Is Pujols an Injury Risk?

With their 10-year, $250 million commitment to Albert Pujols, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are making a huge bet that Pujols will continue to be one of the game’s premier offensive threats and be healthy enough to be in the lineup through his age-41 season. His health history to date provides reasons both for optimism and concern on the part of the Angels and their fans.

First, let’s focus on the good news. Pujols has been one of the most durable and quick-healing players in MLB during his career to date. Pujols has averaged 155 games and 675 plate appearances per season over his 11-year career. He has done so despite dealing with chronic injuries to his elbow and feet, and the various bumps and bruises that come with playing MLB. When Pujols has been injured he has shown an ability to heal on a very aggressive time line. He only missed 15 games with his injured oblique in 2006, 13 games with a pulled calf muscle in 2008, and remarkably only 13 games with a broken forearm this past season. His recovery from the broken forearm was notable both in its speed — most expected him to miss 4-6 weeks when the injury occurred -— and in how little effect it had on his overall performance. Wrist and arm injuries often can sap a players power in the weeks after they return from the injury, but this was not the case with Pujols. In fact, he had a non-Pujols like .855 OPS at the time of the injury in late June, but put up a .955 OPS in July, and followed that up with .951 in August and .954 in September.

Now, let’s look at the potential downside. As Sports Illustrated’s Will Carroll has noted multiple times, Pujols has been one of the most dominant players in his era, but he has never been fully healthy in his career. Pujols partially tore the ulnar collateral ligament –a.k.a. the Tommy John ligament — in his right elbow back in 2003, but in classic Pujols fashion, played through the injury. Manager Tony LaRussa wrote him into the lineup in left field for most of the season despite the fact that he was unable to throw the ball back to the infield. Instead, then Cardinals shortstop Edgar Renteria would sprint to the outfield to retrieve balls from Pujols.

Pujols and the Cardinals elected not to have the elbow repaired via Tommy John surgery after the 2003 season and Pujols has continued to play with the partial tear. The elbow has required periodic maintenance, however. Pujols had nerve transposition surgery after the 2008 season and had bone spurs removed from the elbow after the 2009 season. Neither operation caused him to miss playing time, but they also did not fix the underlying ligament problem in the elbow. The Angels and Pujols face two major risks with the elbow going forward: (1) most mortals miss significant time if they have Tommy John surgery, which Pujols could need and (2) the elbow could further degenerate, which could lead to more bone spurs and/or make it difficult for him to throw the ball or swing the bat freely. Strong throwing arms are not a requirement for first basemen, however a weak arm or a move to DH would lessen Pujols’ overall value to the Angels.

Pujols has also dealt with a chronic case of plantar fasciitis. This injury — though apparently quite painful — has not caused Pujols to miss any significant time to date, but it is a condition that lingers and it has caused problems for sluggers in the past. Mark McGwire missed significant time over two seasons with this injury and we have seen other sluggers such as Frank Thomas miss significant time due to chronic foot injuries. Speed and baserunning are not a big part of Pujols’ game, so a loss of speed is not a real concern for the Angels, but standing around in metal spikes for three-plus hours a night is not the best way to manage a chronic foot condition.

Pujols has been very durable over the course of his career, an attribute that he and his agent no doubt used to help secure a 10-year commitment from the Angels. However, in addition to the risk of freak injuries such as the broken arm in 2011, Pujols and the Angels face a real risk that his chronic elbow and foot problems will not be as easily managed as he ages. Pujols may continue to show that the normal laws of nature do not apply to him with respect to injuries, but if his chronic injuries require him to miss significant time his contract could become a major burden for the Angels.

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I am political science professor at the University of North Carolina. I grew up watching the Braves on TBS and acquired Red Sox fandom during the 1986 World Series. My other hobbies include cooking, good red wine, curing meats, and obsessing over Alabama football---Roll Tide! Follow me on Twitter @ProfJRoberts.

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