols is 32 years old. His batting average, on-base-percentage and OPS have declined every year since 2008. His WAR (wins above replacement) has declined every year since 2008. It’s not a leap to argue that Pujols is going to get worse from here on out, because he’s been getting worse for the last four years!
Here’s the biggest number to ponder, and one that every team that was contemplating offering Pujols a ten-year contract offer in the off season should have seen as a serious red flag. Pujols only walked 61 times last year in 651 plate appearances, down from his average of 107 from 2008-2010. Pujols hit .299 last year, he slugged over .500, the man can still hit. His career-low walk total seems less a serious decline in bat speed or power, but rather a sign of something far more ominous for his future success – it signals to me that teams are no longer afraid to pitch to Albert Pujols. So far in 2012, he has walked only six times in 107 plate appearances.
The player that terrorized pitchers for a decade is gone. He’s never coming back. Anybody with eyeballs could see he wasn’t quite as good as he was five years ago and anyone with an internet connection could pull up even the simplest of stats to confirm it. No matter what the Angels were saying publicly, not one person in that organization thinks Pujols is going to be worth $30 million dollars a year in ten years when he is 42 years old. They overpaid a player for the life of a contract in the expectation that his production in the early years would make up for the lack of it at the end, but this seems to me to be ridiculous thinking, not the least of which is because it presupposes superstar-level production from a player who is obviously no longer a superstar.
The Angels thinking also assumes Pujols will stay healthy, something that decreases in likelihood as he gets older.
The average MLB salary is about 3 million dollars. For the length of the contract (this year Pujols only makes about $12 million, and yes, I’m aware that I used the word ‘only’ in front of $12 million) Pujols makes 24-26 million a year, roughly 8 times the league average. The average American League hitter gets on base a little more than 32% of the times. He slugs .400. He has a WAR of 2.0. Pujols will exceed all of these numbers by the end of this year by a sizable margin, I have no doubt, but it seems just as clear to me that he will not come anywhere close to providing 8x value, and that’s in the first year of the contract. How much better will Pujols be than the average player in year three of the deal, if at all? Year six? Year seven? The only way the Angels get out of this deal alive is if Pujols retires for them before the end of the contract, because no amount of season ticket sales in year one will make up for the nightmare scenario looming.
I’m not just picking on Pujols and the Angels either, because this is a systemic problem within baseball. Here are the top 3 salaries in baseball:
Alex Rodriguez – $29 million
Johan Santana – $24 million
Joe Mauer – $23 million
Not one of those players is worth that much money, all have had injury problems, and it’s unlikely (highly, highly unlikely) that they will ever again put up the numbers they did when they were awarded those absurd contracts. They’re all good, just as Pujols is still a good player, hideously awful April aside, but they’re also cautionary tales that Angels ownership failed to heed. As bad as things are for the Angels right now, with Pujols failing to hit his weight and the team managing only a 10-16 record through May 3rd, things could get much worse in a couple years, stuck with a player that can’t produce on the field, who can’t be traded because of his bloated contract, and who cripples the ability of the front office to sign better players.