Saturday, September 5, 2015

Beltran Bouncing Back

Beltran's back after a poor 2014 and slow start to 2015 (Sports Net)
When the New York Yankees signed Carlos Beltran to a three-year, $45 million deal two winters ago, he was already a player in decline. The formerly fleet center fielder and stolen base threat had lost his explosive speed to age and knee surgery. His bat, while still potent, had also slowed, as his OBP and slugging fell in consecutive seasons. That drop-off had become even more pronounced throughout the previous season (2013), as he experienced a 121 point erosion between his first half OPS and his second half OPS, almost all of which occurred in his slugging percentage.

The Yankees, however, were not scared off by his waning power, worsening platoon splits, or career-low walk rate for a full season. They saw a younger, more dangerous replacement for Ichiro Suzuki in right field. They saw a switch-hitter with life in his bat and a killer postseason resume. They saw a former Met who'd proven he could handle the pressure of playing in New York.

Nearly a decade after losing out on Beltran to the crosstown Mets, Yanks GM Brian Cashman, still liked him enough to buy out the rest of his 30s. It was a classic Yankees move, overpaying a former star for the twilight years of his career.

Beltran was part of the costliest, most aggressive offseason any team has ever had. Having just missed the playoffs for the second time in 20 years, the Yankees went on one of their patented spending sprees, dropping nearly half a billion dollars on free agents. They inked Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and Beltran, among others, while also a serious run at Robinson Cano.

Dollars doesn't always equal wins, though. After bringing in all that talent, the Yankees won one fewer game than they did the previous year, missing the playoffs again.

One reason why was that Beltran cratered, but it was hardly the only reason. He and McCann were massive disappointments. Tanaka missed most of the summer with elbow inflammation, and Alex Rodriguez sat out the entire year serving his season-long PED suspension. After playing 32 games between them in 2013, Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira failed to return to their previous performance levels. CC Sabathia got hurt and pitched just 46 innings--by far the fewest of his career.

With all that going on, it was easy to miss Beltran enduring the worst season of his career. Hampered by injuries and a 62 point drop in BABiP (down to .252, easily the worst of his career), Beltran batted a paltry .233/.301/.402 despite playing half his games in the hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium. The short porch in right didn't aid his power stroke, either, as his ISO plunged another 26 points after falling 32 the previous year. A liability in at the plate, in the field, and on the bases, he rated below replacement level for the first time in his career.
Image courtesy of CBS New York
This year brought even harsher struggles for Beltran, who began the year in a horrible slump from which he showed no signs of escaping. Through the first week of May he was batting below .200 and slugging below .300 with his OBP somewhere in between. Some suggested that he abandon hitting from the right side, as he'd shown a 142 point OPS platoon split in 2013 and batted below .200 against lefties in 2014. Given that such a move benefited Shane Victorino, it seemed like a good idea.

Beltran didn't give up on switch-hitting, and since then he's back to being the hitter he was before the Yankees signed him. He's batted .309/.374/.539 dating back to May 8th, and before going 0-for-4 yesterday he'd reached base in all but one of his last 33 games. His batting line has steadily improved throughout the summer, up to a more than respectable .279/.339/.477--right in line with his 2012-2013 figures. In other words, the Yankees are getting the Beltran they paid for.

The explanation for his return to form is simple: he's fixed his swing from the right side. His platoon splits are nearly identical (.803 OPS versus lefties, .826 OPS against righties) this year.

Of course, that's not the only reason Beltran's doing better. A return to health has done wonders for the 38 year-old, who's been on fire since coming off the DL after the All-Star Break. He's also had much better luck on balls in play, with his BABiP returning to normal as he's generated more line drives and fewer grounders/pop ups. After becoming a little too pull-happy last year, Beltran has done a better job of waiting back and using all fields, too.

Beltran isn't the only Yankee making a comeback. Teixeira and Rodriguez have been huge in the middle of the order, and McCann's back to being one of the best-hitting catchers in baseball. Michael Pineda's pitched better than anyone could have possibly expected, and by some miracle Tanaka's stayed healthy. That's why New York, despite being the oldest team in baseball by a mile, leads the AL wild card and is only 2 and 1/2 out of first in the AL East.

Which means in a few short weeks, Yankee fans will see firsthand what Beltran can do in the playoffs, and why his team paid so much to acquire him in the first place. Based on how he's hit this year, he won't let them down.

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