Baseball’s compensation system ensures that teams have a ridiculously long amount of time before they need to pay their superstars in market value. The whole system is broken, and I’m not just talking about the whole Kris Bryant problem where a player is deliberately held down at the beginning of the season in order to add an extra year of control for the team. The problems go way beyond that.
This isn’t an article presenting a solution for this issue, mainly due to the fact that any restructuring requires flexibility and willingness to dispense of short-sided views for the long term welfare of the game in what ultimately is a dispute about money; Change will come if and when it does primarily due to leverage that one side has over the other.
I’m here to talk about Albert Pujols, the future first-ballot Hall of Famer who was released on May 13th by the Los Angeles Angels. Looking back at his career, a glorious one at that, the difference between what he earned and produced with the Cardinals and with the Angels is quite staggering.
I understand the poor timing as this isn’t necessarily an article to praise Pujols which would be more than natural after his release, but instead of focusing on the negative and all that went wrong with his time in California, let’s look at it from a different perspective and how ultimately everything evened out for this all-time legend.
A tale of two careers:
Albert Pujols played 11 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals and 10 with the Los Angeles Angels. Here are his numbers with each team:
Calling it eye-popping would be an understatement. It goes as far to indicate that the entirety of the Hall of Fame resume for Pujols was built over his time in St Louis, a decade of playing every day helped him pile on in terms of cumulative stats but in a vacuum, no one would link that period with the career of a Hall of Famer, especially one at first base.
In order to better understand these numbers and truly get some perspective on what they mean, I’ll provide some comps. First off, Pujols over his tenure with the Angels and Player X. See if you notice a difference.
*Only 108 PA separate both players.
PS: Player X is Todd Frazier
Even if you take WAR out of the equation and argue that not only did Frazier play a more premium position, at least for a while, as he started his career as a third baseman, and also that Pujols was in the second half of his career, you can’t deny the similarities as hitters. Both produced similar results if you look at OPS+, and they did it with basically the same hitting profile.
A second argument to be made is that you don’t sign a big-name free agent looking first and foremost at the production he’ll bring over the duration of the whole contract. You’re basically conceding a few underwhelming years in the end for the top-level production right off the bat. Whether we agree with it or not, that is a real thought process and one necessary for the cream of the crop in free agency that will look to maximize their earnings on the open market.
The problem is that the Albert Pujols the Halos paid for never really arrived. Pujols was quite productive over his first four seasons in California, but even then he wasn’t playing at the same level off his former self and it wasn’t even particularly close.
Let’s find a comp for his best season in Anaheim.
Player Y is Nelson Cruz in his lone season with the Baltimore Orioles in 2014; a really good season for all intents and purposes that landed Cruz a $57 million deal over 4 years with the Seattle Mariners heading into his age-35 season.
Looking strictly at the numbers from Pujols’ final season with the Cardinals goes more in line with what he did in 2012 with the Angels than what he had done during his prime which really says something about the investment made by the ownership of the Halos.
Recapping the whole situation, the only conclusion you can come to is that the Pujols that we know, the Hall of Famer with 3 MVP awards, didn’t arrive in California. That’s not a knock on Pujols, it’s how the sport works – great players experience a decline in their performance after a certain age. Combine his steep (and for the purpose of this exercise) well-timed decline with baseball’s compensation system and you get the following.
To illustrate this I decided to use WAR a quantitative stat combined with the total earnings from Pujols with the Cardinals and Angels. Here are the results:
|Million Dollars per 1 WAR
A multitude of factors joined in to form the perfect storm that resulted in the largest discrepancy you’ll find when it comes to production and compensation. In the end, it all evened out – Pujols got massively underpaid by St. Louis and massively overpaid the Angels. But it’s how the sport works and it ain’t changing any time soon.