Let's begin with an impossibly dumb question -- I'm talking about a question so stupid, so inane, so ridiculous that it will insult you even to see it in print. OK? And then, for fun, we'll try to shock you by somehow making the question even dumber. Ready?
Which of these sets of teammates would you rather have for the next five years?
1. Anaheim's Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton.
2. Kansas City's Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez.
OK, why even ask that? I feel like I lost 20 IQ points just writing that question. It's so ridiculous, so stupid, that it feels absurd to even follow up. Who would I rather have -- a couple of MVPs who have dominated the game for years or a kid who hit .232 last year with almost no power and a promising catcher who does not have 500 plate appearances in the big leagues. That's just stupid. That's just mad.
But wait: I can make the question even more stupid and more maddening. Watch:
Which of these two sets of teammates would you rather have for the next five years if MONEY IS NOT A CONSIDERATION?
1. Anaheim's Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton.
2. Kansas City's Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez.
Yeah, you might have thought the question was going to be about how overpriced Pujols and Hamilton are. They are overpriced. But no, take all the money talk away. I'm asking a plain and simple question: Which pair will be more valuable on the field the next five years?
Let's get to the point.
* * *
One of my favorite themes is about age and context in baseball. These themes are very easy for all of us to miss or minimize, even those of us who are desperately trying to pay attention. Players get older faster than you think. We all get older faster than we think. And players' performances are affected by more than just their skills -- they are influenced by the intrinsic advantages they have.
Bill James introduced all this to many people when he predicted a precipitous drop in the numbers of superstar Fred Lynn when he was traded from Boston to Anaheim in 1981.
From 1975 to 1980, Lynn hit .307/.381/.517, winning one MVP, deserving another and starting in four All-Star Games.
From 1981 to 1986, Lynn hit .272/.357/.467, getting zero MVP votes and appearing in his last three All-Star Games.
What happened to Lynn? At least two things: One, he moved from the best hitting ballpark in baseball at the time, Fenway Park, to a neutral hitting park. Two, he got older. These two things had a series of effects on his performance. For one thing, Lynn wasn't as good from 1975 through 1980 as his numbers suggested (some of it was Fenway Park) and he was BETTER from 1981 through 1986 than his numbers suggested. His OPS+ from 1975 to 1980 was 139. His OPS+ from 1981 to 1986 was 127 -- lower, sure, but not THAT much lower, not as big a difference as the raw numbers suggest.
And then, there was the age factor. Lynn, in the first set of numbers, ranged from age 23 to 28. That's a player's prime. He was relatively healthy and his reflexes were at their peak. The second set from age 29 to 34. That's a player in the declining years. And he was not especially healthy.
Bill honestly didn't think he was offering a prediction about Lynn. He was simply stating what was obvious to him. There was no possible way for Fred Lynn to keep putting up even close to the same statistics as he got older and in a less hitter-friendly ballpark. It just couldn't happen. And it didn't happen.
Over the years -- in large part because of Bill James and the many people who have taken up the cause -- we've paid a lot closer attention to those sorts of things. But, as is obvious from the big-money contracts that are being given out, people still miss the overpowering nature of age and context. And I'm not just talking about owners. When it was announced that the Angels had signed Josh Hamilton, I felt this jolt of excitement. Wow! Pujols and Hamilton hitting back-to-back! That's crazy! That's nuts! Throw in Mike Trout and you have Murderer's Row for 2012, only with a much more PC name! Disney's Destructors! Anaheim's Anacondas! Wow.
And, if indeed the Angels get the Josh Hamilton who posted a 170 OPS+ in 2010 and the Albert Pujols who posted SIX seasons with OPS+ of better than 170, yes, we are talking about a historic pairing. Only nine teams in baseball history have had two players in the same lineup with a 170 OPS+, and six of those were the Yankees with Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth.*
*The other three: Jim Edmonds and Albert Pujols on the 2004 Cardinals; Will Clark and Kevin Mitchell on the 1989 Giants; and Joe Medwick and Johnny Mize on the 1937 Cardinals.
So, yes, my initial reaction to the signing was one of pure wonder. But then I looked at it just a little closer. And I realized that there are three major problems with my wonder. Three.
Problem 1: Neither Pujols nor Hamilton posted a 170 OPS+ (or anything close) in either of the last two seasons.
Sure, it's fun and tempting to think of Pujols and Hamilton as the players they were in 2010 or before. They have been such indelible players and they are still seemingly young enough -- Pujols turns 33 in January, Hamilton turns 32 in May -- that it's just natural to think of them as having a lot of prime left. But the truth is, not only do they have no prime left, they are ALREADY well into decline mode.
Pujols from 2003 to 2010 hit .334/.433/.635.
Pujols the last two years hit .292/.354/.528 … still very good but nowhere near the extraordinary eight-year stretch leading in.
Hamilton from 2008 to 2010 hit .315/.372/.543.
Hamilton the last two years hit .291/.350/.558 -- a touch up in slugging but quite a loss in average and on-base percentage. He's also a year younger than Pujols.
So, when you look at the two players, you have to look at them as they are, not as they were. True, only nine teams in baseball history have had two players with 170 OPS+. But a lot of teams have had multiple players with 130 OPS+ or better -- 749 of them, to be exact, including six last year.
In fact, when you look at teammates in 2012 using a simple stat like runs created, you find that Pujols and Hamilton are not only not a historic pairing, they also wouldn't have been anywhere close to the best pairing in baseball just one year ago:
Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder: 267 runs created.
Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez: 252 runs created.
Robinson Cano and Derek Jeter: 226 runs created.
Alex Gordon and Billy Butler: 221 runs created.
Pujols and Hamilton: 219 runs created.
Andrew McCutchen and Garrett Jones: 212 runs created.
… that doesn't look quite as impressive, does it?
Problem 2: Anaheim is a pretty extreme pitcher's park.
Josh Hamilton didn't just play in one of the best hitter's parks in baseball … that park contributed ENORMOUSLY to his overall statistics. Look at his great 2008 season:
Or look at his 2010 MVP season:
Over his career, he's hitting .315/.373/.592 at Rangers Ballpark. Over his career, he's hitting .260/.325/.440 at Angels Stadium. Does that give you a definitive glance into the future? No. There are no definitive glances into the future. Hamilton doesn't have many at-bats in Anaheim, and he has never hit there as a member of the Angels, so he absolutely could -- and you expect he will -- hit better than that in Anaheim this year.
But, again, it's not a "prediction" to say that he will not hit as well in Anaheim as he hit in Texas anymore than it's a "prediction" to say that if you eat a giant chocolate cake every meal you will gain weight. It's not impossible that you would be able to run off the chocolate cake. It's not impossible that Hamilton will put up huge numbers in Anaheim. But it's not really likely. Ballparks matter.
For a little small-sample-size enjoyment, check out this guy's home numbers…
… and you can clearly see that Albert Pujols wasn't nearly as good in Anaheim in 2012 as he EVER was in St. Louis. This isn't hard to understand. But it can be hard to accept.
Problem 3: Players, in general, really do decline quite fast in their young 30s.
Josh Hamilton, as mentioned, will turn 32 years old in May. I've heard people argue that he's a young 32 because he didn't play ball from age 22 through 25 as he went through his various life issues. I've heard people argue that he's an old 32 for exactly the same reasons (those various life issues) and because he's a big guy who plays the game so hard. All that's just talk. He's 32.
Pujols, as mentioned, will turn 33 in January. I've heard people argue since his high school days that he's older than his published age, and he has denied that, and it doesn't matter either. He's 33.
Players of those ages of 32 and 33, more often than not, are in full decline mode, some frighteningly so. Here's a fun little game to play. Let's look at the five best seasons of the last 40 years for players 32 or 33 years old … and what followed. By WAR they are:
1. Sammy Sosa, 2001, 10.1 WAR at age 32. He played just four more seasons (and a fifth after a year out of baseball) and posted a 7.7 WAR, TOTAL, for those four seasons.
2. Joe Morgan, 1976, 9.5 WAR at age 32. The best player in baseball for years, Morgan continued to play for another eight years, and he put up a couple of good seasons, but he was never again the best player in baseball or anything especially close.
3. Lonnie Smith, 1989, 8.7 WAR at age 33. What a season he had at age 33 -- .315/.415/.533 with 21 homers and 25 stolen bases -- and he hit .305 the next year, though with a dramatic drop in power and speed. And then he dropped even more dramatically. He posted a total of 5.0 WAR for the rest of his career.
4. Bret Boone, 2001, 8.5 WAR at age 32. His average dropped 50-plus points the next year, he rebounded with an excellent year in 2003, and then he played at sub-replacement level the last three years of his career.
5. George Brett, 1985, 8.1 WAR at age 32, carried Royals to World Series. He declined pretty dramatically from those heights -- he was never a legit MVP candidate again -- though he was still a very good player for another five years, winning one more batting title and making three more All-Star Games.
Now let's look at some kids. I'm going to compare that group to some young players of the last 40 years, looking at those 22 or younger who played a full season and had the worst WAR. All five of these guys had negative WARs in their 22-year-old season. The only caveat I have is that they hit at least 10 home runs. In other words, I'm asking for them to show just a hint of promise.
1. Jose Guillen, 1997, minus-3.4 WAR. Guillen was dreadful in 1998 as well, and 1999, and 2000, and 2001 -- it wasn't until he was 27 that he emerged and hit .311 with 31 homers. He was a reasonably consistent power hitter between 27 and 31, when the Royals absurdly gave him the biggest contract in team history. Just in time for his decline. The signing went predictably.
2. Prince Fielder, 2006, minus-1.0 WAR. His WAR was that low because his defense was judged to be that awful. He has posted a 151 OPS+ in the six years since, and averaged 38 homers and 110 RBIs. One of the best hitters in the game.
3. Harold Baines, 1980, minus-0.9 WAR. Hit just .255 with absolutely no plate discipline -- 19 walks in more than 500 plate appearances -- but he got MVP votes two years later and settled into a role as baseball's professional hitter for two decades.
4. Dale Murphy, 1978, minus-0.8 WAR. He was still trying to be a catcher then and he hit .226. But over the next five years, he would develop into one of baseball's best players, and would win back-to-back MVP awards.
5. Eric Hosmer, 2012, minus-0.7 WAR. We'll get back to him in a second.
You can do this year-by-year too. The best 32-/33-year-olds in 1982, for instance, were Cecil Cooper, Toby Harrah, Bill Russell and Mike Schmidt. Their combined WAR over the next five years was 46.9 -- almost two-thirds of it coming from Schmidt.
Meanwhile, the best 22-or-younger players in 1982 were Ryne Sandberg, Cal Ripken Jr., Tim Raines and Steve Sax. They combined for a 95.2 WAR, with only Sax being something of a disappointment.
Pick another year. Take 1988. Three 32-/33-year-olds had exceptional years -- Andre Dawson, Robin Yount and Ozzie Smith. All three are in the Hall of Fame. All three were extraordinary players. And all three aged well when you put them in historical context -- Yount won the MVP a year later, Ozzie was a defensive force for years to come. They put up a combined 43.3 WAR over the next five years, which is probably better than you would expect from a typical trio.
Meanwhile, only two 21-/22-year-olds even qualified for batting titles: Roberto Alomar and Ruben Sierra. But just those two combined for a 38.9 WAR over the next five years, almost as much as the three above. And if you throw in another 22-year-old from 1988 -- say, Jay Bell -- the three absolutely crush the Hall of Famers (with Bell, the total WAR is 55.3).
If I had told you three years ago that you could have 33-year-old A-Rod or get a random choice of the pile of 22-and-younger players who got at least 400 plate appearances, which would you do? Of course you would have taken A-Rod. This isn't "Let's Make a Deal." A-Rod was one of the best players in baseball, for crying out loud.
The pile of 22-younger include: Pablo Sandoval, Andrew McCutchen, Justin Upton, Elvis Andrus, Colby Rasmus, Gerardo Parra. Now ask yourself: How many of those guys would you rather have RIGHT NOW than A-Rod? And would you like to take your chances for what's behind the curtain?
* * *
All of which brings us back to the original question: Who would you rather have in the middle of your lineup for the next five years -- Pujols and Hamilton or Hosmer and Perez?
And I'll just say it: I would take my chances with Hosmer and Perez. Hosmer had a terrible 22-year-old season, but he was terrific as a 21-year-old rookie, and it's too easy to forget just how young a 22-year-old player really is. The player Hosmer reminds me of -- Joey Votto -- was in Double-A as a 22-year-old. Heck, Votto spent most of his age-23 season in Triple-A. I think Hosmer is going to be a masher.
And Salvy Perez? Superstar. Defensively he's incredible -- best catch-and-throw catcher in the American League right now, at 22. Offensively, he's undisciplined, but he hit .301 with some power in a half-season -- way ahead of where they thought he'd be. Sure, it's insane to compare those meager accomplishments against two men with 630-plus homers and four MVPs and 14 All-Star appearances and ...
Well, why don't we try one more comparison, purely for fun? Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays were both born in 1931. They were, obviously, two of the greatest players who ever lived. They each turned 32 in 1963, though Mantle did not turn 32 until after the season ended. Willie Mays hit 47 home runs as a 33-year-old in 1964 and Mantle had 35 homers and 111 RBIs.
Now, let's pretend entering the 1965 season Mays signed with the Yankees. Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle hitting back-to-back. That signing would have made the Pujols-Hamilton thing look like nothing at all. Could you even imagine it? Mantle and Mays? Same lineup? Same outfield? Incredible.
At the same time, there's a team out there with 21- and 22-year-old outfielders, neither of whom have done anything in the big leagues. Combined, they had hit about .225 in limited time. Could you even IMAGINE at that moment saying, "I would rather have those outfielders than Mays and Mantle?" Of course not.
So what happened? Mays delivered an MVP season in 1965 -- including a career-high 52 homers -- and he aged extremely well over the next five years. Over those seasons, he would post a 33.0 WAR -- awfully good. Mantle, because his body was so worn down, would not be nearly as good. He would only play four more seasons, hit .254, and post a 10.6 WAR. That's 43.6 WAR for five seasons between the two, with Mays being the much better older player.
Meanwhile, the two young outfielders on the same team? Well, the team was Houston, and one of those outfielders was Rusty Staub. He posted an 18.8 WAR for the five seasons. He was getting better just as Mays was declining hard and Mantle was at the end -- he hit .333 with a league-leading 44 doubles as a 23-year-old, and he hit 29 homers as a 25-year-old.
The other outfielder was Jimmy Wynn. He posted a 27.8 WAR for those five seasons. He hit 22 homers and stole 43 bases as a 22-year-old, hit 37 homers as a 25-year-old, walked a league-leading 148 times as a 27-year-old. That's a combined 46.6 WAR, which -- even with Mays' brilliance -- is more than the super-duo.
Of course, it isn't just WAR. Together, Wynn and Staub scored way more runs (769-652), drove in way more runs (765-633), had 400 more total bases, stole more than twice as many bases and so on. Perhaps most telling, they played 240 more games over that stretch. Though Mays was able to maintain his brilliance much later into his career than most great players, he needed a lot more rest and had more nagging injuries. This is just what it is to get older.
I fully expect Hamilton and Pujols to have more great seasons. I hope they have a great season together at least once because that would just be an awesome thing to see as a baseball fan. But over the next five years? Over 10 full seasons? I'd go with the kids. Age is age, and time is time, and youth will be served. It was true when George Borrow wrote it 150 years ago in "Lavengro: The Scholar -- The Gypsy -- The Priest." The quote is of a landlord speaking:
"Ah, there is nothing like the ring; I wish I was not rather too old to go again into it. I often think I should like to have another rally, and then -- but there's time for all things -- youth will be served, every dog has his day, and mine has been a fine one. Let me be content."
In many ways, this is one of the most famous passages in the English language, since it features what would become two of our most famous clichés -- youth will be served and every dog has his day. It's also something that baseball GMs might want to have on their wall. They can bet on experience and aging excellence. I'll bet on youth and talent. I'll bet, over time, that I win more often than they do.