A surefire, first-ballot Hall of Famer, Albert Pujols has been a lightning rod for criticism during his Angels’ tenure. He did himself no favors by going homer-less during his first month in Anaheim, clouding what would likely be his best season with the Angels. Choosing to play through injuries that appeared to sap his production have added fuel to the fire, frustrating fans rather than endearing them with his warrior mentality. While we expected to see the worst of Pujols over the life of his deal, failing to approach the greatness he achieved during his time with the St. Louis Cardinals for even one season has left us feeling ripped off. Ask any Angel fan and they are likely to tell you that the 10 year, $240 million dollar contract he signed before the 2012 season has been nothing short of a disaster.
The most overriding fear for Angel fans, of course, is what becomes of Pujols as he enters the twilight of his career, with five full seasons remaining on his deal. Despite perceptions, he has actually earned his salary thus far. In his first five seasons with the Angels, he has been worth 14.7 bWAR while earning $75 million, for a very reasonable $5.1 million per win. Of course, the salary in his back-loaded deal really ramps up going forward, as he is set to earn an average of $28 million in each of the next five seasons, not including another $10 million for a personal services contract once it expires. At the modern day $8 million per-win valuation, he will have to be worth roughly 4 WAR in each of those seasons to earn the rest of his contract, a total he has failed to reach since his first year in Anaheim.
Of course, we have all come to accept the fact that going forward he will not be worth what he is being paid. The best we can hope for is he will continue to be an above-average hitter the next few years, rather than a complete sunken cost in the mold of Vernon Wells or Josh Hamilton. Hitters have been productive in their late 30’s before, most of them without the prestigious career we have witnessed from Pujols. According to Baseball-Reference, here are the ten hitters most similar to Albert Pujols:
|Ken Griffey, Jr.
For the sake of this evaluation, we will omit anyone who played before Pujols was even born, since it is too difficult to properly compare eras. We will also eliminate the players suspected of receiving some extra — ahem — “help” later in their careers, since Pujols supposedly will not be receiving similar assistance going forward. That leaves us with Ken Griffey Jr., Frank Thomas and Jim Thome, all contemporaries of Albert. Not a huge sample, but a good starting point. And for all you “baseball birthers” out there, we are going with the assumption that Pujols is in fact his listed 37 years, 37 days-old.
Ken Griffey, Jr. had the worst season of his career at age 36, with a 99 OPS+ in an injury-marred 2006. He bounced back the next year as a 37 year-old with a 119 OPS+, earning him his final All Star nod. He was right around league-average the next two seasons before finally falling off a cliff at age 40.
As a right-handed DH, Frank Thomas gives us perhaps a more clear comparison to Pujols’ late-career exploits. Similar to Pujols, injuries slowed down the Big Hurt when he reached this point in his career, limited to only 108 total games during his age 36-37 seasons. He came back strong at age 38, playing 137 games for the Oakland Athletics, posting a 140 OPS+ and finishing 4th in MVP voting. He had another strong season the next year in Toronto, with a 125 OPS+ in 155 games. Things came to a halt at age-40, as he played in only 71 games in his final season, though he was still near league-average with a 97 OPS+.
Jim Thome is another DH who never stopped hitting, killing it as a 37 year-old with a 124 OPS+, followed with a 117 OPS+ the following year. He was off-the-charts at age-39 with the Minnesota Twins, hitting .283/.412/.627 as a part-time player. At age-40, he played 93 games and managed to remain productive with a 131 OPS+. He was limited to 58 games in his final season, but still managed to hit .252/.344/.442 at age-41.
Looking at three random players should not satisfy our curiosity about the remainder of Pujols’ career, so I looked over the best seasons for all players between the ages of 36-42, from 1987 through last year, using their raw OPS total. Naturally, Barry Bonds dominated the top five slots on the list, though there are plenty of other notable old-guy seasons to give us some optimism about Pujols.
While Baseball Reference does not list him as comparable, Edgar Martinez was excellent from age 37-41, hitting .295/.401/.499, registering as below-average only in his final season. Harold Baines remained productive from age 36-41 as an everyday DH, batting .299/.377/.479. Brian Downing never stopped hitting, with an .811 OPS over his last five seasons. Dave Winfield had a similar run before finally tailing off at age-42. Raul Ibanez, of course, never learned how to hit until age-30, but just kept on doing it through age-41. Carlos Beltran turns 40 this year and has managed to hit .278/.330/.474 the last four seasons.
So what does this say for our meng Pujols? One concerning factor is the steep decline in Albert’s walks the last few seasons. Virtually every hitter mentioned here maintained a 10% walk rate or better into their late 30’s, whereas Albert has dropped to around the 7% mark the last few seasons. As he gets further removed from his peak years, one has to wonder if his walk totals during his prime were inflated due to Albert getting the “Bonds treatment”, as opposed having a sharp eye at the plate. His strikeout rates have increased slightly in his time with the Angels, but still remain very low for a guy with his power, particularly in this current strikeout-friendly environment. Though considering his low BAbip and penchant for grounding into the double-play the last few years, perhaps he would be best served laying off some pitches.
Going down the wormhole of DH’s has made two things clear: One, guys who are elite in their 20’s are far more likely than other players to still be playing at age-40, and two; The guys who are still productive in their mid-30’s tend to maintain that production for a few years after that. If he remains relatively healthy (he has averaged 144 games as an Angel, despite several lower-body issues), it will be interesting to see if he can maintain his middling production. Literally no other modern player with a productive run in their late-30’s matches his high-contact slugger profile. Can he keep it up as his bat begins to slow down, or will his balky legs and lack of selectivity at the plate make the last half of his contact especially tough to watch?