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Pujols vs. A-Rod: Contract Negotiations by the Numbers

February 10, 2011

Following the 2007 season, Alex Rodriguez exercised a clause built into his existing contract which allowed him to opt out of the remaining years and become a free agent. Less than two months after doing so, the New York Yankees resigned their third baseman to a MLB record ten year, $275 Million contract. The deal also includes incentives tied to Rodriguez’s pursuit of the MLB home run record which could potentially pay him an additional $30 Million ($6 Million for each) if he is able to reach and surpass the career totals of Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, and Barry Bonds. If he continues along his career 162-game average, he will finish the 2011 season just a mere 14 home runs behind Mays.

Albert Pujols is about to enter the final season of his existing contract and will reach free agency for the first time in his career after the 2011 season unless he and the St. Louis Cardinals are able to reach an agreement beforehand. Like Rodriguez at the time of his contract, Pujols is arguably the best player in Major League Baseball. Like Rodriguez was at the time, Pujols will have just completed his age 31 season at the time the new contract takes effect. According to numerous reports, last summer Pujols’ agent Dan Lozano made a ten year, $300 Million contract proposal to the Cardinals. The proposed contract would pay Pujols like the best player in baseball and would keep the franchise icon in St. Louis for the remainder of his career – a dream shared by Cardinals fans everywhere who all hope that Pujols will stay in St. Louis and ultimately reach the same level of iconic status reached only by Stan Musial.

Lozano, members of the media, front office executives, and bloggers everywhere have continuously used Rodriguez’s contract as a starting point in trying to predict what it will take to resign Pujols. But, is this truly a fair comparison? Perhaps more importantly, is the comparison hurting or helping Pujols in these negotiations?

There are a number of key similarities to each player’s situations. Both players at the time of their negotiations are considered one of the premier players in Major League Baseball. Both players will play the first season of their new contracts at age 32. Both players have won 3 MVP Awards prior to negotiating their new deals. Both have won a pair of Gold Gloves.

However, there are also a number of differences that must be taken into consideration. Rodriguez made his MLB debut at age 17. Pujols was 21, so he has played four fewer seasons than Rodriguez had at the time his new contract took effect. Rodriguez had played in 11 All Star Games in 14 seasons. Pujols has played in 9. Rodriguez won 9 Silver Slugger Awards. Pujols has won 6. The extra four years that Rodriguez had under his belt by age 31 certainly had an impact on his career totals at the time he negotiated his contract, from an award standpoint and numbers standpoint as compared to Pujols.

So, for the sake of argument let’s take out those initial four seasons that Rodriguez had. This way we can gain a true comparison of the two players during a ten year span covering their age 21 through age 30 seasons.

Rodriguez (Age 21 through Age 30) Pujols
1,535 Games Played 1,558
6,889 Plate Appearances 6,782
5,970 At Bats 5,733
1,198 Runs 1,186
1,808 Hits 1,900
304 Doubles 426
23 Triples 15
423 Home Runs 408
1,203 Runs Batted In 1,230
219 Stolen Bases 75
54 Caught Stealing 34
752 Walks 914
1,238 Strikeouts 646
.303 Batting Average .331
.387 On Base Percentage .426
.574 Slugging Percentage .624
146 OPS+ 172

At first glance the two players are quite similar over the same portion of their respective careers as with most of these statistics the difference between the two players is a marginal one. Rodriguez has a clear advantage in stolen bases. Pujols has an advantage in doubles and walks. Rodriguez struck out nearly twice as many times as Pujols over a similar number of plate appearances, which paired with their walk totals is quite telling to the two players’ patience at the plate. Pujols has the better batting average by 28 points, the better on base percentage by 39 points, and the better slugging percentage by 50 points. When you factor in those differences, it would seem fairly evident that Pujols is the better player.

However, let’s not forget some of the other factors that must be taken into consideration here because they are taken into consideration during contract negotiations. During this portion of his career, Rodriguez won two of his three MVP Awards and finished in the Top 5 in voting two other times. He went to 9 All Star Games, won 7 Silver Slugger Awards, and 2 Gold Gloves. Pujols, meanwhile, won the Rookie of the Year Award, won all three of his MVP Awards, finished in the Top 5 in voting six other times, went to 9 All Star Games, won 6 Silver Slugger Awards, and 2 Gold Gloves. Again the two players, by comparison, are very close. But once again, the edge would seem to go to Pujols based on the extra MVP Award, the Rookie of the Year Award, and the fact that he more consistently came in the Top 5 in voting for the award in years he did not win*.

* Incredibly of the ten years Pujols has been in the Major Leagues he has only once finished outside the Top 4 in MVP voting. That one season, 2007, he finished 9th.

Two factors come into play during any contract negotiations – a player’s career accomplishments up to that point and a player’s projected career after that point. So, for the sake of comparison, we should re-evaluate the two players against one another based on their entire careers to date.

Rodriguez Career Totals Through Age 31 Pujols
1,887 Games Played 1,558
8,423 Plate Appearances 6,782
7,296 At Bats 5,733
1,497 Runs 1,186
2,239 Hits 1,900
395 Doubles 426
26 Triples 15
518 Home Runs 408
1,501 Runs Batted In 1,230
262 Stolen Bases 75
64 Caught Stealing 34
912 Walks 914
1,504 Strikeouts 646
.307 Batting Average .331
.390 On Base Percentage .426
.581 Slugging Percentage .624
148 OPS+ 172

When we view Rodriguez’s career totals through the 2007 (again, when he signed his new contract) and compare those to Pujols’ career totals through 2010 we do see some more notable differences. Rodriguez has played in roughly 330 more games (just slightly more than two full seasons worth) at the time of his negotiations. Naturally, he would have higher totals for plate appearances, at bats, runs, and hits because of this. His career totals in both home runs and stolen bases stand significantly above those of Pujols. Early on in Rodriguez’s career stolen bases were a big part of his game, however as he got older this became less and less of importance to him. However, despite playing nearly two full seasons less than Rodriguez, Pujols has higher career numbers in doubles, walks, batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS+.

The home run totals do give Rodriguez a big advantage here, but outside of that it would appear that Pujols actually has the advantage in most cases. His batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage all demonstrate how he’s been a better overall hitter than Rodriguez. He’s demonstrated more plate patience with more total walks and significantly fewer strikeouts in nearly 1,600 fewer plate appearances. Keep in mind, Pujols still has his age 31 season to play before the new contract will take effect. Barring a major surprise he will add to these numbers which will actually strengthen his case.

Through Rodriguez’s age 31 season, he had accumulated a total of 89.7 bWAR. Pujols, through his age 30 season, has accumulated a total of 83.8 bWAR. That difference of just 5.9 bWAR is minimal when you consider the fact that through his first 10 seasons in the Majors Pujols has averaged 8.3 bWAR per season. If you prefer the WAR calculation done by the FanGraphs crew (which is calculated slightly differently than that of Baseball Reference) then Rodriguez had accumulated 93 fWAR through 2007. Pujols has totaled 80.6 through 2010. If we add in his average fWAR to account for the upcoming age 31 season that would bring his total to 89.2. Once again, the two players appear remarkably similar in the context of what has become a widely popular statistic. Just take a look at their cumulative fWAR by age.

Pujols ARod WAR


So what have we learned after all of this? When each player reached the stage of their careers where negotiations took place for their next contracts, the pair were actually quite similar despite some differences in their overall numbers. In fact, depending on your point of view, one could make an argument in favor of either one of them. Some would say Rodriguez was the better player considering his higher home run and stolen base totals, the additional four years of experience, and the higher WAR total. However, some would also say that Pujols was the better player considering his higher triple slash line (AVG/OBP/SLG) and superior plate discipline. It would seem that we’ve answered the first question from earlier – using Rodriguez as a comparison for Pujols is a fair place to start based on their careers leading up to the point of negotiations.

But, we are only looking at things from one side of the perspective – what they’ve done up to that point in their careers. As I mentioned earlier, one aspect of any contract negotiation is a look at what the future will hold. To put it simply, the team handing out the contract is likely more concerned about what they are going to get from their investment, not what the player has done beforehand. The problem here is that there is no clear cut way to predict future performance. We have to improvise a way to estimate what the player will do over the life of the contract. There are a variety of projection systems in use today by a number of analysts and bloggers. However, each of them are highly mathematical, complex enough that I don’t fully understand the background behind how they were developed, and only give us an idea of what the player may do in the upcoming season. None of these methods can be used to project how a player will perform over the life of their contract in the years ahead.

As such, we’re going to make an attempt. But, in order to do so with any degree of accuracy there needs to be complete transparency about the calculations we are going to perform. For a base point, we’re going to use each player’s 162 game average according to Baseball Reference. However, beyond that is where things get tricky. Player performance regresses as they age, especially once a player reaches his mid 30s. We do not have any average rate of regression to utilize here which is where the problem arises. Do players see a rate of regression for their statistics of 5%? Is it 10%? Is it something either higher or lower? Do certain statistics regress at a different rate than others? At what age does the regression rate actually take affect? From what I can tell, there has not been an exhaustive study performed that looks at a big enough sample size of players to really say one way or another. Additionally, there are far too many other factors to consider. Some players age and regress faster than others. Some show signs of regression but will then have a bounce back season. How would those unpredictable factors affect our calculations?

To make matters more complex, we have no way of accounting for statistical anomalies. What is to stop either Rodriguez or Pujols from having a historic season that skews their career averages? We also have no way of accounting for injuries. What happens if Rodriguez’s hip flairs up and he’s forced to undergo surgery again, missing a significant portion of time? What happens if Pujols is hit by a pitch in Spring Training, fracturing his wrist, causing him to lose an entire season? There are ultimately too many unknowns to categorically calculate either player’s future performance over the life of the contract with any degree of accuracy. These are risks that every team must face when handing out a longterm contract – which is why prior production has such a dramatic affect on a player’s future salary.

So, rather than coming up with a method of scaling each player’s 162 game averages over the course of a ten year period, let’s simplify things a little and just examine their career averages against one another in a vacuum.

Rodriguez Career 162 Game Average Pujols
162 Games Played 162
718 Plate Appearances 705
621 At Bats 596
124 Runs 123
188 Hits 198
33 Doubles 44
2 Triples 2
43 Home Runs 42
129 Runs Batted In 128
21 Stolen Bases 8
5 Caught Stealing 4
79 Walks 95
129 Strikeouts 67
.303 Batting Average .331
.387 On Base Percentage .426
.571 Slugging Percentage .624
145 OPS+ 172

Once again we come to a similar conclusion to that which we had earlier – both players are remarkably similar, but Pujols would seem to stand out overall due largely to a higher number of doubles, a higher slash line, and more patience at the plate. The bottom line from all of this would seem to indicate that going forward we should expect a superior level of production from Pujols, regardless of the contract length if the two players will ultimately regress at the same rate.

So, more than two thousand words later, what can we conclude from all of this? We started out with a pair of questions to answer – is Rodriguez a fair comparison for Pujols during his contract negotiations? And does this comparison hurt or help him?

It would seem safe to say that Rodriguez is indeed a fair comparison for Pujols at this point in his career. Based on their career numbers at the point of negotiations, their career numbers for their age 21 through age 30 seasons, their career WAR totals, and their 162 game career averages the two players are very similar from a statistical standpoint. We also established that both players are highly decorated at this point in their respective careers – having won three MVP Awards, multiple Silver Sluggers and Gold Gloves, and having participated in multiple All Star Games. From a purely statistical standpoint the two players are very comparable.

As for our second question – whether the comparison hurts or helps Pujols – that is purely subjective but I would personally lean more towards the fact that it helps Pujols’ case. Rodriguez received his ten year, $275 Million contract in the winter of 2007 after winning his third MVP Award. At that time he was easily one of the top players in all of Major League Baseball. In reward for those factors he was handed a record sized contract that hasn’t been approached since. Pujols currently stands in a similar position. He is easily one of the top players in all of baseball. In 2010, he finished second in MVP voting after winning the award the previous two seasons. In addition to his on field accomplishments there have not been any off field issues that have become questionable with Pujols. He has not been accused of using performance enhancing drugs at any point in his career. He has not been riled in scandal for cheating on his wife. His character has never been in question. He has been a model citizen in the St. Louis and baseball communities. One could argue that Pujols has been the model player over the last ten years. Taking all of that into consideration, comparing him to Rodriguez when discussing his impending contract is applicable and helps Pujols’ case significantly.

Using Rodriguez as a starting point to predict what it would take to resign Pujols is a good comparison. Based on numerous reports, it would seem as though the Cardinals are largely balking at both the total dollar amount figure and the length of a deal. They seem to prefer a contract length of six or seven years, not the ten years Rodriguez was able to get from the Yankees. This ultimately seems to be the bigger sticking point to negotiations. One cannot blame them for being hesitant to hand out a contract that would continue until Pujols is in his early 40s (Rodriguez’s contract takes him through his age 41 season). However, there is room for compromise here. We know that Pujols has no intentions of accepting a “home town discount” in order to remain a Cardinal for the remainder of his career. He believes he has earned a contract of significant value and the numbers support such a belief. While we cannot predict next winter’s offseason, it seems fairly safe to assume that if he were to reach the free agent market he could command a total value similar to that of Rodriguez. It is not common for a player of Pujols’ caliber to reach the open market and there will be interest from a significant number of teams.

In order to come to an agreement there will naturally have to be some sort of concession by each side. Pujols may have to give up the length of the contract in order to get the average annual value he is seeking. The Cardinals may need to pay more in order to get him to agree to a shorter term. Ben Nicholson-Smith at MLBTR has repeatedly suggested throughout the past few weeks that an eight year, $240 Million contract could be the type of deal we see the two sides agree to. At eight years, Pujols would be satisfied with a lengthy deal that would allow him to remain a Cardinal while the team would have their biggest star since Musial locked up for what could be the rest of his career. At an average annual value of $30 Million per season, Pujols would be the highest paid player in MLB history and deservedly so.

The two sides have a Pujols-imposed deadline to reach an agreement that expires when he reports to Spring Training which, according to multiple reports, will be February 16th – next Wednesday. Negotiations will need to pick up between now and then if the Cardinals want to get a deal done beforehand. Otherwise they will have to bid on their icon’s services next winter with everyone else when the price will most assuredly be just as high.

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