The Cardinals Should Send the Angels A Very Large Check

Baseball’s compensation system ensures that teams have a long time before they need to pay their superstars in market value. The whole structure is broken, and I’m not just talking about “the Kris Bryant problem,” when a player’s debut is deliberately delayed in order for the team to gain an extra year of control. The issues go way beyond that.

This isn’t an article presenting a solution for this issue per se, mainly due to the fact that any restructuring requires flexibility and willingness to sacrifice some current profits for the long-term welfare of the game in what ultimately is a dispute about money. This change will come if and when it does primarily due to leverage that one side has over the other.

I want to talk about Albert Pujols specifically, the future first-ballot Hall of Famer who was recently released by the Los Angeles Angels. Looking back at his career, a glorious one at that, the difference between what he earned and produced with the Cardinals and with the Angels is quite staggering.

Instead of focusing on the negative and all that went wrong during his time in California, let’s look at it from a different perspective: how everything ultimately evened out for this all-time legend.

A Tale of Two Careers

Pujols played 11 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals and 10 with the Los Angeles Angels. Here are his numbers at a glance with each club:

Pujols’ Performance by Team
Team AVG OBP SLG OPS+ HR/PA WAR
Cardinals .328 .420 .617 170 16.70 86.6
Angels .256 .311 .447 108 22.76 12.9

Calling it eye-popping would be an understatement. This goes as far as to suggest that the entirety of the Hall of Fame resume for Pujols was built over his time in St Louis.

In order to better understand these numbers and truly get some perspective, let’s look at some comps. First off, here is Pujols’ Angels tenure and Player X:

Pujols with the Angels vs. Player X
AVG OBP SLG OPS+ HR/PA WAR
Player X .241 .318 .445 106 22.68 25.1
Pujols (LAA) .256 .311 .447 108 22.76 12.9

Only 108 plate appearances separates these players.

Give up? Player X is Todd Frazier.

Even if you take WAR out of the equation and argue that Frazier played a more premium defensive position at third for a while, and also that Pujols was of course in the second half of his career, you can’t deny the similarities as hitters. They produced comparable results in terms of OPS+ as well as with basically the same hitting profile.

It’s worth noting that a team like the Angels doesn’t sign a big-name free agent looking first and foremost at the production he’ll bring over the duration of the whole contract. You’re basically conceding a few underwhelming years in the end for the elite production at the start. Whether we agree with it or not, that is a real thought process and one necessary for the cream of the crop in free agency that will look to maximize their earnings on the open market.

The problem is that the Albert Pujols the Halos paid for never really arrived. Pujols was productive over his first four seasons in California, but even then he wasn’t playing at the same level as his former self, and it wasn’t even particularly close.

Let’s find a comp for his best season in Anaheim.

Pujols’ Best Season With The Angels vs. Player X
AVG OBP SLG OPS+ XBH WAR
Player Y .271 .333 .525 137 74 4.5
Pujols (2012) .285 .343 .516 138 80 4.8

Player Y is none other than Nelson Cruz in his lone season with the Baltimore Orioles in 2014. That was a really good season that landed Cruz a $57 million deal over four years with the Seattle Mariners heading into his age-35 season.

Looking strictly at the numbers, Pujols’ final season with the Cardinals went more in line with what he did in 2012 with the Angels than what he had done during his prime, which really says something about the investment made by Halos ownership.

Recapping the situation, the only conclusion one can come to is that the Pujols that we know, the Hall of Famer with three MVP awards, didn’t arrive in California. That’s not a knock on Pujols, it’s just how the sport works as great players experience decline in their performance after a certain age. But this decline was steep, and well-timed for the purpose of this exercise.

To illustrate this, I decided to use WAR a quantitative stat combined with the total earnings from Pujols with each team. Here are those results.

Albert Pujols’ Earnings vs. WAR
Team WAR Total Earnings $1M per 1 WAR
Cardinals 86.6 $104M $1.20M
Angels 12.9 $240M $18.60M

A multitude of factors formed the perfect storm, resulting in the largest discrepancy you’ll find when it comes to production and compensation in a player’s career like this. In the end it all evened out for Pujols, who got massively underpaid by St. Louis and massively overpaid the Angels, but it’s unfortunately how the sport works and it ain’t changing time anytime soon.

Estevão Maximo is an aspiring sportswriter from Brazil. You can find more of his writing at Diamond Digest, as well as here and here.





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cproctor
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cproctor

Great read!

hopbitters
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hopbitters

That last table just summarizes it perfectly. Thanks!

TKDC
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Even if you look at just the non-team-control years, Albert’s time in STL evens out pretty well is time in Anaheim. His last five years in STL would have been free agency years has he not signed an extension and he made $70 million to produce 35 WAR ($2 million per WAR).

Even taking out his first six years, Pujols was paid only about $6.5 million per WAR over his career.

Lanidrac
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Lanidrac

The compensation system is unfair, yes, but it’s not broken. It’s a necessity in order to maintain competitive balance, otherwise the smaller markets would never be able to grow a winner through homegrown stars save for maybe a year or two on occasion when they get extremely lucky.

As for the Angels, they should’ve never offered Pujols top dollar through Age 41 in the first place, and then they were actually stupid enough to significantly backload the deal. At least half of the blame for Pujols’s contract not working out well was self-inflicted by Angels’ management themselves.

ArmadilloFury
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ArmadilloFury

Can MLB use other ways to maintain competitive balance like greater revenue sharing, that don’t artificially reduce the compensation of younger players?

TradeDeadline
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TradeDeadline

It would be fun to put Pujols’s underpaid peak vs overpaid decline in context, with some other players who experienced similar “balancing out”. I think we would want to find (1) the ratio of $ to WAR in the first half of their career, then (2) the ratio of $ to WAR in the second half of their career, and then find the player who has the greatest difference. We would probably actually split a player’s career in half (not just divide it up according to when they switched teams). But even using these endpoints, Pujols at 1.2:18.6 / WAR… Read more »