Originally posted on The I in Team  |  Last updated 5/3/12

Albert Pujols is scuffling right now. He is an offensive black hole. Well, let me clarify, at the plate, he is a black hole; I wasn’t trying to suggest his inability to hit the ball is offensive, though some Angels’ fans may argue otherwise. There’s no denying the fact that Pujols is playing extremely poorly; I’m not here to argue against that. At this point there are 3 factors commonly cited for his struggles: contract, league, age. I want to address each of these and hopefully give some (temporary) peace of mind for Angels’ fans.

Albert as everyone should know signed a fat contract this off-season. He’ll be making $240 million dollars over the next 10 years, and unless he pulls a Jamie Moyer or a Paul Konerko that back end will get hairy. His paycheck increases each year during his contract with an ending salary of $30 million. I bring all this up, not to discuss how Arte Moreno plans on handling this large chunk of change, but rather because many people are convinced that the sheer size of Pujols’ contract is weighing heavily upon him affecting his performance.

I have no way to disprove that this is or isn’t a factor. It’s quite possible that he’s pressing a little bit or is feeling the pressure a bit more due to the contract, but there is really no evidence that new contracts negatively impact players over the course of a season. There’s a study referenced in this paper:

In order to investigate his theory, Krautmann collected data on all position players between 1976 and 1983 who had signed a contract of five or more years and then proceeded to count the number of players that exhibited outlying performances (based on their productivity distributions) in contract years, as well as in the year immediately after the new contract was signed. Of the 110 players in his study, only five had ―super-par‖ performances in their contract year while only two displayed sub-par performances in the year immediately following the contract.

Basically, from ’76 to ’83, of the 110 people that signed long term contracts (greater than 5 years) only 2 had a sub-par year the next year. A big reason for this is that players generally sign long-term contracts during their prime years. We may be catching the tail end of Pujols’ prime, but he is only 32 (and someone who keeps himself in impeccable shape).

White Sox fans would probably like a word with me at this point, but I would argue that the contract wasn’t a main factor for Adam Dunn. He had a number of issues (including coming back too early from appendix surgery) affecting him, one of which was switching from the National League to the American League. Unlike the myth that big contracts negatively affect players, there is a demonstrable impact from switching leagues. A hitter is expected to fare worse after switching from the National League to the American League. That’s the switch Dunn made last year and the switch Pujols is making this year. This has been shown through statistics, though the effect isn’t nearly as dramatic as one could conclude by solely looking at Dunn last year and Pujols so far this year.

This is due to probably two factors. First and probably most important, when switching leagues, a player will face a slew of opponents that they haven’t regularly seen. Yes, interleague play persists, but AL teams aren’t really all that exposed to NL teams. When Pujols switched to the AL, he lost a lot of familiarity and has had to learn the tendancies of a whole new crop of pitchers. If you read the Tango article I linked, there’s also an expected dip in play anytime a player switches teams, even within the same league. This probably boils down to adjusting to coaching and the new home ball park. Bottom line, there’s lots of adjusting that has to go on when switching leagues, so it would be expected that this would negatively affect performance.

Finally, there’s age. It is very, very possible that Albert Pujols is losing a war against time. He is 32 which is probably the very end of a player’s prime. He is a power hitter, and power hitters tend to age poorly and often fall off of a cliff offensively. The thing is, though, Pujols is a pretty complete offensive player. He isn’t a 3 true outcomes type like, say, Ryan Howard. He’s hit for a very high average throughout his career (yes, I know average isn’t a very good stat) and raked scores of doubles. Even if his power starts to diminish, he still should be able to contribute as a hitter.

Frank Thomas is a pretty good comparison for Pujols. They both put up prodigious numbers in their 20′s. Thomas, due largely in part to injury, started to tail off a bit in his 30′s. Despite that, he was still good for a .903 OPS and a 135 OPS+ from ages 34-38. No, he wasn’t the same back-to-back MVPs Frank Thomas, but he was still roughly 80% of his younger self and he was older than Pujols is now. I would hazard a guess that Pujols isn’t ready to fall off a cliff just yet.

If you are really concerned though, hold off until at least July before you start to lambaste Pujols too much. After all, he had a lousy April AND May last year before coming back like the Pujols of old. If you exclude the first two months of the seaon, he hit .318/.383/.613 which other than the OBP is right in line with his career averages. It wouldn’t shock me to see him pull of a similar run to end the season. I don’t think Pujols is in line to have an Adam Dunn type year; he’s too good of a hitter. Angels fans, all I can really do is preach patience. There is, after all, a reason that he was signed to such a large contract; he’s one of the greatest hitters of all time, and don’t lose sight of that.

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