Pujols, Age, and the Midwest League

Down here in Dallas, speculation about Albert Pujols‘ future has hit a fever pitch. The Marlins have apparently offered a 10 year contract, and are pushing for a decision in the not too distant future. You’ll probably be reading a lot more about Pujols in next few days.

But, for now, I want to address one lingering question about him that hangs over the question of how many years is too many years for a guy in his early thirties, and that’s whether we should buy into the speculation that Pujols fudged his birthday and is actually older than he claims. This rumor has been around forever, as Pujols didn’t look anything like a 21-year-old when he broke into the game back in 2001. If you combine his appearance and his early development into one of the game’s best hitters with a somewhat unorthodox background, you have a prime recipe for age-related speculation.

I see two significant problems that prevent me from buying into the speculation, however.

First, there’s simply the matter of incentives. International prospects have historically hidden their actual birth dates from MLB organizations in order to extract larger signing bonuses, as teams will pay a lot more for a projectable 16-year-old than a similarly skilled player who is already 18 or 19. In many cases, the players who misrepresented their age gained hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonus money that they wouldn’t have otherwise received, so the financial incentive to lie was remarkably high, especially considering the standard of living in many of the countries where these prospects are being scouted.

Pujols’ situation was remarkably different, however. His incentive to lie about his age after arriving in the United States was not to receive significant financial gain, but instead to qualify for high school baseball. He spent two years playing for Fort Osage High in Independence, Missouri, and then went on to spend a year at Maple Woods Community College – presumably, if Pujols was a few years older than he’s led everyone to believe, he wouldn’t have been able to do any of those things, and lost out on three years of baseball development.

However, it’s not like that deception led to financial riches for Pujols. As you’re almost certainly aware, the Cardinals took him in the 13th round of the 2000 draft and offered him $10,000 to sign, only upping that to $60,000 after an impressive performance in the JayHawk Summer League. If we believe that Pujols was several years older than he claims, he essentially delayed his entry into professional baseball by three years for a final payoff of $20,000 per year, which wasn’t guaranteed to begin with. From a financial perspective, he actually could have done better by just getting a job and playing independent league ball in his spare time.

If Pujols did lie about his age, it didn’t result in any kind of financial benefit, and it delayed his entry into professional baseball. From a motivational standpoint, it’s hard to see why Pujols would choose to take that path.

Beyond just the incentive issue, however, there’s an issue of his performance in the Midwest League in 2000. If you assume that Pujols is several years older than he claims, then you believe that he spent his one minor league season in low-A ball playing at age 22 or 23, facing pitchers that are three or four years younger and far inferior in terms of stage of development. In general, a player who is already in his early twenties and is still in the Midwest League is behind the development curve, and needs to demolish his competition and force the organization to promote him rapidly.

Pujols was the best prospect in the Midwest League in 2000, but his .324/.389/.565 line wasn’t historically dominating or anything – Austin Kearns hit .306/.415/.558 as a known 20-year-old that same year in that same league, for instance. Pujols managed just 17 home runs in 109 games, in fact, and then dropped off to just .284/.341/.481 in 21 games after a late-season promotion to high-A ball. This was not the performance of a man-child destroying inferior competition – it was right in line with what other good prospects had achieved at similar stages of their career against similar competition.

That Pujols hit .329/.403/.610 in 2001 often causes people to believe that he was well ahead of the normal development curve, but in reality, if Pujols is several years older than he claims, then his minor league performance (relative to his level of competition) didn’t suggest stardom at all. In fact, it would have suggested that he was an inferior prospect to a guy like Hee-Seop Choi, who had put up better numbers in the Midwest League the year before.

With the benefit of hindsight, we know that Pujols is one of the great hitters in the history of the sport. It strains credibility to suggest that one of the all-time greats could get sent to the lowest level of full-season minor league baseball in his prime and still get outhit by Austin Kearns. In fact, in looking at Pujols’ power development between 2000 and 2001, the much more logical explanation for the explosion is that he actually was 20-years-old and got naturally stronger, which is a pretty common observation with players of that age.

Could Pujols be older than he claims? Sure – none of this is definitive. However, considering the general lack of evidence supporting the rumors, the fact that there’s also any real lack of incentive for Pujols to lie about his age and the fact that his minor league performance makes more sense if he didn’t lie about his age, I find it hard to come down on the side of fraud here. The whispers and innuendo will always be there, but in terms of facts, I just don’t see many to suggest that Pujols is actually older than he claims.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

43 Responses to “Pujols, Age, and the Midwest League”

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  1. J-Rich says:

    That type of analysis is why I read your website. Great job.

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  2. Tom says:

    The logic behind your first point–that there was little incentive for Pujols to misrepresent his age upon entering the U.S.–is flawed. The best way to determine whether he had an incentive to lie is to evaluate how he may have viewed the matter at the time, instead of looking at what actually occurred in hindsight. After all, Pujols could not have predicted where he would be drafted or what bonus he would receive when he entered the U.S. A player like Pujols might reasonably have assumed that he would be more likely to be drafted higher, and receive a larger bonus, if he was thought to be 3 years younger. That it did not turn out that way is irrelevant to what his true motives might have been if he actually lied about his age.

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    • Greg says:

      Then why move to the U.S. at all? Major League baseball had a concerted presence in the Dominican Republic in the late 1990s. If Pujols had stayed in the D.R., he would not have been subject to the limitations the amateur draft imposes. Once he turned 16, he could have signed with the organization of his choice. By moving to the U.S., he foreclosed any economic opportunities in baseball until his 18th birthday, and then he would be forced to sign with the team that drafted him or wait another year and re-enter the draft. That makes no sense.

      And, if moving to the U.S. was for the purpose of marketing himself as a baseball player, then why on earth would his father pick up and leave the Bronx for Kansas City, Missouri, just days after their arrival? The story goes that Pujols witnessed a murder, and his father wanted to get the hell out of Dodge to a safer place to raise a family. That sounds like what any caring father would do, but certainly moving away from the high school that produced Manny Ramirez to a Kansas City suburb nobody has heard of would not be a wise choice to make if the end game was to make money playing baseball.

      Dave Cameron’s reasoning is spot on.

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    • jesse says:

      Dave’s point, which i agree with, is that lying about your age makes some sense in the short term for an immediate outcome with well defined parameters. So what were pujols’ real expectations about lying about his age three years prior to becoming a pro? Most high schoolers, even highly touted ones can’t expect to be baseball players. Pujols apparently was not in the that upper echelon at that point. To lie about it just on the off chance you get drafted three years later is, I think, an extreme assumption.

      that being said, i’m not sure what benefits being three years younger for enrolling in high school brings.

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      • stan says:

        I think maybe you guys are missing the point that Dave did mention: Pujols wouldn’t have been able to enroll in high school at all in he had told the truth about his age. Once he started playing baseball in high school, he couldn’t back off the lie about his age because once he became a legitimate prospect the difference in age made him so much more marketable.

        At this point there isn’t really much doubt among baseball people that he’s actually 33.

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      • JohnOrpheus says:

        “At this point there isn’t really much doubt among baseball people that he’s actually 33.”

        Really, Stan? Are you a baseball person or just a random guy engaging in pure speculation and stating it as a fact? Please, reveal your front office connections.

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      • Baseball People says:

        We dunno, Stan. We don’t doubt his age at all. Don’t put words in our mouths.

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      • baty says:

        Should we then assume that if Pujols came to the US and for some reason decided he would claim to be 3 years older than what he really was, he would not have been disadvantaged?

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    • CJ says:

      I don’t particularly find the arguments persuasive that Pujols is older than he states. There is just too much speculation, rather than hard evidence, for those arguments.

      But I don’t really buy Dave’s argument about Pujols’ lack of incentive to lie about his age in high school. Is there is any evidence that Pujols came to the U.S. just to play baseball? His family may have wanted to live in the United States, like many other immigrants. The Pujols family began migrating to the U.S. in the 1990s, initially arriving in New York City; they later migrated from there to Missouri.

      Families sometimes will lie about kids’ ages in high school for a variety of reasons, including a strong desire to avoid the social stigma of being an 19 year old who is still in school. I live in Texas, and there are cases every year (or so it seems) where high school football teams default wins because a player is older than allowed for high school sports. These players didn’t have a monetary incentive to lie about their age; they probably just wanted to play football in high school but they hadn’t registered for school with their proper age.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      Seriously guys?

      Why lie about your age so that you could be older and play high school ball and/or attend high school? Ummm, I can think of two [1] dominate sports, [2] girls.

      I can also think of a 3rd one …. get extra help with academics so you can qualify for college sports, via ESL/ELL instruction, help finding grants, and if one wanted they could even examine free breakfast/lunch assistance programs and things of that nature. Note: I have NO idea what AP’s SES was in high school, I’m just communicating reasons why an older immigrant might want to lie about their age to play HS sports.

      You guys know that in certain regions of the country it is an expected practice that dads don’t start their kids in kindergarten until they are 6yo so that they will be bigger/mature for high school sports, right? So, they’ll be competing against kids a physical year younger even though they’re in the same grade.

      In this case, a player MAY have lied about his age so that he could compete against players 2-3 years younger than him. Why would a guy do that?

      Better question, Why WOULDN’T a guy do that?

      I don;t think AP lied about his age. I think he’s very much like Lindros and/or Lebron. He was a MAN in JuCo, when most of us were just becoming men. He is likely (IMO) an early maturer. It’s also why he (and LeBron) are full on bald at 30.

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      • Vision says:

        The 6 y/o part, by the way, there is an overwhelming amount of evidence that it is better for males to start school at 6 y/o due to maturity and developmental factors.

        Claiming they do it solely so that their sons can dominate sports is silly.

        Almost as silly as Internet rumor mongers stating “it is generally accepted around baseball that Pujols is actually 33.”

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    • jcxy says:

      while i’m sympathetic to your overall contention, i see two problems with this statement:

      “If Pujols did lie about his age, it didn’t result in any kind of financial benefit, and it delayed his entry into professional baseball. From a motivational standpoint, it’s hard to see why Pujols would choose to take that path.”

      first, logically, i think you’re coming pretty close to denying the antecedent. just because the intended result (immediate financial gain) didn’t occur doesn’t mean that the action (age deception) that generally causes that result didn’t take place. right?

      second, as we saw with jose tabata this summer, the benefit of age deception isn’t always (immediately) related to money. a portion of scout projections for players come from a player’s performance relative to his peers. for instance, tabata’s AA numbers *for a 22 year old* weren’t that impressive and probably wouldn’t have warranted extra attention. but as a listed 20 year old, the organization can say: “oh look, he has some potential. let’s devote some of our finite coaching/playing time/resources to developing him.”

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  3. TK says:

    I know the professionals that make a lot of money doing this for MLB teams would have a more scientific approach, but wouldn’t you just try to predict his current value (say 7.0 WAR), and depreciate that 0.5 WAR per season? I know that older players can have steeper declines, but it is difficult to compare Pujols to normal players. Many of the true alltime great hitters were all-star to MVP level thorughout their 30s (Ruth, Williams, Aaron).

    In addition, signing Pujols to a 10 or even 8 year deal carries huge risk whether he’s 31 or 33. Even if I believed these rumors had some probability of truth (and your analysis does a good job of combating that), it would not make that big of a difference to me.

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  4. PiratesHurdles says:

    I think more people question this – “got naturally stronger” – than question his age. He developed tremendously at the apex of the steroid era. If he isn’t all natural then its hard to predict his aging curve.

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    • Greg says:

      Again, you have no evidence whatsoever to back up the PED claim. You are finding Pujols guilty by association. And Pujols had arguably the best years of his career in 2008 and 2009, at least relative to league averages. Random drug testing in MLB started in 2006. So the support for your argument that Pujols used PEDs is that he got better after drug testing? There’s a winner.

      Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio had similar starts to their careers. Did they use? Aaron and Mays developed way ahead of their expected curve. Did they use? Did Ken Griffey Jr. use? How about Frank Thomas, who was relentless in advocating for more drug testing in baseball?

      What these players have in common is they are among the greatest hitters ever to play the game. And all time greats do not follow anyone’s “curve.” They are anomalies. You cannot compare them to lesser players. And you cannot compare Albert Pujols to his peers. He is without peer.

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      • PiratesHurdles says:

        Greg, can you pass the rose colored glasses my way? There is simply no way that you can be sure about anyone from that era. He went from a late round pick to uber stud in 2 years. That is just not “normal”, all your examples of great players were recognized as such at very young ages. Transcendent talent doesn’t usually get missed by that much in such a short period.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      I’ve spoken with JuCo coaches that coached against AP and they are just amazed that he didn’t get more attention as an amatuer. He broke every HR record for every team he ever played on. HS, ALegion, JuCo, etc.

      His performance has been incredibly consistent. He didn’t just explode into power during a season or a single off-season.

      The consensus I hear is that he was overlooked as an amatuer because he was a “fat shortstop”, and people were not sure what position he would play as a pro. I’ve heard others state that Pujols size in JuCo had them question his work ethic, his ethnicity probably didn’t help that perception. When I say ethnicity, I am referring to assumptions being made about his bone structure and how much he might possibly weigh in 3 years, but also negative connotations made about overweight hispanics (or just overweight players in general, your choice).

      I think it’s time that we just call it like it is. Pujols was and always has been a tremendous player. He SHOULD have been a huge prospect, but wasn’t. Was it his size? his region? his non-Americaness?

      Scouts screwed the pooch on this one. They missed it.The guy played ONE year of MiLB ball, OPS’d .920, and then won rookie of the year and was basically the best player in baseball for the next decade.

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      • Kevin says:

        Can you please name me one other player in MLB history who was drafted after the 10th round and was not only in the majors in under 22 months but dominating the competition?

        You can say sometimes scouts miss on guys, Sometimes they go a round or two later, or take 4-5 years to develop. But in an era where 13 year olds were getting scouted how in the world did every scout miss on a kid with that kind of potential when it never happened before in sports.

        Look I am not saying he is 33, I don’t know if he did PEDs. But normal people don’t go from 13th round draft pick to random good rookie in A ball to a top 3 player in one of the juiced performance enhanced era’s in baseball history in the span of two years.

        Albert Pujols story just doesn’t happen. Does that make me think something fishy happened with Pujol’s one way or the other? You bet your ass it does.

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      • Baseball People says:

        Kevin, normal people don’t win MVP awards either.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        His age has nothing to do with my comments in this post, UNLESS the reason why he wasn’t drafted earlier was because scouts thought he was 2-3 years older than he was, and completely discounted his HS, AL, and JuCo performance.

        My point is that …

        1. He dominated in HS.
        2. He dominated American Legion
        3. He dominated JuCo
        4. He dominated MiLB
        5. He dominated MLB

        He didn’t just “turn it on” at one level or another, or his age difference among his peers (if actually the case) didn’t just materialize at one level and not others.

        It’s been my experience that peers and other coaches will often try and make themselves sound smart by saying things like “He wasn’t that impressive when I saw him” or “he must have really developed after I saw him” in regards to a pro prospect, as if they have some sort of special gift of seeing things that no one else can see.

        When I’ve heard them speak of Pujols it’s been “Like nothing you’ve ever seen … and he played shortstop” or “The ball doesn’t even sound the same off the bat” or “he hit the same car windshield twice in a game”, just crazy stuff (usually at coaches conferences and things of that nature). Like I said, guys often will try and make themselves sound better by marginalizing someone that everyone else thinks is just awesome. I’ve never heard anyone make comments about AP in that regard, and I’ve done some amount of research trying to figure out how the best player in baseball for a decade had 400 players drafted ahead of him. For personal and professional reasons, I wanted to find out if was primarily because of his region, his body type, perceptions of his work ethic, flaws in his game, his ethnicity, etc.

        It’s just very difficult for me to imagine a guy that ripped up A-ball and MLB in two years of pro ball, not being just the most impressive thing you’ve ever seen in amatuer ball.

        I’ve read Greg Maddux’s high school scouting report. It’s about as good as a chart can get for someone without a plus fastball. I would LOVE to read Albert Pujols’s scouting reports from HS, if he was scouted at all.

        I agree with you that there’s not been anyone like him in recent history. So, either he did the world’s best steroids after the draft and before A ball, learned how play the game after the draft and before A ball, or for some reason scouts thought the best player in the draft was not as good as the 400 guys chosen before him.

        Do we even know if all teams scouted him?

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      • Joof says:

        Kevin: Mike Piazza was a 62nd round pick, made the majors relatively quickly while learning to catch, won Rookie of the year, and then had one of the best careers for a catcher of all time.

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  5. Husker says:

    I had to look 3 times to make sure the great Dave Cameron was actually the author of this article. Pujols had a great, but not historically great, year in A ball in 2000, therefore he has not lied about his age is one of the weakest arguments I have ever seen for anything.

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    • rogue_actuary says:

      I think you’re missing the point. The idea is, I believe, Bayesian. We know the outcome. We know that Pujols is historically great. We also know that baseball players generally age a certain way. Dave isn’t saying that Pujols’ A-ball season wasn’t historically great. He’s saying that it wasn’t historically great AND Pujols would have been really old that year. And historically great players generally aren’t in that level of A-ball at Pujols’ theorized age. He’s also saying that a crazy-good MLB player at the age of, say, 25 or 26 would have likely put up historically good low-A ball numbers at the age of 23 or 24.

      Given that Pujols is really good, it’s a lot more likely that he was a good, young, low A-baller than that he was a way-too-old-for-his-level low A-baller putting up good numbers.

      And I agree.

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      • baty says:

        It’s still a really flimsy argument… Is there really a “pre-MLB historical player mold” that can steer us in the correct direction? I don’t think so… This is all just more speculation on top of speculation, which is fine, but I don’t see how either side of the belief is right or wrong at this point. We just don’t know for sure…

        I think the larger point of this article should be that “without proof we can’t say for sure.” But this isn’t anything new. It’s really just an opinion based on a few select reasons.

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  6. Hunter says:

    Slightly tangential, but I find it amazing that science still hasn’t come up with an accurate test for age. Then Pujols could just be tested, and we wouldn’t have to talk about this any more.

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  7. Hunter says:

    Also, there are some entitlement programs that are available to immigrant children as opposed to adult immigrants. Just a total SWAG, but there could be non baseball reasons for Pujols to be younger.

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    • Hunter says:

      To clarify: don’t think you can just examine the baseball reasons Pujols might want to be younger and declare case closed without examining other reasons, e.g. Health insurance, Food stamps, etc.

      Now of course whether that is anyone’s business or not is a different story….

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    • Greg says:

      And that holds true for everyone born in the U.S.

      I am willing to bet my left nut that Mike Stanton is really 25 or 26, and he lied about his age so his parents could receive more welfare and tax credits. You know, because welfare fraud is rampant in LA County, so anybody from there is a suspect.

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      • Hunter says:

        US births are much harder to lie about, thanks to the much better US record keeping system.

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      • Jimmy the Greek says:

        Except if Stanton was born in LA County then they presumably have his actual birth certificate. Unlike immigrants, who often arrive without official birth certificates, making it easier for them to lie about their age.

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      • Joe says:

        Bad hyperbole is not a good way to argue your point…..

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    • Geoff says:

      Like being eligible for a US high school education, for example.

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  8. BigBird says:

    He and his family would have many more incentives than baseball for him to lie about his age. He (and his family by extension) could be eligible for many entitlement programs. They family presumably saw the value in getting an education in English. The school district might have had an age limit whereby he would either have to get a GED or would not be eligible to participate in high school athletics. Furthermore a solid performance in high school baseball would open the door for college scholarships. Analyzing the situation with information Pujols and his family did not have at the time (him becoming a bad, bad mang) is not the correct starting point.

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    • Greg says:

      In Pujols’s case, he took his GED and graduated from high school a semester early. He then enrolled in junior college to improve his stock before the amateur draft. He pulled a Bryce Harper before Bryce Harper.

      People who are trying to rig the system generally don’t chose to abdicate their status. Pujols gave up a free public school education in an attempt to persuade small-minded people (scouts) who had already made an erroneous conclusion about him (that he wasn’t worthy of an early round draft pick and large signing bonus). Pujols failed to change anyone’s mind.

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  9. Hurtlockertwo says:

    What difference does it make? If Pujols gets the ten year contract he will still be
    almost 40 in year eight. Does anyone really think he will produce even close to his current level at age 40? The obvious benefit is that he may break Bonds HR
    record (or ARod’s), and that is worth big bucks to any team. If he drops off a cliff in 3-4 years production wise then the “real” question may be more valid.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      Seriously, what difference does it make? You ask that question during AP’s FA year following the worst year of his career?

      People are trying to figure out if he’s a 31yo that just had a down year or if he’s a 34yo that’s enter his significant decline phase. It’s also the first time that he has had consecutive seasons where he performed worse than the year before.

      That would be kind of important to any team offering him a 10y deal.

      Now, if you’re saying his age doesn’t matter because someone is going to give him a 10y deal, then agree.

      I think every team knows that you’re going to overpay for the last years of AP’s contract. People keep pointing that out as if the Miami Marlins are signing Pujols to make a run during the 20019-2021 seasons.

      I mean no shit he’s not going to be producing at 20M/y at age 39-41 … but you don’t get to sign him for just the seasons you want to pay him. You have to, through negotiations, pay him for the later years in order to get the prime years.

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  10. Jordan says:

    Your point about Pujols’ minor league numbers is well taken, but as for him having no motivation to lie about his age, that’s just flat out untrue. Having teams believe you’re younger than you in fact are doesn’t stop helping you financially until you retire. Do you think a 2-year-older Pujols would be getting the same contract offers he’s getting now?

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  11. Peter R says:

    I cant say any of these arguments convinced me of anything besides that Dave C’s writing continues it’s downward trend of one-sidedness and poor arguments.

    The first part of your article is based on some very poorly thought out assumptions about the life of immigrants in this country.

    The second part of your argument rests on the claim that all of his success is attributable to only his natural ability and that he did not have any skills to learn or hone and any needed coaching. Your argument only works if we can assume Albert came into pro baseball knowing everything he needed to be the player he was in 2001…which is ridiculous. It also insults poor Austin who if I remember right was a decent prospect/player for a while.

    You used to be my favorite author here but lately your writing has been lacking in the quality I have come to expect.

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  12. Lucky Jim says:

    I wonder what the incentives were for Jerry Joseph: http://www.gq.com/sports/profiles/201107/jerry-joseph-scandal-hs-basketball?printable=true

    Has anyone figured out how old Jerez is yet?? http://articles.nydailynews.com/2011-06-04/sports/29640788_1_grand-street-coach-psal-major-league-baseball-draft

    I think the performance curve argument is intriguing, but relatively unconvincing. I think the “incentive” argument is both logically flawed and unconvincing. Dave will have to point out the inspiration for his sparkling “ex-post rational actor” economic modeling.

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  13. Am I saying all boys that start kindergarten at 6 are for sports purposes? Of course not. I’m a school administrator that deals with boys and maturity issues continually. There are some very sound reasons to start boys at 6.

    I’m also a coach in various sports and much has been written about certain regions, particularly football heavy areas, engaging in the practice so their kids are big for their age.

    In my personal situation, my 10yo son’s birthday is a few days past the cutoff, so he’s always the youngest kid in his grade. Development and size wise he’s way ahead of the curve. For baseball purposes this means he always plays against 11 and 12yo which is a huge advantage for him. He’s the “that kids really 10yo?” kid. Someday he’ll be the only 17yo senior on his baseball team.

    Due to his birthday we could have waited a year later to start school. We started him when we did because he was already reading. Had we not, we’d be looking at a 4’10 105-lb 4th grader. For sports that would be a huge advantage. Check some of the birthdays on the 5’10 kids in the LLWS. For coaches this is a well known type of exploit. Start your kid in school a year later and they’ll be one year older/bigger than the other boys in their grade.

    But, I’m not saying that all 6yo in K are for sports reasons, only that the situation in some areas has garnered much discussion on the intent. It happens, was my point.

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  14. Bob says:

    Nice article, and the Midwest League argument is completely persuasive—at least for anyone who understands the relationship between minor and major league hitting performances.

    As Dave said, any MLB hitter of historic greatness would absolutely *dismantle* (or mickeymantle) the low-A MWL, if he played there at age 22 or 23. Hell, didn’t Ian Kinsler hit .400+ there, with plus power, at age 22?

    Thanks, Dave.

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  15. Tanned Tom says:

    Lot of very well reasoned arguments on both sides here, thanks. But it is possible for parents to lie about the age of their child for foolish reasons that defy rationality. Sometimes people tell stupid lies because they are misinformed or scared, or because the forms were filled out incorrectly, or on and on. I myself think his age is accurate. The remarkable consistency he’s shown at such a high level almost proves it. A player might get a boost when young from such a deception, but the advantage will fade when he’s stopped developing physically. Pujols has just been flat out great his whole career.

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