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Important Year Ahead for Pujols and Baseball

On October 6th, the St. Louis Cardinals picked up Albert Pujols‘s $16 million dollar option. Perhaps it’s because of the playoffs that this move went relatively unnoticed and unheralded, perhaps it’s simply because this move is the most obvious move in the history of baseball operations. That’s not particularly noteworthy on its face, but what is important is that this signifies the last season of Pujols’s current contract, meaning that barring a midseason deal, Albert Pujols will be a free agent after next season.

The greatness of Albert Pujols’s career to date can hardly be overstated by any metric. He has been in the league now for 10 seasons. In each season, he’s posted at least a .300 batting average, 30 home runs, and 100 RBIs. He hasn’t had an on-base percentage below .394 nor a slugging percentage below .561. He’s never posted a wOBA below .400. His UZR has only been below average once (before his move to first base). His 80.6 career Wins Above Replacement ranks 43rd all-time among position players, just below Johnny Bench and Reggie Jackson and just above Rod Carew and Dan Brouthers. His career path is extraordinary even for the extraordinary, as the following graph shows.

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Pujols isn’t quite Ruthian, but with the radical changes to baseball’s landscape since the days of the Babe, that’s a given. Pujols’s career path to this point actually betters that of the most recent superstar, Barry Bonds. To find his best comparables through age 30, we have to reach back to the 1960s and 1970s, to two fantastic outfielders in Hank Aaron and Willie Mays. Pujols’s career path so far tracks the career paths of Aaron and Mays (not pictured but nearly identical) almost perfectly. Aaron and Mays are the best non-Ruth players of the live-ball era, at least according to our implementation of WAR. One could argue the order, but there is no doubt that those are four of the best players ever to play in a Major League stadium. Albert Pujols, through age 30, is right on that level.

We saw a player of this kind of stature reach free agency merely a few months ago in the NBA, when LeBron James created a media frenzy surrounding his free agency and eventual departure from the Cleveland Cavaliers to join a “superteam” in Miami. James’s free agency was anticipated for years by NBA media and fans. Albert Pujols’s impending free agency is an important topic of conversation among those in the know, Part of that is probably due to the culture of the leagues. Baseball doesn’t advertise its players to nearly the level that the NBA does, with players like James and Michael Jordan earning loads of money through endorsement and creating media empires. That’s not to say that Pujols or other MLB players don’t endorse – obviously, that’s not the case – but individual players clearly aren’t as big of a selling point for the MLB as they are in the NBA, and Albert Pujols is definitely nowhere near the personality that LeBron James is.

Pujols’s decision can impact the competitive balance in the MLB in much as James’s decision has shifted power in the NBA. The Cardinals have a tremendous amount of resources tied up in just a few players right now, resulting in a top-heavy roster. The greatness of Pujols allows this model to succeed, whereas with a team like the Astros, it will fail. Without Pujols, that model will likely fail the Cardinals much as it figures to fail the NBA’s Cavaliers this season. Meanwhile, Albert and his agent will have every single team lining up to add the ultimate roster booster. If Pujols does indeed become a free agent, realize that it isn’t normal. Players this good become free agents maybe once a decade.