Score one for the Mystery Team. First, Albert Pujols appeared headed for South Beach. Then, it looked like he'd re-sign with the Cardinals. But today, the Angels swooped in and signed this generation's greatest player to a 10-year, $254 million deal that includes a full no-trade clause. As if that weren't breath-taking enough, L.A. then doled out five years and $77.5 million to C.J. Wilson. More on Wilson later, but first let's focus on one of the biggest free agent signings. Ever.
Pujols is already one of the game's all-time greats. With 89.1 career Wins Above Replacement through age 31, El Hombre takes a back seat to just Ty Cobb (112.5), Mickey Mantle (101.1), Rogers Hornsby (100.9), Babe Ruth (96.8), Hank Aaron (90.2) and Alex Rodriguez (89.7). His 170 OPS+ trails that of only Ruth (212), Ted Williams (193), Cobb (185), Lou Gehrig (183), Mantle (177), Hornsby (177) and Stan Musial (172). If Pujols had decided to call it quits instead of signing the sport's second-most lucrative contract ever, he'd rank as the 24th-best position player ever, by WAR.
Pujols isn't retiring, of course, and while he remains a superstar and a franchise-altering player, he is in decline. Over the past three years, his average has gone from .327 to .313 to .299, his OBP from .443 to .414 to .366, and his slugging percentage from .658 to .596 to .541. Run scoring has dipped across the game over that period, but his adjusted OPS has gone from 189 in 2009 to 173 in 2010 and 150 this past season.
"Decline" is obviously a relative term here, as Pujols' 150 OPS+ still placed 12th among hitters who qualified for the batting title. When you're a legend, your skills can erode a bit and you're still a stud. But it's still worth asking, what caused Pujols to be merely great in 2011 instead of a slam-dunk MVP? The answer appears to be downtick in fastball slugging caused by more ground balls hit.
In 2009, Pujols led the majors by a wide margin with a .748 slugging percentage against fastballs (including sinkers). His slugging percentage fell nearly 100 points against those pitches in 2010, to .653, but that still ranked 11th among MLB hitters. In 2011, he slugged .545 against fastballs/sinkers. Again, that was still way above average (.431 in '11), but it placed a comparatively modest 39th among big league batters.
Back in 2009, Pujols clobbered any fastball in the upper two thirds of the zone. As his in-play slugging percentage by pitch location (including home runs) shows, low and away was the only save haven for hurlers:
Pujols still pummeled high fastballs in 2010, but he became more susceptible to pitches thrown below the belt:
This past year, Pujols' heat map basically flipped from high-and-away to low-and-in. He didn't show as much discipline against fastballs, chasing 30 percent out of the zone compared to 24-25% in past seasons, but that didn't really hurt him as he slugged .523 on out-of-zone heaters (better than in '09 and '10, and 220 points above the MLB average). Pujols' continued decline against fastballs was mainly the product of his struggling to lash pitches high in the zone:
In a related note, Pujols' ground ball rate increased sharply on fastballs thrown high in the zone. First, take a look at the league average ground ball rate for hitters by pitch location against fastballs. It's what you'd expect: the higher the pitch, the lower the ground ball rate.
Now, look at Pujols' ground ball rates vs. fastballs by location. He just about never chopped a fastball into the grass on a high pitch in 2009:
He hit a few more grounders on low pitches in 2010, but he continued to loft high fastballs:
In 2011, though, Pujols began rolling over on some fastballs that he previously belted:
His ground ball rate on high fastballs nearly doubled, from 19 percent the previous two seasons to slightly over 35 percent. Pujols went from just about always hitting high fastballs skyward to hitting more grounders than the league average (34 percent). That played a big part in Pujols' overall ground ball rate increasing from 38 percent in 2009 and 2010 to just under 46 percent in 2011.
Pujols' high fastball issues and concern that the Angels just signed him through age 42 aside, it's important to view Pujols' contract in its entirety instead of simply panning it as a deal that will be an albatross at the end. There's little doubt that Pujols won't be worth his salary as he pushes past 40. But could the surplus value (that is, the difference between what his production is worth and what he's being paid) that he provides at the front end of the contract make up for that?
The Hardball Times' Oliver projects Pujols as a 5.7 Win player in 2012. If we use that as our starting point and assume that Pujols declines by a half-win per season, and that the cost of a win (currently around $5 million) increases five percent each season, then Pujols figures to provide the Angels with about $205 million in value over the life of his contract:
That the Angels are willing to pay Pujols $250-$260 million could mean any number of things. Could the club have overestimated the value of a decade of Pujols at first base? Sure. But they could also think that he's more of a six-plus win player at the moment (he'd have to be a 6.4-6.5 WAR player in 2012 for the above calculations to reach $250-$260 million in total value), that his decline phase will be more gradual, or that the value of a win will be higher than the 5% inflation per year I allowed.
There's also the "win/revenue curve" argument to be made. Pujols is a legitimate four-to-five WAR upgrade over the likes of Mark Trumbo/Kendrys Morales. That's huge, and pushes the high-revenue club much closer to the playoffs. Before L.A.'s free agent frenzy, Oliver projected the Angels as eight wins behind the Rangers in the AL West. With an extra 4-5 WAR from Pujols and 3-4 WAR from C.J. Wilson, the Angels are suddenly in a dead heat with or slightly ahead of Texas. The wins that L.A. added to the roster bring them far closer to a playoff berth and the financial windfall (estimated at around $40 million by Baseball Prospectus) that comes with that playoff appearance.
It's near impossible to think of a scenario in which Pujols' mega-deal goes in the history books as a bargain, and the Angels do have to worry about re-signing Howie Kendrick (free agent-eligible after 2012), Erick Aybar and Dan Haren (both under control through 2013). But bad cash tied up with Torii Hunter and Bobby Abreu (a combined $27.5 million in 2012) soon comes off the books, and Vernon Wells' epically bad contract ($21 million annually) expires after 2014. When you consider what Pujols' signing does for the Angels' hopes of contention and that a big chunk of payroll expires in the coming years, it's not a totally crazy contract.