Next time someone tells you that Adrian Beltre hits well in contract years, tell them it’s up for debate.
Dave Cameron recently wrote a post over a Fangraphs entitled: Adrian Beltre Is Not Motivated by Contract Years. Well, sure he is. In his attempt to peel apart the common belief that Beltre “only hits well in contract years,” he falls into the same hole of the accused: overstating a case.
Now I’m not attempting to discredit his belief, because I think he makes some very legitimate points; I want to make that clear. I just think he’s sort of going all-in with a pair of seven's instead of a full-house. Dave states that Beltre’s contract years in 2004 and 2010 didn’t come in Safeco field, a terrible place for a right-handed pull, power hitter. He’s absolutely correct. And it’s true the park factors understate the effect on a right-handed hitter. That being said, Chavez Ravine isn’t exactly a hitter’s haven either, though I admit it’s not Petco or Safeco. But it did nothing to thwart his production in 2004.
It’s not the Safeco argument I struggle a lot with, though, it’s more the “contract years.” Dave’s right that Beltre was playing for a contract in all of 2002, 2003, 2004, 2009 and 2010, and that people tend only to focus on 2004 and 2010. But let’s think about this further. Saying that under an expiring contract Beltre has “… more often than not… performed worse, not better.” – is incorrect.
At the start of 2002, Beltre had a career adjusted OPS (OPS+) of 99, or almost exactly average, and was coming off of a 1.2 Wins above replacement (WAR) season. He posted a 97 in 2002 as a 23 year old still trying to figure it all out (4.1 WAR). He performed better, not worse. He’s one for one. At the start of 2003, his career OPS+ was again 99 and he posted an 88, a no-doubt down year at age 24 (3.4 WAR). He was one for two. His 2003 season, however, wasn’t terribly out of step from his true talent level, especially considering that he posted his, to this day, career worst BABiP (.253). In fact, it was about what you could expect from him at the time. Furthermore, while each of these seasons were technically “contract years,” they certainly weren’t the carrot that is free agency.
In his final season prior to free agency in 2004, he turned into Mike Schmidt (10.1 WAR), and earned his payday and a ticket to Seattle. He was two for three.
In his next final season prior to free agency, this time in 2009, he was hurt. He’d played the entire season hurt. Prior to the season, he had bone spurs removed, but it wasn’t exactly successful. He finally submitted to the pain. At the time when asked when he first began to experience pain in ’09, he said “… I never was 100 percent.” He also described the feeling of pain, as it progressed, as if “… someone stabbed you in the shoulder.” After a game on June 28th in Los Angeles against his old team, the Dodgers, he had surgery to have more bone spurs removed which put him on the shelf until August 4th.
He came back and was hitting well over about a week, but then was hit by a hard grounder in the testicle – oh my, what great luck – shelfing him for another three weeks. He never got back on track after returning and hit to a .306 weighted on base average (wOBA) the rest of the way. Despite the injuries and limited at bats (477 PA), he turned in a season worth 2.5 wins. He was two for four.
In his next walk year prior to free agency, this time in 2010 after a one year deal with Boston to re-establish his value, he was healthy again and did just that by putting together another spectacular (7.1 WAR) season. He was three for five.
In conclusion: Beltre, like many other players, is motivated by incentives. In actuality, he’s performed better (and not worse) in three of five contract seasons, or more often than not. And in two of three true free agency seasons, he’s not only performed better but put up monster numbers. While in the other, he was injured. Now I’m not saying Beltre only puts up numbers for a contract, far from it. I’m also not saying he doesn’t. But there seems a bit more to chew on here. Unfortunately, I think we are out of contracts here, and that we’ll have to wait until this Texas contract is up to come to the best answer we can find.
WAR figures compliments of Fangraphs, OPS+ of Baseball-reference