Could These MLB Dinosaurs Recreate Albert Pujols's 2022 Renaissance?
Miguel Cabrera and Joey Votto have “out-of-nowhere career turnaround” written all over them.
2022 brought baseball fans a handful of gifts, headlined by Aaron Judge’s all-around excellence and Shohei Ohtani continuing to be Shohei Ohtani. But a few months of Albert Pujols’s farewell season were just as historic. Serving as designated hitter for his old team, the St. Louis Cardinals, Pujols put up one of the great old-guy campaigns ever in an unprecedented comeback from a yearslong slump. There have been few hitters of Pujols’s caliber in MLB history, period; the list of them who have languished around replacement level for years before reclaiming something like their elite form is, well, just Pujols.
Now that Pujols is retired, can anyone else pull off a similar feat in 2023? Baseball doesn’t often deliver such lightning in a bottle twice, but it’s fun to dream. The sport is never short on former mashers playing out the latter years of their career in a reduced state, and the 2023 season brings two natural candidates: Miguel Cabrera and Joey Votto, a pair of first basemen who’ve spent their careers doing a pretty good Pujols impression, both in prime performance and in declining sharply as they got older.
Cabrera, who turns 40 in April, has seen his past few years with the Detroit Tigers marred by a mix of injury and underperformance. And just like Pujols did before last season, Cabrera has said this next one will be his last as a player. Meanwhile, a 39-year-old Votto will play the last guaranteed year of his own contract with the Cincinnati Reds. Votto only played in 91 games last year and did not play them well, stumbling to the worst season of his career. Cabrera’s several years of decline suggest he doesn’t have another big year in him, and Votto’s recent arc suggests the same. But again, Pujols was a well-below-average hitter for five whole years before pulling off a magical 2022: From 2017 to 2021, his adjusted on-base plus slugging percentage was 13 percent below league average. Somehow, he found more in the tank in St. Louis.
There’s nobody quite like Pujols, but Votto and Cabrera have mimicked him for a long time. Votto’s career adjusted on-base plus slugging percentage is a dead match with Pujols’s at 145, equating to 45 percent above league average,1 while Cabrera is just behind at 142. They’re all among the handful of most productive first basemen and designated hitters of the 21st century, a group that also includes 2022 All-Star Freddie Freeman and National League MVP Paul Goldschmidt. Pujols had the second-most valuable seven-year peak by a first baseman ever according to Baseball-Reference.com’s JAWS metric, behind only Lou Gehrig’s best years, but Votto’s and Cabrera’s peaks years will eventually put them near Pujols in the Hall of Fame.
Before his 2022 comeback, Pujols was worth 1.8 wins below replacement level over his prior five years, according to Baseball Reference. Cabrera has been worth a comparatively solid negative-1.2 wins above replacement his past five. Votto’s value is still solidly in positive figures across his past five years (8.2 WAR), as 2022 was the first negative-value season of his career. In 2021, a 41-year-old Pujols — older at the time than either Votto or Cabrera will be this year — posted an 89 OPS+. Cabrera and Votto landed at 83 and 87 in 2022. If you are into wishcasting for someone else from Pujols’s cohort to have one last dominant run on his way out of the league, those numbers are telling you there’s a chance.
Are we looking at a pair of Pujols-twins?
Key batting statistics for Albert Pujols in 2021 and for Joey Votto and Miguel Cabrera in 2022
|Albert Pujols (2021)||41||296||.236||.284||.433||.717||89|
|Joey Votto (2022)||38||376||.205||.319||.370||.689||87|
|Miguel Cabrera (2022)||39||433||.254||.305||.317||.622||83|
Cabrera having a big year feels like about as big a long shot as the prospect felt for Pujols entering 2022, which is to say: It’s unlikely. Cabrera has been a below-average hitter in four of the past six years, and one of the exceptions was the shortened (and thus small-sample-sized) 2020. Cabrera hasn’t truly raked in extensive action since 2016. But Cabrera has also arguably been unlucky. In 2017, he had the majors’ biggest negative difference between his weighted on-base average and expected wOBA based on his quality of contact, as captured by Statcast cameras. His actual wOBA continued to lag his expected figure every year until 2022, when they converged at exactly .275, which put him in the bottom 8 percent of qualified hitters. His average exit velocity of 89.9 miles per hour in 2022 was not Cabrera-like.
Cabrera has had sporadic injury problems for years, but they seemed to put him especially out of sorts last year. A player who turns 40 in the first month of the season gets no promises from his body. But if Cabrera is reasonably healthy, maybe he will begin to hit the ball a bit more like his old self. And if he hits the ball harder, maybe he will meet better fortune than in the late 2010s. His strikeout and walk numbers have deteriorated, but his plate discipline hasn’t. He still chases pitches out of the zone and makes contact at similar frequencies as he did before his performance fell off. Pitchers still keep a slight majority of pitches to him out of the strike zone, and they still feed him a mixed diet of four-seam fastballs (rarely more than 40 percent of the time), sliders and sinkers. Cabrera’s walk and strikeout numbers could stabilize, even if he will never again be the guy who, in 2011, walked 16 percent of the time and struck out 13 percent of the time.
Votto’s path back to excellence is a little bit easier to envision, if only just because he’s younger and has only one bad season under his belt. And while Cabrera’s team plays 81 games in one of the most offensively antagonistic ballparks in MLB, Votto’s home games are in a hitter’s paradise. The left-hander has been one of the majors’ most heavily shifted hitters. Last year, Votto confronted three infielders to his right side of second base in 86 percent of his plate appearances, a top-40 rate in the league and the highest he’s faced in the Statcast era, which dates to 2015. Not coincidentally, Votto had the second-worst batting average on balls in play (.257) of his career. It wasn’t all bad luck and hitting into a shift, as Votto’s ground ball rate was his second-highest ever at 44.9 percent. But his average exit velocity was his fourth-highest since 2015, as was the percentage of balls he put into play at 95 miles per hour or harder. This year, the shift is illegal as part of a whole suite of new rules. Those changes look favorable to the Reds in general, but the banning of the shift looks really favorable to the team’s franchise player.
Votto still has traces of his prodigious ability to work a count. Last season, his 25.8 percent strikeout was the worst of his career, and his 11.7 percent walk rate was worse than in any year but his first two, 2007 and 2008. And yet, because Votto is a plate discipline freak, his strikeout and walk figures were still more or less league average (22.4 percent and 8.2 percent, respectively). The walks are how Votto still managed an above-average .312 on-base percentage, even as he was languishing through the worst year of his career.
In 2022, biceps and shoulder injuries apparently messed badly with Votto, not just limiting his range of motion and grip on the bat but also upending his practice routines. Votto’s rehabilitation from shoulder surgery has bled into the spring, and as with Cabrera, he is not guaranteed a clean bill of health. A Votto rebound wouldn’t look the same as Pujols’s, as Votto has never been the kind of dinger-hitter Pujols was. But could Votto have one of his trademark seasons in which he hits 30 or 40 doubles and is somehow always on base? Stranger things have happened. (Remember, Votto’s career OBP is .412.)
If neither Cabrera nor Votto generate a late-career surge, the sport might look to a few other ancient mashers to be this year’s old-guy renaissance. Nelson Cruz’s power left him during a lost season with the Washington Nationals, but there’s still pop somewhere in his bat. A maximum exit velocity in 2022 of 113.8 miles per hour was in the top 7 percent of the majors, and his strikeout and walk numbers stayed at his career standard. Now 42, he’ll sit in the middle of a talented (and expensive) Padres lineup. Josh Donaldson, the former American League MVP, looks like he’s in an irreversible offensive decline, but he’s a great enough defender (7 defensive runs saved at third base last year) that even a mild offensive rebound could make him a hugely valuable 37-year-old. And former National League MVP Andrew McCutchen, who’s returned to the Pittsburgh Pirates at 36, is still fast and feasts on left-handed pitching. Perhaps he’ll get some inspiration from being back at his most successful stomping grounds,2 following his first below-average offensive season (albeit just barely, with a 99 OPS+).
Someone will mash at an advanced age this year. Only five seasons this century haven’t seen at least one baseball senior citizen (age 38 or older) post an adjusted OPS at least 25 percent better than average. Cruz (three times) and Pujols (once) are the players to do it in the past four years. Most of those seasons don’t follow a half-decade of irrelevance, and even fewer involve the successful pursuit of the 700 Club. The closing act of Albert Pujols will never be duplicated, but maybe someone else can produce a pretty good replica.