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TLDR: Albert Pujols’s Consistency Problem

No, it’s not what you think. Albert Pujols is the very model of consistency as a baseball player. The man’s WAR has WAR. It’s not about Pujols deciding to spend the next decade in Anaheim either. He made the decision that he felt was best for him and his family and I wish him the best of luck.

Pujols has a different type of consistency problem, you see. The reader might recall that in 2006, when Ryan Howard won the NL MVP Award, Pujols responded like a petulant child in a press conference:

I see it this way: Someone who doesn’t take his team to the playoffs doesn’t deserve to win the MVP.

Howard’s Phillies, of course, missed the playoffs in 2006 while the Cardinals won the NL Central and, ultimately, the World Series.

Pujols probably deserved the MVP in 2006. Not, as he claimed, because his team made the playoffs, but because he was the best player in the league (his 8.5 WAR led the league and his .448 wOBA was best in the NL). Indeed, Pujols’s statement was colossally dumb for at least two reasons. First, although the Cardinals made the playoffs, they did so with an 83-78 record. The Phillies finished with a record of 85-77. Second, when in 2008 Albert Pujols won the MVP award in spite of his team missing the playoffs, he found himself in the awkward position of having to choose between (A) Rejecting the award on principle or (B) Accepting the award and admitting that he was wrong when he said what he said in 2006 lest he look like a hypocrite. But even this could be construed as a tacit admission that he was just being a sore loser in 2006.

Not surprisingly, Pujols chose the latter course. Instead of admitting he was wrong, however, he offered this wishy-washy explanation:

“What I said was that players who take their teams to the playoffs should have consideration for MVP,” Pujols said during a conference call with members of the Baseball Writers’ Assn. of America on Monday. “Obviously, that year, Howard got it. His team was in the playoff race.

“I think the writers made the right choice (then). He had 58 home runs, 149 RBIs … he had a great year, just like I had (this year). That’s how it is.”

[…]

“We were in contention to get a playoff spot until the last two weeks of the season,” Pujols said when asked if he was surprised to win. “We were in first place for while.

“I wasn’t surprised at all.”

With only a slight tweak to the wording of his comment from two years before, it goes from being an argument against his deservingness of the honor to, presto change-o, a justification for winning it. If in a decade or so Pujols is searching for his calling outside of baseball, he certainly appears to have a natural talent for propaganda.

Just yesterday, Inconsistent Pujols returned. The folks at Deadspin went digging through the digital crates and found this nugget from back in 2009. Said Pujols then:

People from other teams want to play in St. Louis and they’re jealous that we’re in St. Louis because the fans are unbelievable. So why would you want to leave a place like St. Louis to go somewhere else and make $3 or $4 more million a year? It’s not about the money. I already got my money. It’s about winning and that’s it. It’s about accomplishing my goal and my goal is to try to win. If this organization shifts the other way then I have to go the other way.

As Deadspin points out, Pujols signed a 10 year deal worth between $250 and $260 million dollars with the Angels. The Cardinals, on the other hand, were reportedly offering him either 9 years and $205 million or 10 years and $220 million. At most, this amounts to a $4 million per year difference; at the least, it is about $2.23 million per year. And yet, there Albert goes.

So what gives?

It’s not as if when Pujols made this statement he meant that upon accomplishment of “his goal” (i.e. a championship) those extra millions would suddenly become an object to him again, because at the time he made the statement he already had one World Series ring. Nor is it as if the Cardinals organization “has shifted the other way” and is no longer committed to winning. They just won, and they were willing to pony up over $200 million to try to keep their best player around for the foreseeable future. Rather, this seems to be a case of him making a statement to score easy points with the fans and the media without the full recognition that some people might actually expect him to, you know, be true to his word when the time comes. When he is on the record with a statement like this, at the very least you can sympathize with the fans’ desire for some kind of explanation — if not for the decision to leave, then for the statement itself.

Again, the point of all this is not to bash Pujols’s decision to leave St. Louis. His choice to sign with Anaheim was one that only he and his family were in a position to make. The point is to note that when your mouth writes checks that you have no intention of cashing — checks that, frankly, may not be in your best interest to cash — it makes you look bad; maybe even a little bit dishonest. Albert Pujols is human just like us, and as a general rule humans should be discouraged from making statements without carefully thinking through their implications and potential ramifications first.

I think the root of the problem is that sports fans and the sports media have an unhealthy obsession with the “hometown hero.” Try as we might, it is very difficult to break down the dominant sports-as-morality-play mode of thought, and people simply love the “wholesome” player who selflessly turns down a few extra million dollars to stay with the same team for his whole career. Meanwhile, Pujols — in addition to dominating on the field — desperately wants to bolster his image as an all-around mensch, so much so that he’ll say virtually anything without first thinking: “Hey, $3-4 million per year over 9 or 10 years is actually a hell of a lot of money and I could probably use that money, so maybe I shouldn’t tell people that the money isn’t important to me because in a few years I might actually want to choose to sign with the team that’s offering me $40 million more. I wouldn’t want to look like I went back on my word by doing so.” It all flows from the fans’ irrational belief that their feelings should be considered in what amounts to a personal business decision by a player. How about we purge this from our sports discourse entirely?