Thursday, November 04, 2004

Carlos Beltran: Still Underrated.

In early May this year, Rob Neyer wrote a column that discussed the merits and performance of Carlos Beltran. Trying to stem the media frenzy about Beltran, Neyer wrote:

A great number of people seem to have reached the mistaken conclusion that Beltran's one of the very best baseball players in the world. He's not.

It's certainly true that OPS doesn't tell the whole story about Beltran. He's a solid (if somewhat overrated) defensive player, and of course he's one of the best basestealers, percentage-wise, in major league history. But as they do with most players, on-base percentage and slugging percentage do tell most of the story, and Beltran's numbers just aren't all that impressive...

Right now he's not the best player in the game, or one of the 10 best players in the game. And even if you think that Beltran's one of the best players right now, why would you think he'll be one of the best players in, say, 2006? Most truly great players are great before they turn 27, not only after.

Neyer would probably take back that statement about Beltran after he closed in on a near-40 HR season, but I still have an issue with many of the assertions that Neyer makes.

The first is his use of OPS to judge Beltran. Neyer acknowledges that "it's certainly true that OPS doesn't tell the whole story about Beltran" - which is a complete understatement. It's downright misleading to use OPS to judge Beltran - he is by far, without a doubt, the best player in the game when you strip hitting from the game. There are 5 major attributes OPS cannot measure:

1) Defense
2) SB/CS
3) Baserunning
4) Ability to stay out of GIDP
5) Position.

Perhaps Beltran's defense is a little overrated - regardless, he is an above-average outfielder. His SB/CS is tremendous - the best ever, and he steals a lot of bases. He has tremendous baserunning skills and rarely grounds into a double play - additionally, he plays CF, which is pretty far left on the defensive spectrum. Just how good is Beltran at these secondary attributes - coming into the season, he was projected (using mgl's SLWTS) to be +12 runs above average in those categories - an incredibily high number. Add that to the +21 runs above average projection on offense and then a positional adjustment (so that first baseman don't get a huge advantage), and Beltran was projected to be the 5th best player in the league coming into the year behind Bonds, Helton, A. Rodriguez, and Pujols. Now figure that Beltran beat all of his hitting and SB/CS projections, and you've got a top 3 player.

Another issue I take with Neyer's column is the line "Most truly great players are great before they turn 27, not only after. " While this is true for the most part, most power-speed players peak well after the age of 27, and their careers tend to last much longer.

Beltran is a tremendous player, and he'll almost certainly post even better offensive numbers in the next couple years as he's not taking as many walks as he can (and unlike some players, he's not a contact hitter who swings early in the count as illustrated by his high K totals). If he stays healthy next year, Beltran could be taking 110-120 walks in 600 PA, raising his OBP, all the while still slugging around 35-40 HRs with great speed on the basepaths. He had a great year this year, but don't be surprised if he plays even better in the next few years.

What's he worth? To the Royals - 12-13 million a year. To another team with not as many holes? Perhaps 17-18 million (7 Wins Above Replacement X 2 million per win above replacement + no other holes to fill on the team). Because the Royals have another capable CF, they made the right decision in trading Beltran, although they got much less than they should have. Because there are so many other holes on our team, devoting 30-40% of our player to one player could be disastrous, especially when the other 60% of our payroll is spread thin trying to fill in numerous other gaps (pitching, second base, pitching, third base, pitching, pitching). So while Beltran's might actually be worth the money a large-market team is paying him, don't be upset at the Royals not re-signing him. The decision to trade him was correct, even though the execution was definitely flawed.

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