Aging is kind of great since you understand more and more about the world around you. It also stinks, I suppose, because you understand more and more about the world around you. What’s really tough about aging is that you get old, that you can’t do the same things you used to do. And the even harder part is that you have such vivid memories of what you used to do.
A recent comment by blog friend verdun2 about an old Albert Pujols got me thinking about how our ages affect our perceptions of players as they age. If you’re a kid in Los Angeles just getting into baseball now, you see Pujols, for example, quite differently than a Cardinal fan who’s 21-25 now.
Unless you’re David Ortiz, you probably slow down as you age. And it’s pretty certain your last year or three aren’t too good. Today we’re going to take a look at a few players who aged, just as we all do. I want to think about how different fans perceive these players.
If you’re reading this post, I’m nearly 100% certain you appreciate Albert Pujols for what he is, a transformative player who comes along maybe a few times in a generation.
You see the problem with that comment?
I’m writing a post about how time or age might cause us to inaccurately perceive a player, and I just did so. As someone older than 18, and as someone who studies baseball history, I understand Pujols’ greatness, but it’s nearly certain not everyone does.
From 2001-2011 only sixteen non-pitchers posted 40 WAR, including Placido Polanco. Only seven posted 50. Pujols put up 86.4. That boggles the mind on a couple of levels. First, the guy was actually 30.7 WAR ahead of Carlos Beltran, the third place finisher. Second, Angel fans who are about 18 years old don’t understand that Albert Pujols. The guy they understand is one who they’ve seen in an Angel uniform for the last five years. This is a guy who’s tied for 63rd in non-pitcher WAR over the last half decade, trailing the likes of Adam Eaton and Salvador Perez.
Hey young Angel fans, you’re going to have kids who don’t understand Mike Trout like you do.
This is the guy for me. No, McCovey was no Albert Pujols, even at his best. From 1965-1970, McCovey was the sixth best non-pitcher in the game by WAR, trailing a pretty incredible Carl Yastrzemski by 9.9 and four other Hall of Famers.
I began to tune into baseball in 1978, on the east coast, as a fan of the Red Sox. I didn’t understand who Willie McCovey was. I only understood the player who I seldom watched. From 1978-1980, when his career ended, McCovey wasn’t that good. In fact, he was awful. George Brett and Mike Schmidt were the game’s best players. McCovey was the worst. Literally. As brilliant as the Play Index at BBREF is, it was hard to find out just how bad. Not hard, but it took quite a while. That’s how bad McCovey was. Of all who played from 1978-1980, McCovey ranked tied for 1170th. That’s no typo. There were 1169 guys who did less damage at the plate and running the bases than McCovey’s -1.2 WAR over those three years. By the way, there were 1214 guys who came to the plate over those years including Mario Mendoza at #1203, Mike Tyson (not him) at #1210, and Luis Pujols (no relation) at #1213.
Like I said, I started paying attention to baseball in 1978. As a Red Sox fan, I have such a keen memory of Yaz popping out to Graig Nettles to end the one-game playoff against the Yankees. For whatever reason, I have no memory of his home run earlier that game. And like most Red Sox fans, I completely forget that they won eight straight games and twelve of fourteen to even get into that playoff game. But I digress.
From 1967-1970, Yaz was the best player in baseball. By far. Only fourteen hitters had more than 20 WAR. And only Yaz had 30, clocking in at 37.9. For those four years, he was Mike Trout. Of course, I didn’t pay attention to those four years. I paid attention from 1978-1983. Four Red Sox who I grew up watching, Jim Rice, Fred Lynn, Dwight Evans, and Carlton Fisk, were among the 30 best non-pitchers in the game over those six years. Not Yaz. He was tied with Glenn Hubbard and Roy Howell for #164. I absolutely couldn’t understand how this guy was the best player in Sox history aside from Ted Williams.
Lefty was a Cardinal for a handful of years and a Phillie forever. Then from 1986-1988 he was a Giant, a White Sox, an Indian, and a Twin. And boy was he horrible. That wasn’t always the case though. If we take Carlton’s two amazing seasons of 1972 and 1980, plus everything in between, he was the fifth most valuable pitcher in the game, eclipsed only by Phil Niekro, Tom Seaver, Gaylord Perry, and Bert Blyleven.
(Please allow this brief aside. Carlton and all of the pitchers ahead of him are in the Hall. And they should be. So are the two right behind him, Jim Palmer and Nolan Ryan. But there’s a guy with whom he’s tied who consistently goes unnoticed. This is a guy whose second best season isn’t even within this time period. And I think he might be the most underrated player in baseball history, Rick Reuschel).
Anyway, back to our program. There’s no doubt that Carlton was great. There’s equally little doubt that he was awful at the end. If you were born in 1975 or so, you might have thought he was the worst pitcher in baseball. That’s because he was. During those years, there were 33 pitchers to put up -1 WAR. Only two managed to put up -2, Ron Davis and Steve Carlton. Both also put up -3. But Carlton was worse. He was the worst pitcher in baseball for the last three years of his career.
Getting old can be rough on the body. I know, newsflash. It can also mess with the perceptions of fans who are young when you’re an aging sports legend. I don’t know for sure what will happen during the last five years of Albert Pujols’ contract with the Angels. I do know, however, that if you’re ten years old today and an Angels fan, you’re not going to understand how great Pujols was. And when you’re told, I suspect you’re not going to believe it.