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Albert Pujols' Injury Won't Have as Big of an Impact as You Think

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  
first last year age   W L   W L  
chase utley 2010 31   68 46 0.596 29 18 0.617
carlos beltran 2009 32   36 44 0.450 34 47 0.420
scott rolen 2005 30   35 20 0.636 65 41 0.613
rickey henderson 1991 32   64 62 0.508 17 11 0.607
allan trammell 1989 31   46 73 0.387 13 28 0.317
gary carter 1986 32   86 45 0.656 21 9 0.700
reggie jackson 1976 30   74 57 0.565 11 17 0.393
frank robinson 1967 31   61 67 0.477 14 18 0.438
mickey mantle 1963 31   31 21 0.596 65 31 0.677
mickey mantle 1962 30   74 43 0.632 22 17 0.564
duke snider 1958 31   32 48 0.400 31 17 0.646
ted williams 1950 31   46 40 0.535 46 19 0.708
lou boudreau 1950 32   37 29 0.561 48 25 0.658
mel ott 1939 30   59 56 0.513 16 10 0.615
luke appling 1938 31   34 43 0.442 30 37 0.448
babe ruth 1925 30   44 53 0.454 25 32 0.439
dave bancroft 1923 32   68 39 0.636 27 19 0.587

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]

 

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