Enigmatic Disappointment to Superstar in 465 At-Bats

Whenever a player has what I would call a unique career path, one of my favorite things to do is reconstruct their career, year by year, to create what looks like a more normal pattern of development. For instance, I’ve done this in the past with Troy Glaus, who burst onto the scene in his second full season, at the age of 23, hitting .284/.404/.604 with 47 homers, 37 doubles and 112 walks, and then essentially performed at a lower level each season thereafter (prior to this year, which has been very good but ruined by injuries).

While watching Adrian Beltre smack his 40th home run of the season against the Expos Tuesday night, I decided I’d do a little remodeling with Beltre’s career to see if I could come up with something that resembled the notion of a career path we’re all familiar with (improvement through the early 20s, peak around 26-29).

Beltre is a very maddening player to get a handle on, because he debuted when he was just 19 years old and actually had his two best seasons (prior to this year) in his first two full seasons, at the ages of 20 and 21. Coming into this season, he was a 25-year-old who had hit just .254/.300/.421 in the previous three years, never getting his on-base percentage above .310 and never slugging above .426.

But if you do a little creative mixing and matching, you can actually make Beltre’s career resemble a “normal” one …

AGE      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS      GPA
19      .215     .278     .369     .647     .217
20      .240     .290     .424     .714     .236
21      .257     .303     .426     .729     .242
22      .265     .310     .411     .721     .242
23      .275     .352     .428     .780     .265
24      .290     .360     .475     .835     .281
25      .334     .380     .646    1.026     .333

Doesn’t look so crazy now, does it?

You’ve got a 19-year-old who struggled during his first taste of the majors and then slowly improved at 20, 21 and 22, with his batting average rising each season. Then, at 23, he made his first big jump, boosting his OPS and Gross Production Average (GPA) by nearly 10% each over his age-22 season.

Age 24 brought another significant improvement, as his batting average once again rose, career highs in on-base percentage and slugging percentage were reached, and his OPS topped .800 for the first time. And then you get the big breakout at age 25, not hugely out of line with the age we usually associate with someone’s “peak.”

All in all, you’ve got a guy who came into the league as a 19-year-old and saw his batting average, on-base percentage and GPA rise every year, culminating in this tremendous breakout season we’re currently seeing at the age of 25. The only problem, of course, is that the order I’ve put those seasons in actually goes like this: 1998, 2003, 2002, 2001, 1999, 2000, 2004. Or, if you prefer ages, it goes: 19, 24, 23, 22, 20, 21, 25. Basically, it looks like Beltre picked his seasons out of a hat or lined ’em all up, blind-folded himself and threw seven darts.

This type of career path, while weird, isn’t totally unheard of, but Beltre actually has a couple interesting things that make his situation fairly unique. For one, his appendix burst while he was in the Dominican Republic prior to the 2001 season and the emergency appendectomy was botched. When he came back to America, he had all sorts of problems, ranging from not being able to eat and losing tons of weight to an issue with not healing properly. He eventually had to have another surgery to fix the wound, and missed the first month of the season.

So, if you look at Beltre with that in mind, you see a guy who had a very nice season as a 20-year-old in 1999 and then improved significantly upon that in 2000, hitting .290/.360/.475 as a 21-year-old in Dodger Stadium, which is tremendously impressive. With the knowledge of the appendix problems, the fact that he regressed in 2001 suddenly doesn’t seem so strange. Of course, why he played just as poorly (and perhaps worse) in both 2002 and 2003 is another issue.

Regarding his breakout this year, one thing to remember is that this is Beltre’s “contract year.” In other words, he’s a free agent this offseason and this season, more than any before it, was going to have an impact on the type of long-term contract he could expect to get. Now, I don’t completely buy into the theory about most players doing better the year before they become free agents, but it’s certainly worth noting in this case. At the very least, Beltre is guilty of impeccable timing.

For someone to have predicted Beltre’s amazing breakout this year, I think they likely would have had to base it on believing some combination of these four things …

1) He was headed for stardom before being derailed by the appendix problem.

2) He is an incredible talent with amazing skills and athleticism that went beyond any of his actual, on-field performance.

3) He’s 25 years old and it takes a while for a player who got started so young to truly reach his full potential.

4) He wasn’t sufficiently motivated to play at his highest level until free agency was right around the corner.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Other than those things (or slight variations of them), I’m not sure there’s anything that points to Beltre doing what he’s doing right now, this season.

For instance, after averaging 18 homers and 49 total extra-base hits a season in his first five years and never having more than 23 homers or 55 extra-base hits, Beltre now has 40 homers and 64 extra-base hits in 120 games this season, putting him on pace for 50 homers and 80 extra-base hits.

Yet, if you examine his Isolated Power (slugging percentage minus batting average) numbers, there is nothing that sticks out in any meaningful way.

YEAR     IsoP         
1998     .154      
1999     .152         
2000     .184        
2001     .145       
2002     .169
2003     .184

This year his Isolated Power is .312, 70% higher than his previous career high.

If you think trying to figure Beltre’s career out is difficult, trying putting yourself in the Dodgers’ position. They’ve now had Beltre in the organization for a decade, including seven years at the major league level, and they’ve invested millions of dollars, thousands of at-bats and countless hours of coaching in him. They stuck by him through his various struggles and now he’s having his best season, and perhaps one of the best seasons ever for a third baseman, all at the age of 25.

And in about two months, he’ll be free to choose another team to play for.

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