Conventional wisdom dictates that, when signing a free agent to a multi-year deal, the signing team will receive most of the value from that player at the beginning of his contract. Ideally, the team receives a surplus in the early stages of the agreement. But even then, as the player ages and declines, the club is likely to pay more than a the player is worth for the final years.
Given the effects of age-related decline, it was troubling when, after signing a three-year deal as a 37-year-old, Carlos Beltran proceeded to record a poor 2014 campaign. After Beltran began the 2015 season with a terrible April, at least one writer reasonably (foolishly?) wondered if Beltran was finished. He’s done nothing but hit since then.
In Carlos Beltran’s first 14 seasons, from 1998 to 2011, he played in nearly 1,800 games and hit .283/.361/.496, conspiring to produce a career 120 wRC+ as he entered his age-35 season. Then, just when he should have been exhibiting real signs of decline, he recorded a .282/.343/.493 and 127 wRC+ between 2012 and -13 with the Cardinals. His walk rate did decline a bit, but with the general suppression of offense in baseball, his performance relative to the league improved. While his defense no longer represented an asset, he had sufficiently staved off a decline on offense. So it’s not surprising that, when the Yankees gave him three years and $45 million before 2014, they had reason to believe that possessed at least one more good year in him.
It would be a bit melodramatic to call 2014 a disaster for Beltran, but the season didn’t go well. No stranger to a variety of maladies over his career, Beltran ended up on the disabled list for bone spurs in his right elbow in May, and then went on the seven-day DL in July due to a concussion he sustained when a batted ball hit him in practice. He hit .233/.301/.402 on the season, leading only to a 96 wRC+. While not so poor in itself, the battin line was coupled with poor base-running numbers and below-average defense in right field, leaving him with a negative WAR on the season. He had elbow surgery after the during the 2014-15 offseason to relieve the discomfort he was feeling, but the first month of 2015 could not have gone any worse.
Adding in the first 74 plate appearances of 2015, during which he recorded just 11 hits, five walks and no homers (it was just the second time out of 71 months in Beltran’s career where he got at least 40 PA and did not hit a home run), Beltran’s first 523 plate appearances with the Yankees produced a .223/.289/.382 (86 wRC+), including just 15 home runs. Now, he’s received 697 plate appearances since then and posted a .289/.341/.522 (132 wRC+) with 35 home runs, right in line with his production in St. Louis.
With the Yankees, his overall wRC+ is 112, a reasonable, if not positive, result for a player of his caliber over his age-37 to age-39 seasons. Over the last calendar year, Beltran’s wRC+ is 139, 20th in baseball — right behind Paul Goldschmidt and just ahead of Jose Bautista, Ryan Braun, Daniel Murphy, Anthony Rizzo, and Mookie Betts. If the Yankees fall out of the race and Beltran is healthy, they might be marketing the best available stretch-run batter at the trade deadline.
Beltran has reversed the aging process during his time with the Yankees. A year-long slump at age 37 isn’t typically a good sign. When I looked last year at players of a similar caliber/a> to Beltran heading into their age-37 seasons, I found that almost all of them proceeded to hit well at ages 37 and 38. The only player who didn’t was Paul Konerko, and he proved to be done hitting major-league pitching at an adequate level. Beltran didn’t end up like Konerko, instead hitting well as a 38-year-old last season. He’s off to an even better start this season at age 39.
I discussed Beltran over email with FanGraphs’ Paul Swydan, an unabashed Beltran fan who had been looking into Beltran’s performance this season relative to last season, but did not really come up with much. The approach to Beltran and by Beltran were much the same. He’s not hitting the ball further or swinging more overall. He might be a bit more aggressive on fastballs, leading to a declining walk rate. From Swydan:
The downside of course is that he’s not walking as much. His 4.8% BB% is tied for the lowest mark of his career, which came in his rookie season. His career 10.1% BB% seems like a distant memory this season, but the trade-off is working, since he’s also rocking both the second-highest ISO and SLG of his career. In fact, his [.277 ISO ranks ninth in all of baseball, and his .554 SLG ranks 14th].
Beltran is still able to handle fastballs, and there’s a case to be made that he is even selling out for them now. He’s not doing anything against sliders, curves, and not much against changeups. He’s usually a scratch hitter against curves and sliders, and slightly better than that against changeups. On the other hand, he’s in the top 25 in both wFA and wFA/C.
Much has been made of David Ortiz’s final season (including his shot at recording the best age-40 season ever), and the incredible 191 wRC+ he is putting up at age-40, but what Beltran is doing at age 39 is also remarkable. Since 1973, only 40 players (64 seasons total) have qualified for the batting title at age 39 or older. While Beltran is currently missing time with an elbow injury and is no guarantee to accumulate the additional 262 plate appearances necessary to qualify for the batting title, that Beltran is playing in the outfield and hitting well narrows down the list of comparable players above.
Of those 64 seasons played at age 39 or older, 29 of them were produced by player who served primarily as designated hitters. Another 15 were first baseman, leaving just 20 other seasons. Only 12 players have qualified for the batting title as outfielders at age 39 or later since the advent of the designated hitter. The only players with a wRC+ better than Beltran’s current 128: Barry Bonds (233 in 2004), Rickey Henderson (135 in 1999), and Reggie Jackson (129 in 1985).
Even if Beltran dips down closer to his projections the rest of the year and ends up between 115 and 120, the only other player who was above 110 was Dave Winfield (118 in 1991). Lowering the bar to 400 plate appearances dilutes the pool a bit, but still just Hank Aaron, Matt Stairs, Tony Gwynn, Raul Ibanez, Carl Yastrzemski, and a few more Barry Bonds seasons finished above a 110 wRC+ for the season. Beltran also has a shot at a two-win season (and an outside shot at this list), something only 18 other outfielders have accomplished at age 39 or later. Of those 18 players, two seasons occurred during World War II, five of the players are not in Hall of Fame (Bonds, Jim Edmonds, Steve Finley, Kenny Lofton, Davey Lopes), and the other 11 are in the Hall of Fame.
Voters have given a very hard time to center fielders like Beltran in the past, voting in only no-doubters and, for other reasons, Kirby Puckett. While we can debate whether it should matter, hopefully those voters look at Beltran’s 400 homers, 300 steals, Gold Glove-caliber play as well as his likely 1500 runs and 1500 RBI, and vote in a deserving player when the time comes. If he keeps hitting like this, he might be able to prolong that vote by another year or two.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.