Thursday, May 27, 2010

Was Right About Beltre

Life isn't fair. Just ask Crystal Bowersox. When your passion is about baseball and it's what you write about, there are simply times when you are going to look like an idiot or worse. You may have noticed that this space features game picks for each and every day of the season. Talk about unfair! There is no way to come out smelling like a rose on that one. Baseball is simply too unpredictable. So far, this writer has been wrong about David Ortiz, Livan Hernandez, Carlos Silva (still can't believe that story), and a host of others on players who produced when this writer said they were done or didn't produce when this writer said they would (ahem, Mr. Feldman). So occasionally, when an observation was particularly poignant, the only sane thing to do is to take credit for it. For this writer, that dose of sanity is Adrian Beltre.

Beltre, of course was never going to be as good as he was for the Dodgers in 2004. That was an outlier if there ever was one. Some will probably wonder if it wasn't an artificially enhanced outlier. But no matter, the year garnered Beltre a second place in the MVP vote and a huge contract for the Seattle Mariners.

Many will choose to believe that Beltre was a bust for the Mariners. He didn't reach 100 in his first year there in 2005 in OPS+. But he was over league average for the next three years while playing superb defense at third base. Ask the Angels right now if that kind of third baseman was worth the money the Mariners were paying him.

But the perception that Beltre was a bust in Seattle comes from two different places. One, the reality that he was never going to duplicate what he did in 2004. Anything less than what he did that year would be perceived to be a failure. But it was an outlier and that's what outliers are in a nutshell. An outlier is a year that just doesn't match a player's history. It's a year when some kinds of stars align and magic things happen. The second perception comes from the very real fact that 2009 was a disaster for Beltre. For the first time in three years, he didn't hit 25 homers. For the first time since his rookie season in 1998, he didn't even hit ten homers. He finished with a 79 OPS+.

So yeah, if that is what you look at, you paint Mr. Beltre with a gigantic BUST sign hanging around his neck. But Beltre's shoulder was mush last year. He tried to play through it and finally had to have it taken care of.

The Red Sox, meanwhile, saw the writing on the wall concerning Mike Lowell. Lowell had been plagued by hip injuries and other maladies and was no longer able to be counted on physically to play third base regularly. Kevin Youkilis could play over there, but when he did, his body tended to break down too. Plus, he's one of the best fielding first basemen in the league, so why mess with that?

And so the Red Sox signed Beltre. Back when it happened, the Fan hailed it in this space as a brilliant move. Beltre was the perfect gamble who, if he could regain his 100+ OPS+ that he has maintained for most of his career, and if he could be close to the kind of wizard at third that he's always been, would be exactly what the Red Sox needed.

The funny thing was, the gamble took a while to start paying off. Beltre had terrible troubles in the field early and started slowly at the plate. As of April 21, he had a line of: .259/.268/.315. Yuck! He also had a pile of errors. Starting on April 22, though, he had 24 hits in his next 16 games and has steadily produced ever since.

On Wednesday night, in a huge series against the Bay Rays and against one of the toughest pitchers in the American League, Matt Garza, Beltre had a triple and two homers and drove in six of the Red Sox' eleven runs. He now has 33 ribbies to go along with his .341 batting average. His defense is starting to pay dividends too. After a slow start as mentioned above, he is now eighth in the majors in UZR at third base, and there is no reason to believe that he won't start to climb higher as the year progresses.

To recap, Beltre leads all third basemen in batting average and is eighth out of thirty teams on defense at third. That, friends, is a brilliant pick up by the Red Sox and well worth the $9 million they spent on the guy. And it sure feels good for this old writer to get at least one good call to crow about.

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