10-year contract for Pujols an extreme deal for an extreme player

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One of the signs of true greatness is the lack of any good comparables. There simply haven’t been many talents like Albert Pujols in Major League Baseball history. Through 11 big-league seasons, he’s won three NL MVP awards and finished second four times. He’s finished in the top five in the balloting 10 times.

Overall, Pujols has hit .328/.420/.617 with 445 homers and 1,329 RBI. He’d be a Hall of Famer if he retired today, yet we know that that’s unlikely, what with the Marlins offering him a whopping 10-year contract to continue his career through 2021.

So, despite the fact that Pujols doesn’t really have any equals in big-league history and there’s plenty of speculation that he’s actually a couple of years older than his listed age of 31, I thought it’d be fun to see when his most comparable players turned in their last Hall of Fame-caliber seasons. Here’s the list, going by Baseball-Reference’s most similar list:

1. Jimmie Foxx – 138 OPS+ at age 33
2. Ken Griffey Jr. – 144 OPS+ at age 35
3. Frank Robinson – 141 OPS+ at age 38
4. Hank Aaron – 177 OPS+ at age 39
5. Lou Gehrig – 132 OPS+ at age 35
6. Mickey Mantle – 149 OPS+ at age 35
7. Mel Ott – 151 OPS+ at age 36
8. Juan Gonzalez – 148 OPS+ at age 31
9. Willie Mays – 158 OPS+ at age 40
10. Manny Ramirez – 153 OPS+ at age 37

It doesn’t exactly bode well for Pujols’ two bidders that only four of these 10 players had productive seasons after their 36th birthdays. Still, Pujols fits more into a class with Aaron and Mays than he does Griffey and Gonzalez. Plus, it’s definitely easier for athletes to stay in shape than it once was.

So, yeah, there’s a really good chance that Pujols will still be an All-Star-type performer in his upper-30s. Of course, it’s going to be tough to keep it going at 40, and if Pujols is actually entering his age-34 season in 2012, not his age-32 season, that 10-year contract could get ugly by the time it’s barely more than halfway through.

But that’s the price one pays to land the player of the century.

No one pounds the zone anymore

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“Work fast and throw strikes” has long been the top conventional wisdom for those preaching pitching success. The “work fast” part of that has increasingly gone by the wayside, however, as pitchers take more and more time to throw pitches in an effort to max out their effort and, thus, their velocity with each pitch.

Now, as Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer reports, the “throw strikes” part of it is going out of style too:

Pitchers are throwing fewer pitches inside the strike zone than ever previously recorded . . . A decade ago, more than half of all pitches ended up in the strike zone. Today, that rate has fallen below 47 percent.

There are a couple of reasons for this. Most notable among them, Lindbergh says, being pitchers’ increasing reliance on curves, sliders and splitters as primary pitches, with said pitches not being in the zone by design. Lindbergh doesn’t mention it, but I’d guess that an increased emphasis on catchers’ framing plays a role too, with teams increasingly selecting for catchers who can turn balls that are actually out of the zone into strikes. If you have one of those beasts, why bother throwing something directly over the plate?

There is an unintended downside to all of this: a lack of action. As Lindbergh notes — and as you’ve not doubt noticed while watching games — there are more walks and strikeouts, there is more weak contact from guys chasing bad pitches and, as a result, games and at bats are going longer.

As always, such insights are interesting. As is so often the case these days, however, such insights serve as an unpleasant reminder of why the on-field product is so unsatisfying in so many ways in recent years.