Did Albert Pujols’ Age Matter?

Two weeks ago, Dan Le Batard of The Miami Herald reported that the Marlins, among several other teams, believe Albert Pujols is older than his stated age of 31. It was not the main thrust of his column—indeed, he mentioned it almost in passing.

Not long before that, ESPN’s Keith Law* remarked in an online chat that

the subject [of Pujols’ age] keeps coming up when I’m talking to front office people. If some GMs will shy away, or offer fewer years, because in the backs of their minds they're worried he's a year or two older than his listed age, isn't that relevant to this discussion here?

* Keith Law hates your team.

Then, last Sunday, Jon Heyman did this:

If albert pujols wants to beat $200M 9-yr cardinals offer, he should produce birth certificate. skepticism abounds over 31 claim
Dec 04 via Mobile WebFavoriteRetweetReply

 

Well.

To Cardinals and Pujols partisans, these tweets and mutterings (and my own contribution to the genre of Pujols age skepticism) amounted to heresy, and provided an opportunity for facile comparisons to Obama birthers (if only one could copyright such things).

To followers of Age-gate™, these small asides constituted a flood. It had always seemed odd that the story of Pujols’ age—which was important for the obvious reason that the future value of a 31-year-old free agent is much different than that of a 33-year-old—had gone almost wholly unmentioned in the mainstream press for a decade. Given the skepticism that dogged Pujols since high school, and the enormous sums of money he stood to make on what would likely be his last contract, what could account for the sports press’ incuriosity?

Until this week, I had assumed sportswriters were ignoring an important story for one or more of the following reasons:

  1. They like and admire Pujols, and didn’t want to think too hard about the possibility he might be lying about his age—just as they didn’t want to think too hard about PEDs during the Summer of ‘98 (possible)
  2. They don't understand valuation (not likely)
  3. Big-time sportswriters are not interested in the same things I’m interested in (almost certainly true)

Or maybe they simply didn’t lend any credence to the rumors. Here's why I don't think that's the case: Unless you believe Le Batard, Law, and Heymann are lying, or involved in an elaborate conspiracy to piss off St. Louisans, it would seem that the notion that Albert Pujols might be older than he claims is not especially controversial. Not among general managers, anyway, nor among sportswriters, and not, according to this (admittedly unscientific) poll of Baseball Nation readers, among baseball fans (outside of Cardinal Nation, that is).

In the end, though, it didn't matter. The question of Pujols’ age turned out not to be important—not because the difference in valuation didn’t matter, but because the Angels, the Marlins, and one as-yet-unknown mystery team each offered him a 10 year contract—despite believing his official age to be a fiction.

Given this, it’s tempting to assume that these teams are irrational, or just plain nuts. Maybe they are. Sometimes GMs and owners talk themselves into tacking an extra year (or two) onto a free agent contract out of, I don't know... hope? Irrational exuberance? More likely, though, is that these people are acting in accordance with their rational, short-term interests, and don’t expect to be around several years from now when and if Pujols' contract becomes an albatross*. Economists call this "moral hazard." When a person or an entity assumes a risk but is insulated from the costs of that risk, incentives become skewed, and calamity sometimes results.

* None of the general managers who signed Alex Rodriguez, Alfonso Soriano and Vernon Wells to their first free agent contracts are still employed as general managers.

As Rob reported yesterday:

Fortunately, one reporter in the press conference did bring up the question that's been in everyone's mind ... How old is Albert Pujols, anyway? DiPoto did address the question, but of course didn't express any doubt ...

"Albert Pujols's age, to me, is not an issue. He is an honorable man, he is a respectable man."

DiPoto went on to add the following:

I’m not a scientist. I can’t tell you where he is.

Oookaaay.

I don’t doubt that Albert Pujols is an honorable man. If he lied about his age, I believe he did so for understandable reasons. Even if the Angels failed to do their due diligence, they cannot reasonably claim that they were defrauded.

But you don’t have to believe Pujols is thirty-four to suspect this won’t end well. I don’t relish the day when Albert Pujols is a forty-something part-time DH playing out the string for an Angels team desperate to unload a string of contracts handed out by the ancien régime.

But that’s an eternity from now. It doesn’t matter anymore.

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