Albert Pujols, the best player in the game has been lost for 4-6 weeks with a fractured left forearm. The Cardinals are tied for first place with the Milwaukee Brewers, but without Pujols, they will have to scramble. Make no mistake, you cannot replace Albert Pujols, one of the greatest hitters in the history of the game, by going with someone who otherwise wasn’t starting for your team. The Cardinals will likely try to do so by moving Lance Berkman from his right field spot to first base, and by giving Jon Jay more at bats in place of Berkman in the outfield. (Jay has already seen extensive playing time since mid-May, particularly when Matt Holliday was out).
However, just because Albert Pujols cannot be singularly replaced to get the same production doesn’t mean it is the world ends. He is still, in this team sport with individual matchups, just one individual player amongst nine. Wins above Replacement (WAR) is a statistic that tries to encapsulate other measures to convert production to the amount of wins for which a player is responsible. According to Baseball-Reference, Pujols has been worth 25.9 wins above replacement over the previous three seasons — seasons that saw him win two MVP’s and finish 2nd in the other. That averages out to over 8 wins above replacement per season. If Pujols’ were to, say, miss 40 games, we would expect the Cardinals to do about 2 wins worse without him over that span using a replacement level player. And Jon Jay has, so far, been better than a replacement level player.
But that’s theoretical, and you may not buy that losing a player of Pujols’ ilk may be only worth 2 more losses over a quarter of the season. So what if we actually look at what happens when a team loses a superstar player of around the same age as Pujols? Using Baseball-Reference’s season finder, I looked back at history to find all other players who (1) had a WAR of 20.0 or better over a three year period from ages 27-29, 28-30, or 29-31, and (2) then missed 25 or more games the following season (at either age 30, 31, or 32). I then found the team’s record when they were starting, versus when they were out. Originally, I used all games in which the player participated, but realized the winning percentages were low when these star players came in the game as non-starters, because of selection bias–they more likely pinch hit when trailing.
Even removing those games, the results were interesting, and should provide some measure of hope for Cardinals fans. Only 17 players met the criteria, most of whom are memorialized in Cooperstown, names like Ruth and Mantle. For 9 of them–so just more than half–their teams actually had a better record in games they missed than games they started. Here is that full list:
|As Starter||Playing Without|
Will the Cardinals join that list of teams that weathered the loss of a great player by playing just as well or better? I don’t know. Maybe Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman cool off, or the pitching staff goes through a rough patch and they lose more games than they win. If that happens, the easy answer, but probably not the entirely correct one, will be it is just because they lost their best player. History suggests that losing a star player doesn’t have to be costly for a stretch of games, and if the remaining Cardinals can play as they have so far in 2011, they can get through this and still be in good shape for a pennant run.
[photo via Getty]