Extensive studies have been done that indicate that a baseball player’s prime is his age-27 season. In the succeeding years, players use their experience to compensate for their continuing decline in athleticism. However, at some point—usually in their mid-30s—the lack of athleticism reaches a breaking point at which hitters can no longer keep up with major league pitching.
Albert Pujols has begun this season in a terrible slump. He’s posted a .256 on-base percentage and a 54 wRC+ (a cumulative measure of how many runs a player has created for his team, with 100 being the league average). He has hit only three home runs, or the same number as a guy who was sent outright to Triple-A this weekend, Adam Lind.
Pujols is 32 this season. There are questions about the legitimacy of his age, but putting those aside because there have been no trustworthy reports, there are also questions about whether or not he will actually rebound.
A look at the career of Andruw Jones might be beneficial in this case. He was well on his way to a Hall of Fame career with the Atlanta Braves until he turned 30. Before the age of 30, he won nine consecutive Gold Gloves, made five All-Star teams and finished in the top 15 of MVP voting four times.
WAR (wins above replacement) is a cumulative stat that measures a player’s value to his team. From 1998 to 2006, Jones posted a 61.3 WAR for an average of 6.8 per season. For comparison’s sake, Todd Helton has posted a 61.4 WAR for his entire career. Primarily gaining value from his defense, Jones was well on his way to one of the great careers of all time.
At his peak, Albert Pujols was clearly better than Andruw Jones was at his. From 2001 to 2010, Pujols posted an 82.9 WAR for an average of 8.3 per season. That is not the debate, however. No one is claiming Jones was as good as Pujols.
But Jones and Pujols followed similar career arcs. Both grew up in the Caribbean, and both made very early debuts—Pujols at 21, Jones at 19. In each of their age-31 seasons, they missed time. In Jones’ age 32 season, he put up one of the worst offensive seasons of all time as a member of the Dodgers. Pujols’ current struggles are taking place in his age 32 season.
There are differences, of course. Pujols keeps himself in great shape and gets much of his value out of his bat. Jones showed up to camp with the Dodgers out of shape and got much of his value from his glove, which was dependent on his speed and ability to chase balls. As his athleticism deserted him, so did his ability to play elite defense.
Albert Pujols and Andruw Jones are not similar players. By no stretch of the imagination are they in the same class. But that does not necessarily mean we can’t learn from one and apply it to the other. Pujols is subjected to the normal human aging process the same way everyone else is.
Pujols may turn it around today. This might just be an example of small sample sizes fooling us into worrying about him. On the other hand, it might be a legitimate cause for concern, and the example of Andruw Jones is indicative of why.