When the Detroit Tigers announced that they had signed Miguel Cabrera to an eight-year contract extension that didn’t even begin for another two years, the deal was immediately met with skepticism.
The Tigers tacked on an additional $248 million in guaranteed money to lock up Cabrera’s age-33 to age-40 seasons, and the history of aging, super-sized, bat-only players is littered with disappointments. Exhibit A: Albert Pujols, who has been a severe disappointment since joining the Angels and would be my choice as the owner of the worst contract in baseball right now.
The Pujols disaster is why so many of us — myself included — believe the Tigers might end up regretting the Cabrera extension.
But, at the same time, we should also acknowledge that the Pujols disaster is one of the most inexplicable anomalies in baseball history. There have been hitters as good as Pujols before, but they generally haven’t declined nearly to the same degree that Pujols has since joining the Angels.
To illustrate this point, below is a list of hitters who were comparably productive to Pujols through their age-31 seasons, which was the age of his final season in St. Louis prior to signing with the Angels. The list is sorted by a metric called Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+, for short), which might sound scary but is just an index stat that centers performance around average, so that every point over 100 is equal to a percentage point better than league average for that year. For example, a 150 wRC+ equates to being 50 percent better than the league average in that year, allowing us to compare players’ performances from different run environments.
At the conclusion of his time in St. Louis, those were Pujols’ offensive peers, historically. It’s basically a list of some of the greatest hitters of all time. Shoeless Joe isn’t a very helpful comparison for us, considering his lifetime ban after age-30 for his involvement in the 1919 Black Sox scandal, but the other eight guys who hit like Pujols through age-31 did continue to play.
Here’s how those eight players did in their age-32 and age-33 seasons, which match up with Pujols’ first two seasons in Anaheim.
Hornsby actually got better than he had been previously, while Gehrig just kept on rolling. The rest all declined to varying degrees, with Allen being the laggard of the group, posting offensive numbers that were "just" 31 percent better than league average for those two years.
Pujols used to be the poster boy for elite hitters aging quickly, but he has managed to perform even worse than Allen did, and Pujols’ slow start to 2014 — he did hit his first homer of the season on Tuesday — isn’t exactly reassuring Angels fans that this year will be different.
Pujols drew 90 or more walks in six consecutive seasons (2005-’10) in St. Louis. He’s drawn just 94 walks (through Tuesday) since moving to Anaheim.
In his prime, he made contact on 90 percent of his swings. He’s averaged just 83 percent the last couple of years.
Over his career, 44 percent of his hits have gone for extra bases. Last season, that total was just 36 percent. Pretty much everything has gone the wrong way.
What Pujols is now simply is not what he was a few years ago, and his contract is a giant red flag for any team thinking of entering into a long-term deal with a slugger on the wrong side of 30.
However, for hitters who established themselves as elite, inner-circle Hall of Fame talents, this kind of early career collapse is basically unprecedented. It’s one thing when Cecil Fielder, Mo Vaughn or Ryan Howard stop being productive in their early 30s, but those guys weren’t transcendent best-hitters-of-their-generation types.
Pujols was. Cabrera is that now. By and large, these guys keep hitting until their mid-30s at least, and sometimes even into their late-30s.
Pujols’ decline is absolutely not the norm. We’ve seen other great hitters get worse but remain highly productive, and we’ve seen lesser hitters become essentially unplayable, but Pujols’ fall from his lofty perch is a bit unprecedented.
That doesn’t mean I’m now on board with the Tigers handing out $248 million for the right to watch Cabrera slow down, but we also shouldn’t lean on the Pujols example too heavily. Just like not every prospect is going to become Mike Trout, not every aging first baseman is going to become Albert Pujols.