FanPost

Adrian Beltre's Walk Seasons, and Other Illusions

Some people are pooh-poohing Adrian Beltre as a possible solution to the Angels' urgent 3B problem by saying he's really not that good a ballplayer. This is, I believe, the opposite of accurate, for reasons we'll get to after the jump. As a taste of the counter-argument, here's something you probabaly did not know: Adrian Beltre is one of the only players in major league history to NEVER -- not once, not even close -- hit as well at home in a season as he did on the road. Playing in offensive mausoleums for 12 of 13 seasons can do that to a guy, severely distorting the numbers we all use to make snap judgments.

For more on Beltre's "walk-year" magic and other (IMO) myths, read on.

Here are the ABCs against AB:

If you throw out the seasons Beltre had in '04 with the Dodgers & '10 with the Red Sux, he's an average player offensively. Very average. [...]

It looks like the best way to get a return on your investment with Beltre is to have him in a contract year.

Let's acknowledge that on the surface this sounds plausible. It is totally true that Beltre's 2010 and especially 2004 (one of the best seasons ever by a 3Bman) scream out as outliers. They are the only time he has hit above .290 (.321 and 334, respectively), had more than 166 Hits (189 and 200), more than 26 Home Runs (28 and 48), 100 RBI (102 and 121), OPS+s of higher than 114 (141 and 163), or Wins Above Replacement (WAR, Baseball Reference's version) higher than 4.6 (6.1 and 10.1). Sounds like he's just turning it on when he needs to, and coasting the rest of the time, right?

Wrong.

Beltre had a third contract year that most people don't mention. It was 2009, and he put up the 2nd worst numbers of his career: .265/.304/.379, with just 8 HRs, 44 RBIs, and 1.1 WAR. If big-league effort was an on-off switch activated by greed, where the hell in 2009 was the guy who once hit .334 with 48 HRs?

Another problem with the walk-year thesis: Even if you just wave off 2009 as an injury-riddled fluke, when you credit salary motivation for Beltre's 2004/10 results, you are basically arguing that the famous contract-year effect (which, according to researchers who have systematically studied it rather than half-assedly asserted it, does not, strictly speaking, exist) courses stronger through Beltre's veins than in those of just about any other player in Major League history.

Still, let's assume for the moment that that's true. What kind of player would produce effort and results that are so obviously and disproportionately discretionary? The basic type is not hard to conjure up: obviously oozing with talent, dogs it noticeably on the field, pulls himself out of the lineup for hangnails, rarely makes it to 150 games in a season, and is subject to periodic public questioning of his moods and motivations. In other words ... the exact opposite of Adrian Beltre.

Beltre once took a bad hop to the nuts, without a cup on, causing his testicle to swell up to the size of a "grapefruit," yet stayed in the game until the 14th inning and eventually scored the winning run, even though the injury was severe enough that he had to take a rare trip to the disabled list. Go ahead and read that sentence again. Then riddle me this: Have you ever read an article about, say, J.D. Drew or Milton Bradley or Gary Matthews, Jr. that began like this: "There was no way that Adrian Beltre was coming out of Saturday night's game, short of a broken limb or gushing blood"? Terry Francona, in that story, says "that's one of the things that kind of came with his reputation....They said he really never wanted a day off." If Beltre was a hangnail artist, he sure has had a funny way of showing it -- over the last two decades of Major League baseball, the third baseman who has logged the most 150-game seasons (7) is a cat named Adrian Beltre. And he had an 8th with 149.

People are eager to "throw out the seasons Beltre had in '04 with the Dodgers & '10 with the Red Sux," and before I take them up on that exercise, too, it's worth asking the question: Why exactly would you do that? It is not uncommon for a good player's two best seasons to tower above the rest of his work, nor is it rare for those seasons to occur in the near-prime ages of 25 and 31. Here are the best three seasons, according to Wins Above Replacement, by Adrian Beltre, Scott Rolen, and Darrell Evans:

NM  YR1 YR2 YR3
AB 10.1 6.1 4.6
SR  9.2 6.6 5.8 
DE  9.0 6.8 4.9

So the career arc is not exactly unprecedented. And keep in mind that Beltre is far from done, and could conceivably have another season with more than 4.6 WAR (Evans, after all, put up his 4.9 at age 40). So why do Rolen and Evans get to keep their best years but not Beltre? Sal Bando, like Beltre, set career highs at age 25 in Runs, Hits, Homers, RBIs, OPS+, and WAR, but we'll give him the benefit of the doubt because the Reserve Clause was still around? Mike Schmidt set career highs at age 31 in Batting Average, On-Base Percentage, Slugging, and OPS+; should we make him forfeit that MVP award?

All right, so what happens when we do toss out Beltre's walk years (including, to be accurate, his 2009)? You get a guy who for 9 full seasons averaged this:

 G   PA  AB  R   H  2B 3B HR RBI SB/C BB  SO   BA  OBP  SLG OPS+ WAR
149 614 560  72 148 31  3 21  80 10/4 44  98 .264 .311 .441 101  2.8

Is that "very average" offense at third base? Well, comparing it to the average AL team's 3B output last year (minus Beltre), it sure the hell looks like it:

 G   PA  AB  R   H  2B 3B HR RBI SB/C BB  SO   BA  OBP  SLG OPS+
162 678 617  75 158 32  2 18  79  7/3 48 115 .257 .310 .404  97

Almost uncanny, right? Ah, but here is where numbers can deceive. For one, Beltre is playing 149 games a year even in his non-walk seasons, something only 9 or 10 third basemen in the big leagues do in any given year. (The Angels' leader in games played at 3B last year, who shall go unnamed, had all of 56.) While Beltre was starting 703 of 810 possible games at 3B over the five years of his much-mocked Seattle contract, the team that let him go (winning almost unanimous applause from the sabermetric crowd, as I can testify from being on the butt end of many arguments from the time), was apportioning its 3B starts like this:

186 Casey Blake
 84 Wilson Betemit
 82 Blake DeWitt
 50 Nomar Garciaparra
 45 Willy Aybar
 40 Andy LaRoche
 33 Antonio Perez
 33 Mike Edwards
 33 Oscar Robles
 30 Bill Mueller
 28 Cesar Izturis
 24 Jose Valentin
 24 Olmedo Saenz
 24 Tony Abreu
 17 Shea Hillenbrand
 14 Mark Loretta
 13 Julio Lugo
  9 Ronnie Belliard
  8 Russell Martin
  6 Norihuro Nakamura
  5 Ramon Martinez
  5 Joel Guzman
  4 Wilson Valdez
  2 Juan Castro

The Dodgers had 9 guys log more than 31 starts at 3B from 2005-2009; the Mariners had 1. Being able to set and forget your third base position for five years is something far more valuable than mere positional averages can convey.

Numbers Deception #2: Since the stat lines above are definitionally offensive, they don't show that Beltre has been one of the best defensive third basemen in the game for a decade. WAR has him saving the 12th-most runs at 3B in Major League history, just ahead of Matt Williams and below Terry Pendleton. He's not as good as he was in his mid-20s (which is true for virtually all infielders), but he's still quite good.

And finally, as foreshadowed at the beginning of this post, it is impossible to read Beltre's offensive numbers accurately without factoring in some highly unusual context. Because not only has Beltre played in extreme pitchers parks his entire career except for 2010, heavily distorting his surface numbers, he has personally suffered from his home setting more than just about any player in modern history. Consider this -- the average player puts up an OPS of around 40 points higher at home than on the road each year. Home cooking, familiar environment & all that. Beltre has NEVER had a home OPS even within 26 points of what he's done on the road, and usually the splits are a helluva lot worse: -200 in 2001, -159 in 2008, -141 in 2002, and so on. For his career, he's a .258/.315/.425 hitter at home, .290/.341/.496 on the road.

It's hard to accept these facts even after you learn them. I mean, Scott Rolen's obviously a better hitter than Adrian Beltre, right? Well, here are their career road numbers:

NM  G   PA   AB   R   H    2B 3B  HR RBI SB/CS  BB  SO   BA  OBP  SLG
SR 929 3990 3489 590  989 235 15 160 580 60/24 405 692 .283 .363 .497
AB 924 3904 3581 475 1040 234 23 152 569 52/22 262 593 .290 .341 .496

I don't know about you, but that just stuns me. Rolen is one of the 10 best third basemen to ever play the game.

To best visualize the enormity of Beltre's park disortions, here are his road numbers since 1999, multiplied by two:

YR  G   PA  AB  R   H  2B 3B HR RBI SB/C  BB  K    BA  OBP  SLG OPS+
99 150 626 544  82 160 24  8 18  78 18/10 68 104 .296 .372 .467 118
00 146 636 564  78 168 38  2 26 118  6/4  60  88 .298 .362 .511 126
01 132 544 504  68 148 22  8 18  76 12/4  34  98 .294 .338 .476 117
02 158 658 624  72 188 24  8 28  98 12/2  24  94 .285 .311 .484 114
03 162 654 612  58 162 40  4 20  84  2/2  36 112 .265 .309 .441 101
04 158 688 620 104 212 38  0 50 120 10/2  66 110 .342 .404 .645 175
05 162 684 636  68 158 46  2 24  88  2/2  40 112 .248 .295 .440  98
06 160 722 658  88 186 52  6 18  90 10/8  48 126 .283 .343 .462 113
07 144 632 598  90 172 56  2 30 108  6/2  28 100 .288 .320 .538 127
08 144 624 562  86 164 30  2 30 108 10/2  52  84 .292 .349 .512 134
09 114 494 458  60 128 28  0  8  50 12/4  22  62 .279 .324 .393  96
10 158 670 618  88 202 60  4 30 104  2/2  36  68 .327 .370 .583 166

So, 6 seasons of .290 or better, 5 with 100+ RBIs, 4 with 30 HRs, 3 with 50 doubles (including one with 60), and slugging percentages above .500 in 3 of the past 4 seasons. That .264 batting average from above? He's cleared it on the road every season but 1. Put that man in a more neutral setting, then hand out helmets to the bleacher creatures.

It is for these reasons and more that Adrian Beltre is already the 23rd-ranked third baseman all-time by Wins Above Replacement. Among 3Bmen through their age-31 seasons, he ranks 13th in WAR, just between Robin Ventura and Ken Boyer. (Even if you replaced his walk years with average Beltre seasons, he'd still be in the top 30, somewhere between Ron Cey and Carney Lansford.) He already has more doubles than Pie Traynor, more home runs than Brooks Robinson, and more RBIs than Home Run Baker. He's been a top-5 third baseman in the AL in 4 of the past 5 seasons. Except for that one contract year....

But for the sake of argument, let's still pretend that we can and should just magically erase Beltre's walk years; further posit that he just happens to be the most durable player to ever give lukewarm effort for most of his career, and assume that his offensive numbers should be taken at face value and not adjusted heavily for context. Let us make believe that Adrian Beltre has really been nothing more than a .264/.311/.441 hitter all along. Now compare this fictional Bad Beltre to the real-world results that the Angels have been receiving from the third base position since 2005:

NM  PA  AB  R   H  2B 3B HR RBI SB/C   BB  SO   BA  OBP  SLG 
AB 614 560  72 148 31  3 21  80 10/4   44  98 .264 .311 .441
10 646 600  67 134 26  0  8  52  7/3   33  79 .223 .266 .307
09 755 643 116 195 32  7  7  62 41/17 100 119 .303 .396 .407
08 708 630  83 162 16  3  3  34 31/15  69 121 .257 .336 .306
07 690 618  96 183 30  6  4  75 38/9   63 100 .296 .358 .383
06 707 634 100 168 29  6 16  69 22/7   59  97 .265 .330 .405
05 675 611  89 150 29  8 14  58 25/11  53 132 .245 .306 .388

More homers, extra base hits, RBIs, and slugging than any Angels performance, and a higher OPS than every year but one. The caricature that Beltre isn't is still a better bet than the bags of meat (apologies to Chone Figgins) that we've thrown at the problem since Troy Glaus left.

Look, there is a perfectly respectable argument against signing Adrian Beltre -- he'll be entering his 32-35 decline phase, he's got a lot of mileage, and he'll be Borastastically expensive. But he is a very good, very durable, very hard-working baseball player who has been playing at a high established level the past half-decade with the exception of one injury year. I'd be shocked if he didn't put up at least 60 extra-base hits a year in Anaheim. With his defense and dependability, and with the black hole we currently have going at the hot corner, that's more than worth it for me.

This Fan-Post is authored by an independent fan. Tell us what you think and how you feel.

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