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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.