Jason: Let's debate.
Resolved: Albert Pujols is not 31 years old.
Rob: I'm not sure who you would debate with!
Jason: Well, let's kick it around, anyway. I'll argue the affirmative, and you play Devil's Advocate. (Literally, Satan's lawyer!) Okay?
Jason: So did you see Dan Le Batard's column? I mean, did you see it?
... like a lot of teams, the Marlins believe Pujols to be older than the 31 he claims to be... Keep in mind, the Marlins told popular Dan Uggla they wouldn't ever give a player older than 30 a contract of more than four years. And now they're offering nine to Pujols, whose age they don't even know.[snip]
Fielder fits Florida's philosophy a lot better than Pujols because you don't have to give him as much money or years, and you get him in his prime and ascending as opposed to Pujols, who has to terrify you coming off the worst year of his life now that, in the post-steroids era, there is no fountain of youth and the normal decline of a hitter begins around the 33, 34, 35 that Pujols indeed might be.
Rob: I saw the excerpt at Baseball Think Factory. And of course thought immediately of you. But this was the first time I can remember where an actual newspaper columnist gave any credence to the notion that maybe Albert Pujols is perhaps somewhat older than he's been letting on.
Jason: Right. Until now, questions about Pujols' age were mostly discussed at places like this (you should definitely click on that, by the way), rather than the Miami Herald, so this seems significant.
I've long thought that a) Pujols is older than he claims and b) this is the most important sports story that the press never talks about. And so I view Le Batard's column, in which he practically assumes Pujols' official age is a fiction, and the MIT Analytics conference, where you and a four other people went on record with the same belief, as somewhat vindicating. I will now declare victory and go home.
Rob: Well, it might be a little early for that. Now, if Pujols does not get a nine-year deal from anyone, that might suggest something of a consensus on this subject. There's little in the statistics to suggest that Pujols isn't actually 31, is there? Sure, he was terribly young for a great hitter when he broke in. But since then he's had a perfectly normal career path for a Top 10 hitter.
Jason: Well, if you squint hard enough, you might catch a glimpse of early decline in his numbers. His OPS+ has decreased every year since 2008. But I wouldn't want to make too much of that, because he's still playing at a superstar level, and really, who needs statistics when you've got a lot of rumors and hearsay evidence?
The case against Albert Pujols being 31 years old is a circumstantial one. It has to be, because no media outlet seems willing to actually investigate how old he is. And the only guy brave and handsome enough to bring it up all the time doesn't have the resources to hunt down his Dominican birth certificate.
Rob: You mean Le Batard? Yeah, he is a handsome devil, ain't he? Let me play Satan's Advocate for a moment, on two fronts. One, we don't know that nobody has investigated Pujols's birthday. We only know that nobody has presented any real evidence, one way or the other. It's quite possible that the Cardinals have done plenty of work, and found something. One way or the other. I have to think that any team considering a $200 million investment would spend, I don't know, twenty grand on a couple of private investigators. Or something.
Two, it's probably not all that surprising that people who saw Pujols in high school and juco were surprised that he was only (supposedly) 17 or 18 or whatever. I'll bet Herschel Walker didn't look like he was 17 when he was 17, either. There are basketball players who, at 17 or 18, are ready to compete at the highest level of the sport. Maybe Albert Pujols was just a Prodigy for the Ages?
Jason: Both excellent points. I used to think sentiment might prevent the Cardinals from doing their due diligence. But that's crazy. It's just too much money not to check.
I think the Cardinals must know how old he is. (Whitey says they do!) And I think this likely affected the abortive negotiations for an extension last March. But whereas the Cardinals might reason, as the Yankees did with Jeter, that he's worth more to them in terms of long-term revenues than to other teams, I don't see how it makes sense for Miami. But that's another topic.
To your second point, was Pujols a "Prodigy for Ages"? Maybe. I think Pujols is obviously physically different than other humans. He heals faster than Wolverine, for instance. But both things could be true: he could be a physical marvel and be lying about his age.
Either he's the only player in the modern era who could compete at an MVP-level at age 20, or he wasn't 20. Which is more likely?
Rob: I don't know, man. Maybe we were just due for another Ty Cobb / Ted Williams / etc. And for that matter, you seem to have completely forgotten Alex Rodriguez, who very nearly was the MVP at 20.
I do think the Cardinals' caution might suggest something interesting, which I mentioned last spring when their reported offer seemed absurdly low. If they had any interest in actually signing him for a long time.
Jason: Right, A-Rod. Alex Rodriguez was on cover of Baseball America when he was in high school. But Albert wasn't even drafted out of high school. And he was not, so far as I know, recruited by any of the big NCAA baseball programs. He went Maple Woods Community College (which may not be a Division I school, but they are a Region XVI powerhouse). He hit a grand slam and turned an unassisted triple play in his first game. Finally, after a year of that nonsense, he was drafted. In the 13th round. That is, every team in baseball had a dozen opportunities to draft Albert Pujols and declined. It's easy to say, "Well, sometimes the scouts are wrong. They missed on Piazza." Yes. But why were they wrong? Were they unimpressed with his talent, or did they think they were watching a proto-Danny Almonte?
Rob: Did you read the chapter about Pujols in Jonah Keri's book?
Rob: It's possible that I've forgotten something, but I don't believe Jonah referenced any doubts about Pujols's age. He worked out for the Devil Rays brass in St. Petersburg and everyone presumably assumed he was 18 or 19, but they weren't impressed because he had sort of a funny build and nobody could figure out where he would play on the field. I mean, it all seems so ridiculous now. But it's not like scouts haven't missed guys before.
Jonah tells the story well, but it's just about the Rays. I would love to see a full accounting of all the baseball men who had absolutely no idea how good Pujols would be. Which reminds me, even if he was 21, at the time, aren't scouts still supposed to be able to guess what a player will do in the majors? Isn't that the whole point of the job?
Jason: Well, that and selling jeans.
Let me take one more stab at this.
Pujols was reportedly 16 when his family came to the United States. Had he been 17 (or 18, or 20), he would have been ineligible to attend high school (or play high school baseball). This seems like an obvious motive.
Further, many people—players, scouts, coaches—who saw him play in high school, college, and the minors believed, based on his size and otherworldly play ("one mammoth shot Albert launched at Liberty High School... landed on top of a 25-foot high air conditioning unit some 450 feet from home plate") that he was older than he claimed. It was an "open secret" at Maple Woods that he was "older than advertised." He "lied about his age" (in the other direction) to his future wife.
Despite his remarkable play in high school and college, something kept the scouts away. Something spooked them. Yes, he was... I hesitate to say "fat"... he didn't have a body that impressed baseball scouts. But that's the reason they missed out on the greatest player of his generation? I don't think the scouts were dumb. I don't think they couldn't see what was right in front of them. I think they thought they were watching a grown man competing against little boys. If you saw Matt Kemp play for a juco team, would you really know what to make of him?
Anyway, did I convince you, Dark Lord?
Rob: I won't be shocked if we someday discover that Albert Pujols had a baseball age. But -- and I have to admit that this is just now occurring to me—you've got a huge group of men who could use a really good excuse for missing Albert Pujols. Twenty-nine Scouting Directors and 29 General Managers—or 30 of each, if you want to count the Cardinals, because of course they passed for 12 rounds. Also hundreds of scouts, none of whom saw enough to persuade their bosses to use one of the first 401 picks in the 1999 draft on Pujols. Why haven't any of those people spoken up about their doubts? There must be some retired scouts who wouldn't have anything to lose by saying, "Yeah, I knew he could hit but I thought he was 22."
Find me three or four of those scouts and I think you'll have a slightly better case, counselor.