Performances are magnified in October and April. Everyone watches the playoffs with greater focus, and in April everyone is starved for baseball leading to massive consumption and potential over-analysis. Carlos Beltran has had little difficulty delivering in October, with 16 home runs and a .333/.445/.683 line in 219 postseason plate appearances, but this April, coming off his worst season in 15 years, increased scrutiny is coming for the soon-to-be 38-year-old. In the second year of his three-year, $45 million contract, whether Carlos Beltran will be able to produce is a question without an easy answer.
In each of the last two games, Carlos Beltran has come to the plate for the New York Yankees late in the game, trailing by one or two runs with runners in scoring position. On Wednesday, with the Yankees down 3-1, Beltran came to the plate with the bases loaded against Brett Cecil with nobody out. A wild pitch advanced all the runners a base leaving men on second and third. He could not check his swing on a 2-2 offspeed offering.
The leverage index was 3.83 and the win expectancy went from 67.5% after the wild pitch to 53.3% after the strikeout. The next day Beltran began the day going 1-3 with a double off Daniel Norris, but in his fourth plate appearance with the Yankees down 5-3, with two outs and a runner on second, Carlos Beltran come to the plate against Roberto Osuna.
For the second straight evening, Beltran struck out in an important situation with runners on base, looking late against a 97 mile per hour fastball. In fairness to Beltran, a lot of professional hitters, including the previous batter, Alex Rodriguez, also had trouble against that very same pitch with Osuna striking out four of the eight hitters he has faced this season as part of an exciting young group in Toronto. Beltran has just 12 plate appearances this season, but after a difficult season last year there are concerns about Beltran’s production moving forward.
Not much time has passed since Beltran was an elite hitter. From 2011-2013, Beltran hit .288/.356/.503 and a 136 wRC+ which was 15th in Major League Baseball among players with at least 1500 plate appearances. Among players in their 30s, only Matt Holliday, David Ortiz, Jose Bautista, and Adrian Beltre put up a higher wRC+ during that time, and in the last decade, only Chipper Jones, Manny Ramirez, Ortiz, and Paul Konerko have put up better hitting numbers during their Age-34 to Age-36 seasons.
While Beltran’s hitting numbers stayed up well into his 30s, his defensive numbers have moved downhill. Taking position into account as he has moved off of center field and into a corner over the last few years, his value has plummeted. Here is a chart showing his three-year averages for defensive runs compared to average from 2001 through last season e.g. 2001 represents 1999-2001 divided by three.
Beltran had great value defensively for a large portion of his career, but those days are over. If he provides average or slightly below average production offensively like he did last year with a 95 wRC+, he is a replacement-level player or below. He needs to produce at around 20% above league-average offensively to make himself an average player and worth his $15 million per year contract.
Regaining his form is possible, but how much he can get back at 38 years old is debatable. His power has dropped, from a .227 ISO in 2012 to .195 in 2013 and .169 in 2014. Even last season his power was not terrible, but a .252 BABIP due to a low 16.5% line-drive rate (career 19.7%) that appeared to come from an increase in ground balls (44.2% compared to 41.6% career rate). His fly ball percentages have stayed roughly the same and his fly ball distance has not changed appreciably over the past few years from 286 feet in 2011 to 297 feet in 2012 to 283 feet in 2013 to 289 feet in 2014.
Beltran is a switch hitter and hit well from both sides of the plate throughout his career, but he might be past the point of effectiveness from the right side of the plate. Despite a disappointing season in 2014, his slash line against right-handers was .254/.331/.446 for a good 118 wRC+ in 260 plate appearances. He was terrible in just 143 plate appearances last season against left-handers and while he has only been receiving around 150 plate appearances per season against lefties, his numbers have fallen every single season over the past five years. In 324 plate appearances over the last two seasons, he has hit just .225/.262/.389 with a wRC+ of 76.
Chalking up last season to injuries, hoping that he is healthier this season, and thinking a return to form is possible is not out of the question. Hitters who have hit as well as Beltran late in their careers tend to continue to hit well. I looked for players in the past 20 years who at age 36 had a wRC+ between 120 and 140 (Beltran was at 131), and then removed those with a wRC+ through Age-36 below 115 (Beltran was at 121). There were twelve players, including Beltran. Here are their numbers through Age-36.
There are some very good players on this list, and for the most part they continued to play well at 37 and 38 years of age. (Galarraga missed his Age-38 season undergoing chemotherapy and Delgado retired after failing to make the Boston Red Sox).
Beltran had one of the more disappointing seasons of the group at Age-37 and the other player who had a major decline at that age (Paul Konerko) really fell off the next season, but most of these players did not lose their skills as hitters. The FanGraphs Depth Chart Projections have Beltran hitting .256/.316/.434 with a wRC+ of 108. That would not be enough to make him above average as a player with his fielding, but it does have him contributing with a higher ceiling than most given his track record. If injuries have not compromised Beltran to the point of ineffectiveness, there is reason to believe that a healthy Beltran will still hit. He can take inspiration from a fellow center fielder who also spent time with the Cardinals in Jim Edmonds. (The very low number at Age-38 for Beltran only includes his 12 plate appearances thus far).
Edmonds had a very poor Age-37 season, but rebounded the next year. For fans of the Yankees and the hopefully future Hall of Famer, a healthy Beltran hitting mostly from the left side is likely the best bet at a return to productivity in 2015.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.