Pujols and the contract-year myth

Contrary to popular belief, impending free agency doesn't really help player performance

Updated: May 20, 2011, 11:50 AM ET
By Dave Cameron | FanGraphs
Albert PujolsJeff Hanisch/US PresswireIf players perform better in contract years, why is Albert Pujols having the worst year of his career?

In 2010, Adrian Beltre had the second truly great season of his career, and over the winter, his agent parlayed that performance into a $96 million contract with the Texas Rangers. Beltre's first amazing season came in 2004, which was also a year immediately preceding free agency. A breakout season in his final year with the Dodgers landed him a $65 million contract in Seattle, so while Beltre has had only two MVP caliber seasons, they've come at fortuitous times for his bank account.

Oftentimes, when a player has an abnormally good season just prior to being eligible for free agency, the chance to become insanely rich is offered up as the motivation that caused the performance to begin with. Whether it was extra offseason workouts, more time spent watching tape or taking batting practice, or just fewer nights out on the town after a game, the presumption is that the "walk-year player" is doing things that he hadn't done in prior seasons because of the financial payoff that awaits him at year's end.

There's just one problem with this theory -- it doesn't really stand up when you begin to look beyond just a few high-profile cases. In fact, the crop of free agents that are looking to cash in this winter are apparently trying to single-handedly disprove the entire theory in one fell swoop.