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Monday, February 21, 2011

The Search For Pujols Comparables or "What's Ted Williams got to do with it?"

I'm going to take on this column by Dan Rosenheck in the style of Fire Joe Morgan.  Don't expect the same level of hilarity, but it seems the best way to approach the multi-layered ignorance imbedded within.
Ever since Albert Pujols’s self-imposed deadline for a new contract with the St. Louis Cardinals passed Wednesday without a deal, speculation has been rampant about whether he will re-sign, how much he could command as a free agent and whether he will be worth it. He is reportedly seeking $300 million over 10 years, and his employers are believed to have offered less than $200 million — a gap that is bigger than the entire value of all but a handful of contracts in history.
Honestly, I don't know where Rosenheck's getting his information.  Maybe he has an inside source or maybe he's just suffering from the general lack of credible information on the size of the Cardinals offer.  I've seen everything from 7 yrs./$200 Million to 10 yrs./$240 Million, but I have yet to see anybody (except Rosenheck) reporting under $200 Million.  If he's correct, I think it actually makes his argument weaker.

That paragraph-ending addendum is one of those rhetorical perversions which mainstream journalists are supposed to be immune to.  How many contracts can you fit in your hand?  Apparently, Rosenheck can fit about 26, because that's how many $100+ Million contracts have been handed out in "baseball history."  By the way, that's also the number of $100+ Million contracts that have been handed out in the last 12 years.  That doesn't sound quite so damning, does it?  Inflation's a bitch, I know, but Pujols is only asking for 9.1% more money than A-Rod got two years ago.  He's the best player in the game right now and he's younger than A-Rod was in '08, so everybody knew this was coming.  You can table your pretended horror.  
Pujols, 31, is baseball’s undisputed top player. He is far and away the best hitter in the game, he is an elite defensive first baseman; and he runs the bases well. Moreover, he is extremely durable, averaging 156 games a season. Over his first decade in the majors, St. Louis won around 80 more games than they would have with a typical scrap-heap first baseman (say, Mike Jacobs), an average of eight wins a year. Eight wins is a typical mark for the winner of a Most Valuable Player award.
So promising!  He doesn't exactly say it, perhaps for fear that Murray Chass might stalk him into the men's room at the NYT's next holiday party, but Rosenheck is using WAR to estimate Pujols value.  Not batting average.  Not World Series rings.  An actual legitimate baseball metric.  Wow.
The first question for the Cardinals is how Pujols will age. The standard approach is to examine the careers of similar players. Few players, however, have been as great as Pujols, and even fewer were first basemen.
The only one who could outhit Pujols was Lou Gehrig, the greatest first baseman ever. Jimmie Foxx is a fairly close match for Pujols, particularly because they both started as third basemen, and Johnny Mize and Hank Greenberg were not far behind. But none of them had Pujols’s defensive value.
Oh for fuck's sake.  We really shouldn't need to do this anymore.  I'll ignore the "greatest first baseman ever" bullshit, because it's a New York paper, but one of these things is not like the others.  Anybody?

When looking for players who resemble a Dominican-born slugger who's played his entire career in the 21st-century, the natural comparisons are always Caucasian guys whose careers ended during the Truman administration.

None of them have Pujols defensive value!?!  That's the difference between Jimmie Foxx and Albert Pujols?!?  Can we start with the fact that if Albert had been Jimmie's contemporary, he would have been ineligible to play in the major leagues.  Pujols plays in an era when not only are all Americans eligible for the amateur draft, but baseball is pulling from an increasingly global player pool.  Comparing 1940s stats to 2000s stats is like comparing Liechtensteinian politics to American politics.  Not only is there a difference in kind, there's a difference in scale.

That said, Pujols still eats all these whitebread sluggers for lunch:

WAR Through Age 30 (from Baseball-Reference):

Pujols (83.8)
Foxx (78.2)
Gehrig (76.2)
Mize (44.4)
Greenberg (44.2)

More recently, Frank Thomas may have been an even better hitter than Pujols during his peak, but he was brittle and immobile. Jeff Bagwell, another minor league third baseman, had a similar all-around game to Pujols’s but was a clear cut below him offensively.
Okay, well, at least these guys played the same damn game.  Yes, Thomas was downright lethal during his peak, a stretch from '91 to '97, between the age of 23 and 29.  I wonder how Pujols compared in that same age range:

Thomas: .330 AVG, 1056 OPS, 250 HR, 823 RBI, 1016 G, 46.0 WAR
Pujols: .337 AVG, 1075 OPS, 295 HR, 855 RBI, 1081 G, 63.9 WAR

As hitters they were relatively similar, although Thomas played in a somewhat friendlier home ballpark, had the luxury of some "off-days" at DH, and still missed substantially more time than Pujols.  Besides having a better track record for durability, athleticism, and defense than the Big Hurt, Pujols entered the league earlier and has been forced to face some especially pitching-rich competition in his most recent seasons.

Bagwell?  I'll set aside the fact that Pujols WAR is more than 30 games better than Bagwell's through age 30 and just point out that this comparison could actually work to Pujols' benefit.  Several of Bagwell's best seasons came after the age of 30 and setting aside his back (a problem Pujols doesn't share), Bagwell was still producing at a pretty impressive rate by age 36.

Still, I think the point of Pujols $300 Million demand is that there is no precedent.
At first glance, that group does not bode well for Pujols’s future: not one of them had a superstar-caliber season after age 35. But three had their careers cut short by unusual circumstances. Gehrig contracted the disease that now bears his name. Foxx had sinus and vision problems after a beaning and was a heavy drinker. Greenberg simply decided he preferred a front-office job. Of the remaining three, Thomas’s physique makes him a poor match for Pujols.
Expanding the list to include corner outfielders provides some more hopeful cases. Stan Musial, whose first 10 years (adjusting for World War II) were almost identical to Pujols’s, remained a star through age 37, and even batted .330 when he was 41. Hank Aaron also dominated until 37, and hit very well at 38 and 39, as did Frank Robinson. Ted Williams was the best hitter in baseball when he retired at 41. But even Pujols is not Ted Williams.
What seems clear is that expecting star-caliber play after 37 is folly. The only position players who played well enough after 38 to justify three or more years under contract at top dollar were Barry Bonds, Honus Wagner, Willie Mays, Williams and (oddly) Luke Appling. The first four all have an argument as the best player ever.
You're right, Dan.  Pujols isn't Ted Williams.  You see, if Ted Williams were playing today, he'd be Matt Holliday.  You see what I'm saying?  He'd be Pujols' sidekick.  I know it stings, but there's a strong chance there isn't a single white man among the top ten hitters in the history of the game.  Riddle me this, if the white hitters of the "golden age" were so damn good, how come the best white hitter of the last twenty years is Chipper Jones?  Who's the greatest white hitter since Mickey Mantle?  Is he one of the top five hitters of his generation?

Again, Williams best seasons came prior to integration and even the latter half of his career was hardly played against the kind of competition Pujols has seen constantly since he entered the league.  Certainly, Williams was by far the best player of that generation.  And he probably would still be outstanding (as is Matt Holliday).  But Pujols has, thusfar, been as good as any player in the history of the game.  That includes Williams, Mays, Bonds, Musial, Robinson, you name it.  Why should we be judging him against anybody else?  Rosenheck seems to be taking for granted that Pujols doesn't "have an argument for best player ever."  Certainly, he'll need a few more years to cement himself in the discussion, but ten years is a lot of data, and all that date suggests he very much belongs in that conversation.

As Dan points out, many of the guys in that conversation were very productive into their late 30s and even early 40s.  That's one reason why Pujols can rationalize his enormous contract demands.  He can also point to the fact that he lives in an era of vast improved medical technology, conditioning technique, etc.  Players routinely have career years in their mid-thirties.
Over all, the historical evidence suggests that over the next seven years, Pujols will play about 30 percent worse than he has until now, which would make him worth some 42 wins — still the best first baseman in the game, but not necessarily a perennial M.V.P. contender. After that, he is likely to be merely above average at 38, average at 39 and a fringe player at 40.
My, we throw around the term "evidence" with abandon these days?  Where exactly did this case get made?  Did I miss a few paragraphs?  "Fringe player at 40," really?

How many HOF caliber players are actually reduced to "fringe" status by 40?  Especially in this era.  (I'll leave aside the Bonds-Clemens contingent.)  Is Jim Thome a fringe player?  He's coming off a year in which he posted a 1039 OPS.  By age 40 Omar Vizquel was clearly in decline at the plate (but he was never a superlative hitter), but his defense still allowed him to post a 1.4 WAR, which is better than "fringe."  Kenny Lofton stole 23 bases and hit .296 at age 40.

Also, as many writers have pointed out, the Cardinals don't have to pay Pujols the same money when he's 40 as they do when he's 35.  They could frontload the contract.  They could make it an eight-year deal.  What they do have to acknowledge, however, is that in order to retain the best player in the game, they're going to have to give him an average annual salary substantially larger than what the Red Sox just gave Carl Crawford or what the Yankees gave Mark Teixeira.  Obviously, Crawford's a great player, but Pujols is substantially more valuable, even though he's two years older.  And, frankly, Teixeira, who's the same age as Pujols, isn't even in the same ballpark (career WAR of 36.7).

You probably don't have much use for statistical models like Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA, seeing as they use massive amounts of data, give precedence to relevant recent information, and have a really high rate of accuracy.  But, just for kicks, you might take a look at the projections for Pujols.  You see, although PECOTA certainly forecasts a decline, particularly in Pujols homerun-hitting ability, it expects him to post a 900+ OPS well into his 40s.  Will he be baseball's Steve Nash?  Only time will tell.
The second question for the Cardinals is how to translate Pujols’s on-field performance into dollars and cents. The common statistical approach is simply to use the average amount general managers pay in the free-agent market to improve their teams by one win, and multiply that by the number of wins a player is expected to contribute. But most free agents wind up being bad values because they are systematically overpaid, as a result of younger players’ being bound to their clubs.
At the current market rate, building a 95-win team with free agents alone would cost $230 million — even more than the Yankees’ payroll. Clearly, a midmarket team like the Cardinals has to be very cautious in the free-agent market, particularly since they have signed Matt Holliday to a bloated $120 million contract.
The proper way for a cost-conscious team to evaluate free agents is by their effect on the club’s bottom line. In 2011, the Cardinals’ revenue will probably increase by $3.5 million for each additional game they win. Assuming they remain a contender, that figure should increase in line with the sport’s overall growth over the next decade, which lately has been a shade under 8 percent a year. That suggests Pujols’s playing value from 2011 to 2017 would be around $180 million.
Of course, this isn't how teams are built.  Not by a long shot.  What sportswriters so often overlook is that free agents, arbitration-eligible players, and team-controlled players are three very different, but related commodities.  You pay more for free agent production for several reasons, not the least of which is that it's very hard to build a contender exclusively with homegrown talent.  A 7-8 WAR/YR. player on the open market should not be subjected to the same value models as players who remain under team control.

Franchises are, in the vast majority of cases, paying the latter player substantially less than their market value.  Considering how few players, in the grand scheme of things, have careers much beyond their first six years, the whole nature of baseball's labor situation demands that premier players, like Pujols, get the opportunity to balance the scales in free agency.  I'll admit, it's not a perfect system, but that's what we've got.

Rosenheck's mistake here is a common one.  He wants the Cardinals to pay Albert "what he's worth," according to WAR, for the next ten years.  I think $180 Million is probably a very conservative projection, but $300 is probably fairly liberal.  What Rosenheck doesn't acknowledge, not even fleetingly, is that, according to those same methods by which he's guessing Pujols future worth, Pujols has already been worth upwards of $150 Million more than he's actually been paid.  It was his first contract.  He gave the team a discount in exchange for stability.  Fine.  But, why should a free agent settle for a low-end estimate of his future worth, when he's been underpaid at every step of his career up to that point.  We don't like to admit it, but free agency is about what you've done not what you're going to do, because that's the standard against which your market is created.  That's how baseball's CBA is built.  If you don't like it, than you're going to have to start paying young players more and giving out guaranteed contracts earlier.  If the Cardinals want to keep Pujols, they're going to need to reimburse him for some of the time he's already given them.  Why is the responsibility for loyalty only on the players side?
If he is set on a 10-year deal, the three twilight seasons would be worth only $40 million more. That still suggests he is asking for $80 million more than he is worth.
The final factor is the hardest to evaluate: Pujols’s off-the-field “marquee value” to the franchise. Do the Cardinals sell more tickets or jerseys — or, more important, would a potential buyer pay a higher price for them — if they get seven wins a year from Pujols rather than from, say, a combination of Kelly Johnson, Aaron Harang and Hideki Matsui? It’s reasonable to give Pujols some credit for his iconic status. But $80 million is a lot of warm fuzzies.
Because the public has no access to the baseball's books (thanks Oliver Wendall Holmes), nobody actually knows how much the Pujols brand has been worth to the Cardinals, so much of this latter paragraph is just pure masturbation on Rosenheck's part.  $80 Million may not actually be very many warm fuzzies.  Since we don't have the opportunity to analyze the profits of MLB franchises, we actually can't make very accurate judgments about how much history-making players are worth.

Rosenheck is so very tickled by his discovery that three players as mediocre (in his eyes) as Johnson, Harang, and Matsui were worth about 7 WAR in 2010.  But, obviously, as cute as this supposition is, seven wins from Pujols is not the same a seven wins from this trio, if for no other reason than it takes three roster spots instead of one.  That's two roster spots from which you can't be earning additional production.  Moreover, and most obviously, Johnson, Harang, and Matsui represent three different "risks," each of which potentially keep you from getting to your goal.  Assuming all players are created equal in terms of the likelihood of injury, you are essentially tripling your risk of falling short of your WAR goal every season.  Of course, all players aren't created equal, and Pujols has proven himself as close to risk-free as any player in the major leagues.  

In addition, since I assume Rosenheck would not endorse signing Matsui, Johnson, and Harang to 8 year contracts, if they followed his advice, the Cardinals would have to go out and replace each of them at least once or twice over that span.  That means submitting yourself on an annual basis to the whims of free agency, probably overpaying (since, as we've shown, free agents are inherently less cost-effective) for half a dozen players instead of just one, and being completely without consistency in the roster (fans like it) or cost certainty (owners like it). 

As I said last week, if the Cardinals decide that spending 25-30% of their payroll on Pujols is untenable, I completely respect that.  It's a very rational argument.  However, arguing that Pujols is overstating his own value is entirely different.  As I pointed out above, he's essentially saying he's 10% better than A-Rod.  And, from that perspective, he's probably being generous.

Arguing that Pujols is asking for too much based on the precedence of Ted Williams and Lou Gehrig, that's just asinine.    


Thomas said...

Matt, I honestly think you should consider the possibility that at present the topic of race impairs your analysis. I thought your recent Hall of Fame post was really questionable--there are plenty of well-respected baseball writers who are sane on the subject of steroids who think that Rafael Palmeiro is not a Hall of Famer--but this piece is so distorted and tendentious that it falls much closer to "ravings" than anything Rosenheck has written.

Rosenheck is not a "white supremacist." That doesn't work even as hyperbole. Nor is it "bullshit," or evidence of local bias, to suggest that Lou Gehrig was the greatest first baseman ever. Bill James, who believes that the quality of play has improved over time and takes that into account in his analysis, ranked Gehrig as the best first baseman ever. Perhaps you would classify James as a white supremacist too, although he did put Oscar Charleston in the top five baseball players of all time and Josh Gibson in the top ten.

Maybe Pujols has surpassed Gehrig now, although it seems to me he has to produce for a few more seasons (which I think he will). Maybe there's someone else to make an argument for. But one still has to make it; you can't just project Pujols to keep going for the next few years and say on that basis that he's the greatest. Dismissing that ranking of Gehrig as just the whim of a "New York paper" makes your argument seem unserious, because it is unserious.

The argument that none of the top ten hitters in the history of the game is white, is...I mean, it would be brilliant, game-changing, if it were presented with sufficient evidence. As it is, it's presented with no evidence. You've taught composition--if one of your students submitted a comparably extreme argument to you, with no evidence, how would you respond? (Also, you're a smart guy; isn't it unworthy of you to slip in a poisonous little accusation of racism--"I know it stings"--with no evidence at all?)

With no evidence, your argument is fueled by pure self-righteousness, and it has to fly past several clear objections. It doesn't consider that Ruth, Williams, et al would have access to the same conditioning techniques--and yes, steroids--of today's players. It also doesn't consider that the integration of the game and the influx of Latin players are counterbalanced somewhat by the competition for young talent posed by basketball and especially football, which most of the century baseball didn't have to face. Finally, your twenty-year cut-off point ignores a number of great white hitters--Mike Schmidt, George Brett, Paul Molitor Hell, the 90's saw the best-hitting catcher in the history of the majors, Mike Piazza; and are you saying Chipper Jones isn't a Hall of Famer? Not to mention, you curiously omit pitchers entirely, in looking at an era with scads of great white pitchers--Maddux, Clemens, Halladay. Does the sharp increase in the talent level only block white hitters, not the pitchers? How odd.

Do you think I want to be counting up great white players like some goddamn Stormfront baseball fan? But this is what bad argument always produces: bad discussion. That's true even if it's on an important topic, like the sometimes subtle presence of racism in much baseball writing (although not in Rosenheck anywhere I can see). In fact, it's especially true there, because the more unhinged your arguments are, the more those who don't want to listen will dismiss all such discussion as unhinged. As someone who agrees the topic is vital, I urge you to get it right.

(By the way, as an aside, you should update your information--Murray Chass hasn't worked for the New York Times for some years now.)

Hippeaux said...

First of all, Thomas, thank you for taking the post seriously, even if you found it "unserious" at times. At certain times (for instance, the image of NYT alum Murray Chass chasing Rosenheck around the office party) it was intended to be unserious.

I agree, the "white supremacist" crack was not fair, even as hyperbole. It has been removed.

As to the rest, you make some good points, but at other times you do disservice to my arguments,

1.) My HOF post was about a lot more than Rafael Palmeiro's candidacy.

2.) The Lou Gehrig aside and Bill James' rankings run a long way from the primary topic of my post, which is tangentially about the difficulty of comparing era, but is primarily about the interpretation of Pujols contract demands. The "bullshit" I'm calling is on Rosenheck's eagerness to make summary and unsubstantiated judgments like "Lou Gehrig's the greatest first baseman ever" or "even Pujols is not Ted Williams." He makes these claims even more casually than I do.

3.) I take your point. I would like to offer my argument about the top ten players in history (and I will), but this was not the appropriate place to do what, clearly, will be a pretty lengthy undertaking. The subject of this article was Pujols contract negotiations. I wanted to point out Rosenheck's selective and potentially misleading use of historical precedents. No doubt, I mirrored some of his errors.

4.) As to the difficulty of imagining what Williams or Gehrig would do with better conditioning, medicine, etc., you're really only making my larger point. We shouldn't be projecting Pujols health and productivity based on the careers of players whose pregame routines frequently included a beer and a cigarette.

5.) I don't look at pitchers because my post and Rosenheck's article are about finding Pujols comparables. Pujols doesn't pitch. You're taking issue with a "self-righteousness" which I think you've read into my post to some degree. I'm not saying Chipper Jones isn't a Hall-of-Famer. I'm not ripping into Brett or Schmidt or Molitor. I like white players too. What I'm saying is that assuming that pre-integration players could maintain their production in the global game flies in the face of all evidence. White hitters have not dominated the game since integration, why would we assume Williams, Gehrig, and Ruth would be exceptions?

Six of the players Rosencheck elects to build his argument around started their careers before integration. 8 of them played before there was free agency. In an article about contract negotiations in 2011, those selections seem very odd to me. As I say, Williams would probably still be a great player, but nothing has changed the game so radically as the fact that the player pool has increased fivefold (a conservative estimate).

6.) I take your final point to heart. It's certainly a topic dear to me and I'm always looking to get better. Thanks for reading and commenting.

Finally, who are you? You seem to know me, but I can't guess your identity. Drop me an email if you want to further this discussion.

Thomas said...

Ha, sorry about the mysterious name thing. It's Tom from UCI. I normally post here with my Wordpress account (tomemos) but it wasn't working the other night so I used my Google account instead.

Also, sorry it took me some time to respond to your response.

Looking at the post again, I agree that I wasn't fair to your argument. I think the inflammatory title skewed my reading of it, which I have to blame myself for somewhat. Most of your analysis is quite sound, and I shouldn't mistake snark for self-righteousness.

I guess the main thing I'd want to maintain is that when analyzing this article, you're on much stronger ground talking about the aging curves of players like Thome and Vizquel, and talking about Pujols's value to this point, than you are when talking about whether the players of the past can be measured against today's. The former points are more relevant to the discussion--Rosenheck is talking about aging patterns, and so the question of whether players age the same as they did is extremely relevant, whereas establishing that Pujols is better than Williams seems incidental to the dispute--and don't require a new wing of analysis that fly in the face of much established wisdom, including sabermetric wisdom. Obviously flying in the face of established wisdom is good, not bad, but only when one has the time to back it up--otherwise, readers get led astray by the surprising and unsupported claims. (Again, I certainly take part of the blame for overlooking/misreading parts of your post, but I also think such a reaction is predictable.)

To put it another way, it's true Rosenheck is very casual with claims about Gehrig, Williams, et al, but I think he has that prerogative because those claims are generally accepted, like "Shakespeare is the greatest author in the English language." Fairly or unfairly, that kind of assertion needs little justification, until it's met with a well-founded argument against it.

Hippeaux said...

Coincidently, I'm beginning to think they headline to Rosenheck's column influenced my perception of his argument in a negative way as well. By stating that Pujols was "asking for too much" it seemed to be another in a long line of commentary accusing Pujols of disloyalty and greediness, even though he is clearly negotiating in good faith. (Based upon the A-Rod, Howard, and Teixeira contracts, $300 Million over 10 years is not an unreasonable starting point.) Expect more to follow...

Thomas said...

That's a good point, both about how titles influence us and about how the headline on Rosenheck's piece reinforces the "greedy modern player" narrative; I can see how the comparison to Golden Age sluggers looks suspect in that light.

One might object that the problem with comparing a prospective Pujols contract to those of A-Rod and Howard is that many people feel A-Rod's contract was a bad one and Howard's is going to be a bad one, maybe really bad. It can cause problems when bad contracts of the past are used as a baseline for the contracts of the future, as the Jeter negotiations showed. But I agree with you that Pujols is not the player to make that stand with--he really is that good.