Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Carlos Beltran's Forgotten Excellence

Beltran's been raking
Matt Kemp dominated the headlines during April, when his dozen dingers helped jumpstart the Dodgers to the best record in baseball.  Annointed by many as the best player in the game, the deserving 2011 NL MVP cooled off before landing on the disabled list with a strained left hammy.  By then he was old news, because the spotlight had swung to Josh Hamilton, the modern day Mickey Mantle who enjoyed his own monster April and is coming off a historic nine homer week for the top team in the American League.  Now everybody's talking about the potential for a triple crown season, the first since Carl Yastrzemski did it for the Impossible Dream Red Sox 45 years ago. 

As a result Carlos Beltran, off to his own remarkable start for the defending World Series champs, has gotten lost in the shuffle.  The talented centerfield tandem has overshadowed the former five-tool stud, who during his prime was every bit as good as Kemp and Hamilton are now.  The same night Josh Hamilton tee-ed off on Baltimore pitching, Beltran accounted for all six of the Cardinals' runs by taking Ian Kennedy deep twice in the first two innings, with a two-run shot in the first followed by a grand slam in the second.  Three days later he piled up 13 total bases against the Braves after recording a double, triple, and pair of big flies to fall a single short of the cycle.  On the back of those two remarkable performances he was named NL Player of the Week yesterday. In the process he vaulted over Kemp for the league lead in four-baggers, is now batting a robust .295/.403/.648 and has thrown his hat into the early season MVP discussion.

Beltran's surge has caught a lot of people off guard because as recently as last spring it seemed as though chronic knee injuries had derailed a once promising career, jeopardizing a body of work that looked Cooperstown worthy for much of the preceding decade.  Beltran had gone under the knife for knee surgery after missing half of the 2009 season, but when he returned to the field the following summer he was nothing more than a shell of his former self.  He sputtered through 64 lifeless games at the plate, lacked aggression on the basepaths, and saw his once stellar defense deteriorate.  Like Andruw Jones before him, he looked worn down and seemed incapable of staying on the field.  Angel Pagan took over in center, forcing Beltran to move over to right field where he could cover less ground and ease the strain on his legs.  The move paid off; after a strong first half last year, the cash-strapped Mets shipped him across the country to the offensively challenged San Francisco Giants, looking for a big bat to replace Buster Posey, for pitching prospect Zach Wheeler. The Giants ultimately faded down the stretch and missed the postseason, but Beltran finished the season strong in his new digs despite spending time on the DL in August. 

So coming off a strong rebound campaign in which he batted .300, whacked 67 extra base hits and posted a career best 155 OPS+ (in his contract year), Beltran was a fairly attractive free agent despite his age and recent injury history. Not as sexy as younger, flashier stars like Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols, and Jose Reyes, but he'd proved he still had plenty left in the tank. The St. Louis Cardinals, desperate to fill the gaping hole in their lineup after Pujols signed on with the Angels, inked the switch-hitter to a two year, $26 million deal.  Not quite the 7 year, $119 million contract the New York Mets handed him prior to the 2005 season (can you tell he's a Scott Boras client?), but a sizable chunk of change nonetheless for somebody who'd averaged just 96 games played during the previous three seasons.

Many regarded the signing as a steal at the time.  It looks even better now that Beltran, who just turned 35 last month, started hitting when he stroked two hits on Opening Day and hasn't stopped.  Without the weight of a massive contract on his shoulders, the crushing expectation, and the intense New York fans/media assaulting his psyche on a daily basis, Beltran can finally relax and play baseball.  Don't forget that he originally came up with Kansas City and rose to stardom there, so in a sense his career has come full circle by returning to its Missouri roots.  He must be enjoying the more relaxing atmosphere of the Midwest because he's thriving at home, where his OPS (1.293) is more than 400 points higher than it is everywhere else.  Aside from a brutal 3-for-32 slump from April 21st to May 1st, the six time All-Star has been unstoppable.  More importantly, he's been a force in the heart of the order during Lance Berkman's DL stint and Matt Holliday's slow start.  No, he's not the Gold Glove caliber defender he once was, but at least his running game has returned to some degree. He already has five steals after swiping just seven bases in the past two years combined. 

The question is--can he keep it up?  For what it's worth, he traditionally performs better in the second half, when his OPS has been 48 points higher than his first half figure.  But then again, I'm pretty confident that Beltran has never been so red-hot in the early going.  Despite his remarkable numbers, one has to expect some regression in the future.  His 33 strikeouts in 34 games are a cause for concern, especially because his K rate--22.9 percent--is more than seven percent above his career average.  He's not a huge strikeout guy, so I don't think that trend will continue unless he's decided to "swing for the fences" more often and wants to trade contact for power.  There's some evidence in the numbers that his might be the case. His contact rate is under 80 percent, the lowest it's been since 2002--the first year FanGraphs started tracking such information--mostly because he's missing more of the pitches that he's chasing outside of the zone.  Meanwhile, he's hitting more balls in the air, with his fly ball rate (46.1 percent) up to its highest level since 2006, when he smacked 41 home runs, slugged .594 and finished fourth in the NL MVP race.  However, his home run per fly ball rate is currently at an unsustainable 31.7 percent (twice his career rate), meaning almost one of every three fly balls he hits is clearing the fences. Accordingly, his line drive rate is way down at 13.5 percent, the lowest it's ever been (which explains why he has only two doubles), so it seems logical that as the season progresses he'll start trading in some fly balls for line drives.  That translates to fewer homers, but more singles and doubles, so one would expect his slugging percentage to fall but his batting average to push north of .300.

Now that Berkman's back and Holliday is coming around, Beltran should continue to get good pitches to hit and keep producing at a high level for the division leading Cardinals.  With Yadier Molina, Rafael Furcal, David Freese, Allen Craig and Jon Jay, St. Louis boasts one of the deepest lineups in baseball.  Beltran had little help/protection the last few years in New York and San Fran, but now can take advantage of abundant opportunities to score and drive in runs, two things he's been doing since his Rookie of the Year campaign in 1999.  I don't think he can duplicate his impressive 2006 season, but assuming he stays healthy enough to play around 140 games, I could see him approaching 30 home runs, 110 runs and the same number of RBI while batting close to .300 and stealing 15 bases.  Even though he's injury prone at this stage of his career and will probably find his way to the disabled list sooner or later, he should end up with numbers in the same neighborhood of what Lance Berkman provided for St. Louis in his Comeback Player of the Year season last year.

Not bad for a guy stuck with the "washed up" label 13 months ago.

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