Feb
19

Golden Albatrosses?

By

Dead weight can't do this. (AP Photo/Ed Betz, File)

Like anything that can be reduced to shrill sound bytes, the Albert Pujols ordeal is especially fertile territory for the junior high dialectics of talk radio, where calling somebody an idiot qualifies as a rhetorical flourish. In a span of five minutes this past Tuesday morning, ESPN Radio’s Colin Cowherd – ring leader du jour for the cult of “Now This Is Just Off The Top Of My Head, But…” – weirdly dubbed himself as something akin to the thinking man’s sports call-in host, dismissed statistical analysis (or, what he more pejoratively referred to as memorizing the backs of baseball cards) as an infatuation in which only people with no lives engage, and then, for his coup de grace, fired off this nifty little beauty while weighing in on the Pujols saga:

I’m not a sabermetrics guy, but it has some value. Let me tell you what Albert Pujols is: he’s a boat or a hot tub. Looks great in your driveway, looks great on your deck, adds nothing to your net worth…Edgar Rentereia, a situational hitter – a clutch hitter – is more valuable in the postseason than Albert Pujols. Think I’m wrong? In three World Series, he’s hitting .333, five doubles, two homers, ten RBIs, World Series MVP. He’s a great situational hitter. And when you face elite pitching, that’s more important than power hitters.*

My apologies for the I.Q. mugging, but I was forced to endure the same thing on Tuesday. (Not surprisingly, L.A. only has one 24-hour sports radio station.) As for worth, Mike succinctly explained in yesterday’s mailbag that a player who posts an exceptional WAR has more value than multiple players who would achieve the equivalent. That means, career-wise, Pujols has been more valuable than two Jim Edmondses or three Adam Dunns or, you’ve guessed it: four Edgar Renterias.

Still, if we can somehow summon the will to dig through the layers of Cowherd’s bombast, maybe we’ll discover a kernel of rational thought in his drive time rant. Assuming there’s veracity to the 10-year, $300 million asking price that Pujols’ camp has reportedly floated, the slugger’s next deal would ostensibly become the most onerous sports contract ever signed. So in a sense, Cowherd’s likely right: Inking Pujols to a contract of such epic expense and length at this stage of his career is fiscally brazen, if not downright irresponsible. But it’s not because he lacks the clutch-ocity of Edgar Renteria (who, I’m telling you, has a World Series MVP for God’s sakes!) but because we may have already glimpsed shades of Albert’s physical decline. In 2009, he finally had surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament; possibly even more alarming, early last season, at age 30, he was nagged by lower back pain – the canary in the coal mine for power hitters on the wane. Go ahead and break out your Don Mattingly Yankeeography for a stark reminder of this. Bring lots of Kleenex.

Pujols’ injuries over the past two seasons probably don’t presage a career downturn – at least not yet. What can be counted on is the volatility in production that afflicts players entering their thirties. Juan Gonzales, Carlos Lee, Vernon Wells Eric Chavez, and Alfonso Soriano were all special players who, immediately following stellar seasons, drove Vanishing-point-style off the ravine of thirty-something. (In case you’re wondering, the average age for their respective cliff-dives was 32.)

Organizations see this, and it makes them justifiably reticent to allocate precious resources to a surefire hall-of-famer who could, in less time than it takes to say “nagging groin,” somehow morph into a lead-footed Juan Pierre. It’s something from which few players in the history of baseball are exempt, advances in nutrition, fitness, and medicine notwithstanding.

Not long ago, Yankees fans could stake a claim to having their very own version of the best all-around player in the game, proving that things can change in a hurry once a player hits his mid-thirties. Unlike Pujols, A-Rod was a picture of health leading up to his 10-year $27.5 million AAV deal with the Yanks in 2007. Since then, he’s been dogged by a series of lower-body injuries, most notably a torn labrum for which he’s needed two surgeries. Beyond impacting Alex’s power numbers, which have revealed an ISO dip of .271 to .236 over the past three seasons, these injuries have forced him to miss 87 games since ‘08, leading to more instances in which replacement-level icons like Cody Ransom and Ramiro Pena become the Yankees’ de facto $27 million man for a day. While still an elite offensive force at 35, it’s unlikely that Rodriguez’s health will improve with age. (For what it’s worth, the uber-conservative Marcel projects an underwhelming but strikingly similar 2011 output for Alex.)

It’s unlikely that the 2007 A-Rod signing would serve as an effective cautionary tale for prospective Pujols suitors, however. For one thing, as great as Alex is, when it comes to career offensive production, Albert stands alone. In fact, out of the all-galaxy quartet of A-Rod, Frank Thomas, Miguel Cabrera, and Manny Ramirez, none possesses a single significant advanced career metric that surpasses Pujols’.

There’s another A-Rod factor that might actually bolster the case for a long-term Pujols signing: A rebound. At this moment, it’s impossible to say for certain whether or not the Yankees’ third-baseman has entered his permanent decline phase. A 2011 return to form from Alex, to something approaching his career mean ISO of .269 makes a Pujols signing appear less daunting, as it would further the notion that some people are simply age defying freaks of nature. Thomas, Manny, and the perpetually wronged Garry Sheffield all fit neatly into this category: None of them displayed a hint of slowing down until their late-thirties and, at 37, Manny posted a 153 OPS+ in 431 PA for a playoff-bound Dodgers squad.

The obvious problem here is that there’s no conclusive way to predict Pujols’ longevity beyond his astronomical talent and superhero lats. The Orioles probably thought they had a steal when they signed then-surefire first-ballot hall-of-fame curmudgeon Albert Belle – who, physically, resembled Ray Lewis in stirrups – to a five-year, $65 million deal in 1998, only to witness their 31-year-old 145 career OPS+ investment fall to osteoarthritis two seasons later.

Even more disturbingly, the once great Mo Vaughn is now remembered more as a portly $80 million mistake, shoehorned into the late-90s eye-piercing pajama tops of the California Angels, than the offensive monster who put up six consecutive 139 OPS+ seasons in Boston – something that neither A-Rod, Belle, David Ortiz, nor Miguel Cabrera has ever done.

Still, when factoring in all-around performance (including defense), physiology, and longevity, A-Rod remains Pujols’ closest career comp among modern-day superstars of a similar age. The table below reveals this.

Clearly, you can’t go wrong with any of these guys. But although both Thomas and Manny are closer offensive comps to Pujols, WAR reveals that A-Rod and Albert are closer in type, since they can each also hold their own beyond the batter’s box.

Despite their four-year age difference, Pujols and Alex are also uncannily similar in stature (6’3” 230 per B-Ref’s “yeah right” specifications), athleticism, and physical fitness. Both have a history of relative durability, though A-Rod’s endured significantly more wear and tear due to his having to play shortstop for the first decade of his career. Alex also has more mileage relative to their respective ages: By the time Albert had taken his first major league hack, Rodriguez had already played in 211 games.

In entering only the fourth year of his ten-year deal, it’s still unclear as to whether or not the A-Rod signing will ultimately prove to be prudent investment or a half-insane albatross. But even assuming he spends the final two years of his contract as a hulking platoon DH and pinch-hitting power option off the bench, if A-Rod can once again resemble the player that annihilated American League pitching for a decade-and-a-half, it will be money well spent. Which, in turn, could mean more money spent on Albert.

*B-Ref spoiler alert: Renteria also has a .666 OPS in 242 postseason at-bats, proving that it isn’t the mark of the beast after all.

Categories : Analysis

31 Comments»

  1. Isn’t there something else to possibly factor in for the decline of Alex Rodriguez? His admitted used of PEDs can be a cause of his quicker decline, as opposed the numbers Barry Bonds put in the latter years of his career.

    Albert Pujols has never been linked or admitted to steroid use, needless to say that doesn’t mean he hasn’t used anything. But, if we take him at his word, does the fact that his career arc doesn’t involve any enhancements make him a better be to last at his peak longer? Or does it make it less likely? I’m not really sure.

    All I can assume (I’m not a doctor), is that ARod’s steroid usage and now apparent removal of PEDs from his system and workout regiment have appeared to quicken his decline.

    Not a decline in talent, mind you, a decline in the ability to stay healthy as he ages. If there is one thing we can all agree on when it comes to PEDs, is that the peak health appears to last longer when you are on them. They allow you to recover quicker and be in tip top shape for longer.

    Again, I don’t know the answer, but I think it is foolish to compare to the two players without at least factoring the steroid issue in. If you don’t, it doesn’t include all the facts.

    • Tank the Frank says:

      Anabalic steroids, to the best of my knowledge, can make you stronger, faster, and help you heal quicker from strenuous exercise. They can’t help you recover quicker from injury. HGH, to the best of my knowledge, does have the ability to help you recover quicker from injury. None of them, however, make a player impervious to injury or can be used to prevent an injury from occuring.

      • Urban says:

        I’ve never seen any evidence that suggests HGH helps a player recover from injury faster. There are rumors and beliefs that it might, which apparently led Andy Pettitte to try HGH, but the evidence seems clear that it doesn’t help.

        In fact, sicne HGH is a legal drug as long as it’s admistered by a doctor, the fact that it’s not used by doctors and teams to legally help their athletes recover from injuries pretty much answers the question. It doesn’t help at all.

        • Tank the Frank says:

          Yeah, Andy Pettitte and his admition was what I was referring to. I haven’t read any clinical studies on HGH, but I know of anectdotal evidence that suggests HGH can strengthen and even grow connective tissue. Therefore, at least anectdotally, some believe it may help heal from injury.

          I don’t think your second point makes much sense. Testosterone is also available legally via a doctor’s prescription. Both HGH and steroids are illegal without a doctor’s prescription, but I don’t believe that has any bearing on their effects.

          HGH, much like testosterone, is a performance enhancer. That’s why it’s not used by professional sports teams. The reasons HGH is not more widely prescribed by doctors would have more to do with the severe side effects; abnormal skeletal growth especially on the head, as well as enlargement of the heart and other vital organs, liver and thyroid damage. The severity of the side-effects vastly outweigh the benefits.

          • Urban says:

            HGH under medical supervision is safe and will have few side effects. It also has little benefits for adult males unless they suffer from certain types of hormone deficiencies. There is some evidence, and there are ongoing studies, to see if it might be beneficial to males in their 60s and 70s who are losing muscle and bone mass as part of the normal aging process. In normal, healthy adult males it does nothing.

            The risk of side effects increases when taken in higher doses without any medical supervision and for long periods of times. Certainly, if it could help an athlete recover quicker from an injury, it would be used by MLB players with the proper medical supervision. The reason it’s not is testing has been done in this area and it has been shown not to help. Becasue it does encourage cell reproduction in people in children, and it does assist adults with low HG levels, athletes have come to believe (wrongly) that it will help them recover. It doesn’t.

  2. A.D. says:

    Even better is Pujols has a 1009 playoff OPS, and only 888 in the series, yeah I’d take that.

  3. Sam says:

    “Edgar Rentereia, a situational hitter – a clutch hitter – is more valuable in the postseason than Albert Pujols”

    John McEnroe, your thoughts?

  4. bakekrukow412 says:

    “By the time Albert had taken his first major league hack, Rodriguez had already played in 211 games.”

    Pretty sure it was more than that.

    I think this year will be very important in determining whether or not Alex’s contract is good or bad.

  5. Urban says:

    While I’m sure Pujols would like to have a 10-year, $300-million contract, there is no evidence that he’s asked for that. Just media rumors. Pujols yesterday basically laughed off (and convincingly to me) many of the rumors being reported in the marketplace.

    My guess is no team will offer Pujols a 10-year deal, but he will break A-Rod’s annual-average of $27.5 million per year. That’s the most important number in being declared “the highest paid player,” and that’s the number the MLPPA cares about. That’s the part that was lost in the Cliff Lee negotiations about how he supposedly took less money to go to Philly. He didn’t. The Phillies paid Lee about two million more than the Yankees were offering per year, and in the process Lee set a new annual average record for pitchers, breaking CC’s record. That’s what the Union wants.

    If Pujols is willing to accept a seven-year deal, there will more bidders, which will up the price.

    I still believe he’s returning to St. Louis in the end.

    • Roy says:

      If Pujols shortens his desired contract, then his value per year skyrockets. He could conceivably sign a 4 year deal and set himself up for a series of shorter contracts for the rest of his career. At four years, is Pujols worth $35M to a team in need of a 1B/DH?

  6. FIPster Doofus says:

    You know, Colin, just when I think you couldn’t possibly be any dumber, you go and do a thing like this … and totally don’t redeem yourself.

  7. The Captain says:

    Every time Colin Cowherd opens his mouth to talk about sports, a child with cancer dies.

    Seriously, I thought his racial rant about John Wall was bad. Arguing that Edgar Renteria is more valuable than Albert Pujols takes the cake.

    It’s too bad Cowherd isn’t in my fantasy league. With the logic he’s using, at least I could guarantee that I wouldn’t finish last.

  8. James A says:

    Colin Cowherd is the Glenn Beck of sports talk: they both speak about everything with total confidence that they’re right, and both of them are always wrong. The only difference is, Cowherd doesn’t think everyone is a Nazi.

  9. Teh Comp Pick says:

    I lived in LA for a little while, you can always go with DP (560 or 570 if I remember correctly) instead of Cowherd

  10. Teh Comp Pick says:

    The best part of that segment was Cowherd talking about Cano and how he runs well. Cano had three steals last year, caught two times, Pujols had 14 caught 4 times. I like Cowherd for football (maybe bc I don’t really think I know a whole lot about football) but he should really stay away from baseball

    • bexarama says:

      Everyone says Cano is a good baserunner. It has to be at least partially racially motivated where people are like “Oh, dark guy = fast! Great baserunner!”, because he’s actually a pretty bad baserunner.

      Also, all I know about Cowherd and football is that he hates Aaron Rodgers… like… a lot…

  11. Kevin Ocala, Fl says:

    Why do we allow ourselves (except you & me) to get torqued by Talking Heads? Read good baseball books and watch games (with the volume muted and stay the hell away from Sports Center) and you’ll soon realize that these guys are all shills that play good cop/bad cop.

    For example, first there wasn’t a whisper about PEDs (and I “know” that it began at the latest in the late ’70′s), then there was the denial, “steroids don’t give you the hand/eye coordination to make a difference”. Then there was the stammering “rationalization” that well, Ruth drank during prohibition), Cobb was a racist, and then Mantle and the boys were using “speed”. And we still have guys such as Keith Law who states that ‘he hasn’t seen any evidence that PEDs enhance player performance’. Yeah, ‘black is white, and yellow grey, but we decide which is Right and which is an Illusion’….

    • Roy says:

      That’s on target. I think MLB is much better than ESPN on this score.

      I can’t remember a worse offseason for crappy stories about nothing.

      –Jeter’s contract was not worth 10 minutes of public discussion.

      –Cliff Lee leaves Yankees at the altar

      –Chamberlain’s weight

      –Rodriguez and Cameron Diaz

      –Minor League signings and non-signings for pitching backup

      –Will Csshman quit?

      –Madoff experts on WFAN, NY Post and NY Daily News

      –Trump to buy the Mets

      Just give me baseball!

  12. Roy says:

    Let me pose a two part question in need of a sabremetric answer. Is a player worth more to a contending team (measured by total predicted WAR without that player)than to a non-contending team.

    For example, is Alex Rodriguez worth more to the 2007 Yankees than to the 2003 Texas Rangers? Certainly, in my humble opinion. The Yankees had 4,000,000 attendance and made untold money out of their operations. They tore up his contract and gave him a ten year deal. Contrast that with the 2003 Texas Rangers who unloaded Rodriguez to the Yankees for Alfonso Soriano – having decided that the only way that they could improve was to be rid of the first contract. So, what is the measure of value?

    Would Pujols getting $30M per year for St.Louis cripple them or make them a perennial winner. That answer would be simple in retrospect, because we have 10 years of experience of Pujols on St Louis. In ten years, St Louis has averaged 2nd place in the NLCentral. They have been to the postseason 6 times. In those years, Pujols has averaged 8.5 Wins-Above-Replacement. Take away those 8.5 wins per year and you have a St.Louis team that over a ten-year career would have averaged 3rd-4th place in a six team division.

    It is Pujols tough luck to approach his free agency next year going into a season at 32 years old. How should St. Louis project Pujols contributions to wins? Maybe a typical flattening arc like fangraphs.com provides. 7,6,6,5,5,4,4,3,1,1 sounds predictable over 10 years. Once again, look at Alex Rodriguez (approximate) 2007:10, 2008:5, 2009:4, 2010:3. Still valuable in the context of the Yankees. If you agree with my projected WAR numbers for Pujols, he remains the difference maker for St. Louis for 6 or 7 more years. He is worth the $30M for St. Louis.

    • Roy says:

      Sorry for the crappy writing. I did not write my piece as an argument, but as a question. I made my own decision as I wrote – so it gets a little uneven.

    • yankeesrbest says:

      Pujols has been worth it to the Cardinals for the last 10yrs because his contracts haven’t taken up a ridiculous amount of their payroll. Unlike the Yankees, the Cards will feel it if they give him such a ridiculous contract and it won’t surprise me if they find themselves in the same position Texas found itself in with ARod, that is having to deal a superstar in his prime because they couldn’t put a supporting cast around him to win. More then any other sport, baseball truelly is a TEAM sport and one Superstar will not carry the team.

  13. D-Lite says:

    Thanks to RAB for adding Brock to the staff. This was a great piece, well-written and thoroughly entertaining. And I’m not just saying that because I can’t stand Cowherd.

  14. yankeesrbest says:

    Resigning ARod to that 300 mil deal after he opted out was STUPID but it doesn’t matter anymore because regardless he’s a Yankee until his early 40′s. Good thing the Yankees are in the American League and will at least get some years from ARod as a DH. Will he return to form? Let’s hope he does for at least the next 3-5 years. He was awesome in the 2009 post season so it is not like he hasn’t performed recently. I can’t wait to see some of the youngsters like Nunez, Montero, Romine and Almonte continue to filter to the MLB team to help transition this team with the help of vets like ARod, Jeter, Mo, Posada and now even Cano to help guide them. I know some of the writers on this site don’t like Nunez but I have a feeling if given the chance the kid will perform and will surprise us all. If I recall correclty, a few years back someone on this site wrote that Cano was nothing special and would fall back to what he was in the minors and average/below average player.

  15. cano is the bro says:

    wow, Colin Cowherd is a clown. Nothing else really to say, he just sounds like an idiot.

  16. Pete C. says:

    At one time conventional wisdom held, that in the postseason teams were so involved with stopping the few great players, or at least the few players having great seasons, that they let the players like Renteria slip through the cracks.
    I believe there really is something to the notion that individuals are capable of “rising to the occasion”, as well as being the beneficiary of the opponent maybe playing them the way they saw them played all season long.
    I really think it’s more a case of what I heard Leo Durocher saying something about major-leaguers not being affected by pressure situations because if they were they never would have gotten through the minors.
    I do know this, ’78 world series MVP was Bucky Dent, and Brian Doyle went 6 for 16 and on to some success as a baseball trainer.
    How do we handle it when opportunity knocks.

  17. oh hell says:

    What happened to the whimsy, dammit?

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