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.

62 Responses to “Is Pujols an Injury Risk?”

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  1. Mike C says:

    Pujols has also dealt with a chronic case of plantar fasciitis. This injury — though apparently quite painful………..

    It is VERY PAINFUL. I have it and it is miserable.

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    • algionfriddo says:

      I had it as well. It was very painful and progressively got worse. I finally had a therapist tape up my heel in a special rap/tape. It worked and I was much better after a week or so. Couldn’t believe how easy it was to resolve an otherwise very painful condidtion.

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    • bc2208 says:

      If you are in the NY area, call Christopher Anselmi. Chiropractor/PT – he did a great job for my case.

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    • plantar sucks says:

      I’ve had plantar fasciitis and it was pretty painful. There are wide grades of severity, though. One professional runner had to retire due to the pain. How do baseball players get their plantar fascia inflamed? They are doing VERY little running. They are not doing 100-130 miles per week like olympian runners. Heck, even college runners do about 80.

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      • JRoth says:

        Could be poor support from cleats – they’re not exactly engineered for cushioning the foot. If there’s an underlying weakness, it wouldn’t take much to inflame it, and then it never rests, because baseball never stops (or at least, not for 7+ months of the year).

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      • kick me in the GO NATS says:

        I got mine from the icy brick staircase in front of my then home while wearing expensive leather soled shoes. Rushing to enter the taxi that was late to get me to the airport, I slipped and my foot smacked all 8 stairs as I tried to stop my sliding down the staircase on my buttocks. My suitcase came open; it was all a huge mess. I made the plane and later that day realized the pain in my heal was getting worse. That happened 15 years ago and I still wear inserts in my shoes everyday. Injury to the heel is the cause of this injury and it is often caused by running, but not in every case. A weird fall can do it.

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  2. Slartibartfast says:

    Plantar fasciitis, while insanely painful when it’s present, is very manageable, and is really only a serious problem when you don’t take it seriously. Enough preventative care should essentially eliminate the chance of it cropping up again for Albert. As for TJ, that’s more complicated. I wonder how it affects hitters.

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  3. MU789 says:

    Injuries are always a risk and I assume the Angels will have insurance to cover a major injury. It’s all the little nagging things that could keep him from being the Pujols we’ve seen so far. He does protect himself by not running hard on routine ground balls so I hope Angels fans understand it’s a miniscule price to pay for what he can do. Some fans and radio people in St. Louis have always held that against him.

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  4. Oliver says:

    Any player that age are an injury risk.

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  5. Anon says:

    Ahh.. the paradox of Pujols. Chronic injury and great durability. This has to increase the risks associated with aging. Another reason it is good for the Cardinals that he is gone.

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  6. dttl says:

    His elbow is made of wet toilet paper…so there’s that too.

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  7. Sammy says:

    My Pujols just signed a 4 Roll $4.99 contract. It’ll be interesting to see it stays healthy for the entirety of the deal.

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  8. baty says:

    The Frank Thomas “comp” is a great reminder of how quickly and surprisingly things can change.

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    • Greg says:

      Yes, and if Albert Pujols were close to 300 pounds and had played football from childhood until the age of 21, then perhaps Frank Thomas would be a good comp.

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  9. Tom B says:

    Is he? How is this even a question?!?

    He had to be moved out of left field because he couldn’t throw the ball anymore, his arm was falling off.

    Now he has chronic Plantar fasciitis… gee i remember people jumping all over Giambi saying that could only have come from years of steroid use… funny…

    He was injured so… yeah… he’s an injury risk.

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    • Yirmiyahu says:

      gee i remember people jumping all over Giambi saying that could only have come from years of steroid use

      I don’t think that anyone said that plantar fasciitis could only have been caused by steroid use. If anyone said that, they’re idiots. What a lot of people said is that Giambi’s freakish benign pituitary gland tumor could’ve only been caused by HGH/steroid use.

      He was injured so… yeah… he’s an injury risk.

      This isn’t how logic works. Just because something happened in the past doesn’t mean it will happen in the future. Now, Pujols is an injury risk, but it’s because he has chronic injuries he’s still dealing with, not merely because he was injured once in the past.

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  10. wat says:

    The amount of asshurt

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  11. Jeffrey Lage says:

    It’s 10/254 – Rosenthall

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  12. West says:

    35 year olds tend to be injury risks

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  13. Todd says:

    “Speed and baserunning are not a big part of Pujols’ game…”

    Maybe not speed per se, but baserunning certainly is a big part of his game. Pujols is an extremely aggressive baserunner with very good awareness of when and where he can get an extra base.

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  14. Hurtlockertwo says:

    Injury risk?? Ask that question to anyone over 30. In a semi-contact sport like basball, you are always just one inside fastball away from broken fingers or a wrist.

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    • Hurtlockertwo says:

      Albert averages getting HBP about seven times a year by the way.

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      • john says:

        What’s an average amount of HBP?

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      • Bad Bill says:

        One HBP in every 120 plate appearances is about “average.” Over his career, Pujols’ rate is a bit higher than that (77 HBP in 7433 PA), but the number is close enough to average as to be considered unexceptional.

        I’ve had plantar fasciitis too, and playing baseball with it just makes me cringe. The fact that he has had primo medical care for it, while I have not, only partly ameliorates that cringe.

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  15. Harold Reynolds says:

    Its almost more important to analyze injury tolerance. Guys like Beltran won’t play with minor lingering injuries, mentally they feel unready. Guys like Pujols play through stuff like that. I bet Beltran would’ve had that elbow scoped in spring training and taken a year off (unless it was his contract year.)

    Laker fans saw opposing examples with Shaq and Kobe.

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  16. Dan says:

    I believe both Chipper Jones and Antonio Gates have been diagnozed both plantar fasciitis. Both were extremely durable like Pujols early in their careers and then have had issues staying on the field since.

    Three years from now the Angels might be playing Pujols at DH and hoping for 135 games.

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  17. TexPantego says:

    Walk him and face Tori Hunter

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  18. Brad Johnson says:

    There’s a logical fallacy lurking in that article.

    ” a move to DH would lessen Pujols’ overall value to the Angels”

    Is that actually true? If we’re splitting hairs, then yes, losing that flexibility might be a little bothersome.

    But ultimately, you’re probably looking at Mark Trumbo for the foreseeable future. Maybe Kendrys Morales heals and takes that mantle. Either way, the man playing DH will be a first baseman. So if Pujols needs to switch, there is no change in total value beyond the fielding component.

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  19. Mylegacy says:

    Puljos is as wonderous a player as I’ve seen – I feel unworthy to even breathe in his presence…

    However, is there any indication that he’ll defy the fate of all flesh and be productive into his late 30′s and – gasp – his early 40′s. See how the Greek God of Walks has started the slippery slide to oblivion at the relatively tender age of 32(ish). Also, is the Great Albert truly 31? 33 even?

    No one has said that this contract is simply insane. I hereby become the first. I love this guy, I’d go to war with this guy – but – a 10 year freakin’ contract for ANYONE at his age (even his make believe age) NO WAY!

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  20. Eric says:

    HGH. Could there be a better example of a guy who fits the profile? He will do for HGH what Bonds did for roids.

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    • Bad Bill says:

      You do realize, don’t you, that this is a guy who was drafted as low as the 13th round because the belief in his juco years was that he’d have trouble keeping his weight DOWN? There is not the slightest thing in his career profile to suggest HGH use any more strongly than for any other baseball player.

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  21. Pat G says:

    The truth of the matter is, rhetorically, of course he’s an injury risk. But I don’t think bio-mechanics are quite at the point where we can say exactly how more risky he is than a person with no prior injury history.

    What you have to look at is what you know, and this in lies where the Angels mustered the gumption to sign him to a 10 year 250MM contract.
    1) He is the player of our generation, more so than A-rod, Bonds, etc… There are few good historical comps because of how far down the right tail he is statistically
    2) While it is almost certain his best days are behind him physically, he is still gaining experience (albeit at a much diminished rate compared to the experience one can gain at the beginning of a career), It is proven that as elite players age, where their physical tools may abandon them, the best (read the ones who had a semblance of plate discipline to begin with) continue to develop their batting eye until the day they hang up the spikes.
    3) As an econ major with some math background, if there is one thing i’ve learned is that 2 is not exactly a significant sample, even if you are talking about full baseball seasons. While the last two season’s haven’t been quite pujols-esque…. he is not bound to the realm of 6-8 wins… i wouldn’t be surprised to see him rattle off atleast one more 9+ win season… Jimmie Foxx, his closest contemporary if you trust baseball-reference’s similarity scores, had a similar two year slide in his age 28/29 seasons only to rebound to 9.4 and 8.0 in the subsequent two seasons.
    4) It’s true Foxx was basically washed up by his age 34 season, but this is where small samples become an issue again, I don’t feel comfortable taking someone who was 34 back in 1941 and saying that pujols should decline at the same age, beyond the fact that medicine has progressed another 70 years, the incentives to stay in top competitive shape for longer are far greater today. If Pujols is chasing the HR record, don’t you think that will prove to be greater incentive than Foxx who was second on the all time list and not even within earshot of first (534 to Babe Ruth’s 714) Another reason to believe he will preform better longer is the monetary incentive, prior to the mid 1970′s there was no such thing as free agency, most of the players made a pittance compared to what even the average free agent makes today. The reserve clause was a form on indentured servitude in which players were bound to a single team with monopsonic power over their players. Foxx had no reason to bust his ass after his age 34 season if he had already made enough money to live comfortably, because the difference between not playing and playing was small, the comparative gap between pujols “hanging em up” is astronomically larger
    5) Will this deal look bad in the last two or three years? yea, probably.
    6) Will pujols bring in enough excess value in the front end to cover the loss on the back? who knows
    7) Is it a gamble worth taking? i think so, players like albert pujols don’t hit the free agent market, no i dont mean they dont hit the market often, they never hit

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    • AA says:

      Bonds was the player of the previous generation. A-Rod was the second best hitter of this generation (and his career started in earnest 4 years earlier than Pujols)

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    • Nat76 says:

      Some very good stuff in this comment. Just to open up the sample size a bit. We could take the top X number of guys in WAR in the post integration era from ages 26 to 31 to get a decent feel for the “best”. Eliminate the catchers and known/probable juicers from this list, and come up with comps. From there, we can take guys who have at least had the opportunity to retire who have played through 38 or so. Just to make it easy, guys with a SLG >.500 and WAR from 26 to 31 over 32 is pretty slective company: Mays, Aaron, Schmidt, Musial, Yaz, Banks, F. Robinson, Griffey, Jackson, Brett, Perez, McCovey, Murray, Kaline. Pujols just edges out Musial for #4 if he were 10 years older and on this list.

      Mays and Aaron are the only two guys on this list whose 10 year (Pujols contract age) cumulative WAR exceeds their 6 year WAR from 26 to 31. Musial’s 10 year was at 83% of his prior 6. Schmidt @ 83%, Robinson @ 79%, Brett 75%, Kaline 75%, Yaz 60%, McCovey 51%. Jackson/Murray/Perez = low 40s, Griffey 22%, and Banks at 17%. Mantle didn’t make the 8 year cutoff btw.

      This can be skewed by games played, so adjusting both age groups for WAR/162 games played gives us a different set of ratios:
      Mays 80%, Robinson 70%, Schmidt 68%, Aaron 66%, Kaline 62%, Musial 62%, Brett 44%, Yaz 41%, McCovey 38%, Perez.Murray/Jackson at 30%, Griffey 19%, and Banks at 14%.

      A couple of very interesting things stick out. The first being that the best players in terms of 26-31 production (adjusted for games played or not) retained their production at a higher rate, in absolute and per 162 played. The other interesting bit is that of the next 4 players, two had awful declines (Griffey and Banks). Pujols doesn’t have the injury history of Griffey so this doesn’t concern me too much and Banks I suppose could have aged due to wear and tear at SS on a relatively big SS’s frame (for that era at least).

      It’s a small sample size, but if I had to pick comps, I’d go with Schmidt, Musial, Yaz and Robinson, and this is where chronic injuries tie into this. As bat speed goes (because it will) and as already not great speed go (because it will), Pujols won’t be able to beat out plays that and Aaron or Mays would to get on base. Using those 4, expect about 15 more games missed per year (this excludes Robinson’s last year or so when he was basically done). Also assume roughly 38 to 45 extra wins produced over the life of the contract based upon Robinson, Schmidt, and Musial in particular…even with the DH slot open to him (as Yaz and Robinson had this available as well). A one of injury to curtail all of this is always a possibility, but I don’t see it at that likely, maybe a 1 in 10 or 1 in 5 given the fate of other elite players, many of whom had their share of dings earlier in their career.

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      • Nat76 says:

        Should probably also add that none of the 4 “best comps” ever exceeded 7.6 WAR again (Schmidt + Musial both at 7.6 one time). Just taking the average of the top 3 of these 4 in any given year gives us a pretty decent curve:

        32 and 33: abt 6.5
        34 to 36: abt. 5.0
        37: abt 4.0
        38: abt 2.5
        39 to 41: abt 1.0

        This comes in at the low end of the 38 to 45 range above. Maybe bump every year by 10% because he’s probably at/near the top of this group of 4 players for the high end.

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      • TexPantego says:

        I’d like to see the numbers on how heavier players age compared to average to below-average wight. I have to think the back, hips, knees and ankles will tend to wear out faster.

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  22. cs3 says:

    is anyone else worried more about MLB’s new HGH testing program than injury risk over the next few years?

    Just based on the how fast he has recovered from previous injuries it seems like theres definitely some non zero chance that Pujols has/does use the stuff.

    Of course MLB’s HGH policy was designed by idiots so there will be no in season testing which is just baffling

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    • cs3 says:

      edit – apparently i need to read all the comments first as Eric thinks the same thing

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    • TexPantego says:

      IF his broken forearm was as reported, something really funky was going on, because I had the same injury, and his recovery time to me is unbelievable. I broke mine in the exact same place playing softball five years ago, and I haven’t played an innings since.

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  23. Chone 'Figlet' Figgins says:

    Cardinals fans all riding the….
    |^^^^^^^^^^^\||____
    | WAMBULANCE |||””‘|””\__,_
    | _____________ l||__|__|__|)
    |(@)@)”””””””**|(@)(@)**|(@)

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  24. Joey B says:

    The risk of injury is minor compared to the risk of non-performance.

    Again, how many players aged 36 or older are in the top 60 of wOBA this year?

    I know, it’s Pujols, so the laws of physics cease to exist in LA. But they used to cease to exist in NY until they realized that age 36 comes as quickly to the ARods of the world as to anyone else.

    Again, the WARs, the inflation rates, all that stuff is fun and valuable. But as with any mathematical model, you need to set it aside and ask if it makes sense from an intuitive perspective.

    If the guys in the 36 an older club aren’t allowed in the top-60 wOBA club, none of the models matter.

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    • Husker says:

      Three cheers for Joey B for pointing out that injury is not the only reason why players cease to perform. Many do so without any apparent reason at all.

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  25. Husker says:

    This is only one of two articles (or even comments) I’ve seen that take any account of the risk side of Pujol’s enormous contract, the other being Dave Cameron’s. Kudos for that.
    There is certainly a much higher than zero possibility that Pujols will contribute far less than anybody’s projected WAR for him would indicate thru lack of performance due to any number of reasons, injury chief among them,
    It is a fact, not just my opinion, that this $250M investment is a poor one. Pujols is much more likely to be worth much less than that number and extremely unlikely to be worth greater or equal in the next 10 years.

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  26. One of my thoughts is that a “sucky” Pujols wont continue playing as star players tend to have an aversion to embarrassing themselves.

    Do we have data on megastars toward the end of their careers and how long they continue playing after say posting a sub 2 WAR season?

    For Pujols to continue playing at age 40 and 41, my guess is that he’ll still be a reasonably good hitter and healthy. At that age rehabilitation is just not worth it for most guys.

    For him to be playing that long, he could be chasing the HR record, but he’d need to average 30+ HR over those 10 years. In other words he’ll still be good.

    If he starts to drastically decline and/or suffer from injury, IMO, he’s more likely to just walk away. So, in that case, the deal could only end up being 8 years.

    The concern seems to be if AP is a 2 WAR players for the last 3-4 years, and I don’t really envision him playing through that, especially if he is hurting the team. I just don’t see many superstars doing that once talk of them being finished starts or they start hearing some boos.

    Be interesting to see the worst total WARs of the top greatest 15 players over their last 3 years.

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