Albert Pujols is signed through 2021 on a 10-year, $240-million deal that is widely considered the worst contract in baseball. In 2011, his last season with St. Louis, Pujols posted a then-career-worst 4.0 WAR. He’s yet to best three-and-a-half wins with the Angels and, last year, was worth negative 1.9 WAR. There’s no doubt the Angels would get out from under this onerous deal if they could.
Yesterday, Meg Rowley held a chat. In said chat, a commenter named Yo-Yo asked this question.
Yo-yo was referring to this article from Baseball Prospectus in which Matthew Trueblood speculates that Albert Pujols is actually 40 and not 38, and thus two years older than he claims. Per Trueblood:
To anyone who followed baseball closely around the time of Pujols’ explosion onto the scene in 2001, this will come as no great surprise. Four of Pujols’ first six player comments in Baseball Prospectus Annuals make reference to the rumored discrepancy between his listed and real ages. Pujols’ age became a topic of some discussion in the run-up to his hitting free agency in 2011, and a panel of experts that included industry-leading writers and front office members alike formed a near consensus that he was older than listed. It’s been several years since the issue has been treated or talked about seriously, but my recent Twitter poll asking respondents how old they think Pujols is (noting that he’s listed at 38) found just 35 percent believed the party line.
Now, Trueblood doesn’t really present anything close to what would be considered real evidence of Pujols having falsified his age, let alone conclusive proof. But the idea of baseball players, particularly from the Dominican, being older than listed isn’t a new phenomenon. Miguel Tejada might be the most famous case, but Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero, and lesser known players like Octavio Dotel and Wandy Rodriguez, among others, were, too. Again, that doesn’t mean that Pujols is guilty of doing the same thing, but it does, perhaps, help to explain why those pesky rumors just won’t go away. And, as Trueblood explains, it’s an understandable thing to do for young Dominican players.
Firstly, let’s make sure to say this: I am not accusing Pujols of what I would consider unethical or truly fraudulent behavior. Pujols’ background and early life story are unique, involving living in the Dominican Republic until mid-adolescence, then immigrating to the United States. He and his family were in a difficult position, when they came here in 1996: Pujols would not be eligible to attend American high school, at least in a normal setting, if he were 17 or older. That didn’t just put his baseball future at risk; it threatened his chance to pursue opportunities of all kinds on even footing with his peers.
But Yo-Yo presents a fascinating question. If Pujols were, in fact, two years older than the Angels thought when they signed him, could they use that to get out of their contract with him?
Let’s start with the obvious: this is, as always, greatly oversimplified for purposes of (relative) brevity. We also need to make our standard assumptions, in this case by assuming that Pujols signed a contract largely similar to this one, the Uniform Player Contract. Let’s also assume that, during negotiations with the Angels, Pujols or his representation informed the Angels that he was 31, as was reported. Let’s also assume that the Angels just found out about this and are, shall we say, shocked.
The key, for the Angels, is this:
Let me explain what we’re seeing here. Thanks to the great work of Jeff Zimmerman and Sean Dolinar, we see three aging curves. The first is Pujols’ aging curve based on his reported age. The second is his aging curve if he’s two years older than reported. The third is a projection built from Pujols’ historical peers using the delta method — a group of players who, due to Pujols’ incredible Cardinals run, are all pretty much elite hitters. Interestingly, the “Pujols Plus Two” curve much more closely mirrors his historical peers, which might mean a lot or a little. For our purposes, it means a lot.
There’s a doctrine in the law called “fraud in the inducement.” Under California law, cases like Hinesley v. Oakshade Town Center and Ron Greenspan v. Ford have been pretty consistent that oral representations can form the basis of a claim for fraud in the inducement even where the written contract disclaims such oral statements, so long as the injured party can establish some kind of reliance. And that’s where we go back to our aging curves. If the Angels believe Pujols is 31 at the time they sign him, they might reasonably believe that, even if his best years are behind him, he still has productive years ahead based on the top-30 aging curve.
However, if he’s 33, that means they are buying only decline years. The contract isn’t even a win-now move, because the Angels’ fundamental assumption — that Pujols’ rapid decline is still years away — is fundamentally flawed. In a contract where age matters to performance, the Angels would have a fairly viable case that they relied to their detriment on Pujols’ representations and would not have made the deal absent those representations. In other words, this graph shows the difference between the player the Angels thought they were getting and the one they actually got.
Here’s how our own Andrew Perpetua explained it to me:
[Those two years make] a big difference with Pujols, right? If he’s… older than people thought, the last year of his prime was back at age “32.” Which was… his first year with the Angels. Oh dear, that means the Angels had an almost 100% chance to have a rapidly depreciating asset.
(And there are other consequences too. Insurance on Pujols’ contract would become nearly impossible to collect, because it was based on false information.)
Arguably, Pujols’ failure to disclose his age would be a breach of these terms in the model contract:
It could also be a violation of paragraph 7, which governs personal conduct. Here’s why. Given the nature of aging curves, Pujols’ advanced age would be a material defect that would deprive the Angels of the benefit of their bargain.
Consider this (admittedly imperfect) example. Let’s say you buy a used car and are told by the dealer that there are 75,000 miles on it. You express to the dealer that you are looking for a vehicle for potential long-term use, and the dealer reiterates that there are 75,000 miles on the car. You know this particular car model begins having engine trouble at 125,000 miles. Theoretically, part of your anticipated benefit of the bargain is the 50,000 miles of usage you expect to receive from that car. But if the dealer lied — if the car actually has 100,000 miles on it — the benefit of your bargain is half what you expected. In most states, you could probably undo your contract under those circumstances.
Now, a person isn’t a car, and an employee contract isn’t a contract for the purchase of a thing. However, the same basic principle applies. A valid contract requires what is called a “meeting of the minds.” In other words, both sides have to agree on the same terms based on the same material facts. The failure to disclose a material fact (like the player’s age) can be fraud in the inducement because an omission can be just as unlawful as a false statement. To put it another way, a person has the right to receive the “benefit of the bargain” they were promised. And California provides more protections than most states for aggrieved contract parties.
So California’s lenient rules on fraud in the inducement would, in theory, make it possible for the Angels to get out of this contract if Pujols did, in fact, lie about his age. Now, that doesn’t mean the Angels would have a cakewalk here. They would almost certainly have to file suit for what is called rescission, which is a type of equitable relief which would undo the contract, but they’d still have to pay Pujols for the services he did render. Pujols could argue that the Angels had “constructive knowledge” — in other words, they should have known about the possibility of his age given the longstanding questions on that subject — and that, therefore, the Angels’ reliance wasn’t reasonable. Any legal proceeding on this basis would be long, expensive, and damaging to both sides. We’re halfway through the contract already, which means Pujols could have defenses of waiver and laches, basically saying the Angels waited too long to raise this.
And there are practical considerations, also. There’s the fact that, if the Angels did sue their $240 million player to void his contract, the MLBPA could (and should) scream bloody murder and probably also file a grievance. And there’s the fact that doing so would make the Angels a less-than-attractive place for free agents to land. But all of that said, it is, as a matter of law, theoretically possible for the Angels to legally void Pujols’ contract if he did affirmatively mislead the Angels regarding his age.
In theory, the Angels could have a less drastic approach. The law recognizes a doctrine called “unilateral mistake,” where a court will not enforce a contract where it would be unfair to do so where one party made a mistake in its understanding of the terms. There’s more to it than that, but that explanation will suffice for our purposes. Unilateral mistake sounds good here, but it’s actually harder to prove in practice than fraud. That’s because “California law allows rescission of contract for a unilateral mistake only when the unilateral mistake is known to the other contracting party and is encouraged or fostered by that party.” If that sounds an awful lot like proving fraud… you’re right.
It’s also worth noting that, if the Angels wanted to go this route, the entire contract would have to be rescinded:
[In California], it must be pointed out that under well settled principles a contract entered into by reason of fraud, duress or economic compulsion may be rescinded by the injured party. However, it is axiomatic that in such an instance the entitled party must rescind the entire contract and may not retain the rights under it which he deems desirable and repudiate the remainder..
In other words, the Angels would have to undo the entire contract, not just lower Pujols’ pay. Maybe they don’t care about that so much, but they did collect a benefit from Pujols over the past few years in the form of baseball playing (even if it was playing badly).
And one last thing. The biggest threat to a case by the Angels against Pujols is… Mike Scioscia. See, Scioscia and Billy Eppler have a penchant for believing that Albert is still a fine player.
According to Fangraphs, Albert Pujols entered play Monday as the least valuable position player in the American League, at least among the 87 qualifiers for the batting title.
“We don’t attach that statement to Albert Pujols,” general manager Billy Eppler said. “That is definitely not something we believe.”
“Than Albert?” manager Mike Scioscia said. “The guy is, what, fourth or fifth in our league in RBIs? Those guys don’t fall off of trees. This guy has done a good job for us.”
It’s difficult for a party to successfully argue they have been harmed by a person’s deception while always talking up how great that person is.
So let’s sum up. The answer to Yo-yo’s question is, from a legal perspective, probably yes, provided that the Angels were willing to litigate this. That doesn’t mean the Angels would win, but a case is certainly plausible, and probably surprisingly so. Of course, all of this is hypothetical unless it’s proven that Pujols actually is older than he claims. Meanwhile, Pujols has three years left to go on this contract not including 2018. He enters play Wednesday with a 3.1% BB rate, a 96 wRC+, and 0.1 WAR. The projections suggest he’s en route to his second consecutive below-replacement season. Father Time remains undefeated.
Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney and General Counsel at Open Communities, a non-profit legal aid agency in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author's. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.