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Monday, December 31, 2012
Player comparison: One to close the year

By David Schoenfield

Let's wrap up 2012 with one more player comparison.

Player A signed a controversial contract last offseason and got off to a slow start with his new team before rebounding to put up solid numbers. Player B doesn't have near the reputation of Player A, and just signed his own controversial contract -- albeit for far less money than Player A received.

Player A is Albert Pujols. Player B is Nick Swisher. Pujols' contract pays him $16 million in 2013, $23 million in 2014 and escalates from there all the way up to $30 million ... in 2021, when he'll be 41 years old. Swisher signed a somewhat maligned four-year, $56 million contract with the Indians -- $14 million per season. Pujols is 11 months younger than Swisher.

Let's forget how bad Pujols' deal could potentially be at the end. Is it fair to suggest that Swisher could actually be more valuable than Pujols over the next four seasons?

First, let me note that I cheated a bit on this one. In the other three comparisons, I used Baseball-Reference WAR. For this one, I listed their identical FanGraphs WAR (Pujols leads in B-R WAR, 4.6 to 3.5, differences coming from how defense is evaluated and how park effects are employed).

Let's focus on the offense. Pujols certainly owns the power edge, outhomering Swisher and producing 80 extra-base hits to Swisher's 60. Pujols did play in a tougher home run park, but it's worth noting that Swisher never received a home run advantage from Yankee Stadium: In his four years with the Yankees, he actually hit more home runs on the road (59 to 46, including 13 to 11 in 2012). Swisher's big edge over Pujols comes from drawing walks -- 25 more in 2012 and 59 more over the last two seasons. This gave Swisher a slight edge in on-base percentage in 2012 (an edge he held in 2011 as well). Pujols drew just 36 unintentional walks in 2012, continuing the deterioration in his on-base ability that we saw in 2011.

Pujols supporters will certainly point to the adjustments Pujols made after a brutal April in which he didn't homer. OK, but April counts as well, and Pujols' final numbers still reflected his fourth consecutive season of decline. His walk has dropped nearly in half from two years ago and that expansion of the strike zone means he may no longer be a .300 hitter -- let alone the guy who hit .357 in 2008 or .327 in 2009.

A traditional aging curve would suggest Pujols will have the much longer career, since he was so dominant at his peak, one of the best batsmen in major league history. But Swisher is a durable player and a good enough athlete to play right field. As great as Pujols was, it's possible he only has four good years left. And it's possible Swisher still has four good years left.

I still give the edge to Pujols, especially since Swisher's defense will probably start slipping in a year or two and if he moves to first base his bat becomes less valuable. And while I don't expect to Pujols to revert to the best player in baseball status he once owned, maybe we can write off his bad April to an ill-timed slump and pressure of the new contract.

But like the other comparisons I presented, this at least makes you think, and makes the contract Cleveland gave Swisher maybe not so outrageous.

Anyway, thanks to all my loyal readers for a fantastic season and the time you take to read. Happy New Year and best wishes for 2013. May your team win it all.