This time, with pictures!
Adrian Beltre's been chased around by a few ugly labels. Mostly because of the big numbers he put up in what seemed like a breakthrough 2004. Beltre's monster season in large part pushed the Seattle Mariners to hand him a $64m/5 year contract, and when he subsequently failed to perform at a level anywhere close to what he'd done, a lot of people grew frustrated. He was called a disappointment. He was called a bust. He was called a one-year wonder, the new Brady Anderson, and his name was frequently bandied about when fans would indulge in random steroid speculation. Beltre hit 48 homers in 2004. In no other season did he eclipse 26. Clear fluke. Clear roider.
Beltre, though, could never realistically be expected to live up to his mammoth season, and Seattle's Safeco Field seemed like one of the poorest playing environments possible for a player with Beltre's skillset, and so given these two issues, a smaller number of Mariner fans were simply satisfied with his above-average hitting and exemplary work in the field. Beltre, they said, was still a valuable contributor, even with his numbers down, and among them, none were particularly thrilled with the idea of seeing Beltre walk away.
Beltre did walk away, though, to sign a one-year contract with the Red Sox this past winter. Following a down 2009, it seemed like a good opportunity to play for a winner while re-establishing his value, and while many questioned Boston's need for a third baseman with a perceived history of disappointment, still others saw it as the perfect place for him to end up. At least from a statistical standpoint, Fenway promised to be far more cooperative with Beltre's offense than Safeco Field. He came into the year as a big-time potential sleeper.
He's not asleep no more. It took Beltre a month to slug his first home run, but since then, he's been on an absolute tear. Over the last three calendar months, Beltre's drilled 19 dingers and batted .339, trying desperately to keep the Red Sox in the race despite so many crippling injuries. His full-season numbers, as of this writing? A .337 average, a .374 OBP, and a .940 OPS. That OPS ranks him 12th in baseball, between Scott Rolen and Adam Dunn.
The only regret the Red Sox can have about Adrian Beltre right now is that they didn't try as hard as they could to lock him up for more than one season. Given his offensive and defensive contributions, he's been one of the most all-around valuable players in baseball, and arguably the most valuable player on a team with Kevin Youkilis and Clay Buchholz. He's been everything anyone could've dreamed of, and he's been even more on top of that.
For me, it's great to see Beltre having so much success, even if he's doing it in a uniform I don't really support. And here's the really interesting thing:
Beltre's numbers this season are still down a little bit from where they were in his near-MVP campaign, but look at that first column, and then look at that last one. He's close. And in terms of plate appearances per extra-base hit - which is what that last column awkwardly signifies - he's dead equal. Fewer of his hits are sailing over the wall now than we saw from him in 2004, but an equal number are going for extra bases. His power's still there. He's still a strong guy.
So I'm curious to see how Beltre's big year in Boston affects the way he's viewed as a player. I imagine many will still consider his stint in Seattle to be a disappointment, even if that isn't necessarily true, but what does this do to the idea that he was a one-year wonder? Even though he isn't going to slug another 48 home runs, he's still mashing the same number of extra-base hits. Adrian Beltre is sustaining a performance very similar to what he did in 2004. He just took a five-season break.
Batting Average on Balls In Play - BABIP - is a statistic that's getting more and more attention as time rolls on. It's calculated just as you'd think: it's the batting average on balls hit in play, which boils down to batting average on balls the batter hits that don't go for home runs. Ever since a man named Voros McCracken discovered that pitchers have surprisingly little control over their BABIPs many years ago, it's been the number at the heart of countless analyses.
I don't want to spend this whole section just talking about the background of the statistic. Basically, what you need to know is that pitchers tend to fluctuate around a BABIP of .300. Large variations will be due to team defense, ballpark, or simple luck, and when a guy posts an exceptional BABIP, you can expect him to regress towards the average. Hitters show a broader range that's dependent on their skillset - generally between, say, .270-.330, depending on if you're looking at a slow flyball hitter or a speedy groundball hitter - but, again, exceptional rates tend to regress. It's an important statistic to understand when you're trying to project future performance.
So with that background out of the way, I present to you the curious case of Carlos Quentin. So far this season, among qualified hitters, Quentin has posted the second-lowest BABIP in baseball, at .219. Lest you think it's a fluke, you notice that, last year, he also posted one of the lowest BABIPs in baseball, at .221. And when you look at his entire career, you see a figure of .248. A .248 BABIP, over 1787 plate appearances and nearly 1200 balls in play. That is a substantial sample size, and it tells us that there may just be something about Quentin that makes his balls in play a good deal less likely to drop in than the balls in play hit by pretty much any other hitter.
What could it be? The first thing we notice is that Quentin is a fly ball hitter. Fly balls, as you can imagine, go for hits less often than groundballs, and they certainly go for fewer hits when they stay in the park. We also notice that Quentin hits a below-average number of line drives. Line drives are the most effective way of getting a hit, and Quentin's career line drive rate of 16% is below the league average of 18-19%.
Still, a lot of fly balls and a lower number of line drives don't completely explain Quentin's low BABIP. They only explain part of it. And what we notice is that Quentin isn't exactly hurting - he's still managed an .834 OPS on the year and .839 for his career, with a home run every 19 times he steps to the plate. Quentin's OPS is 56 points better than Austin Jackson's, even though his BABIP is literally more than 200 points worse. And what we're left to wonder is whether Quentin just has the ability to make a high number of his best-struck balls leave the yard. It's possible that part of the reason Quentin's BABIP is so low is because, where other hitters collect hits on balls in play off the wall, Quentin hits his balls over it.
I'm not sure. It's a bit of a mystery. As long as Quentin's still hitting the ball out of the yard, though, he'll be able to avoid having to reflect on his approach and results as a hitter. For the time being, he's still doing fine.
Rangers fans are in a pretty good place these days. Wednesday night, they finally got to sort out their whole ownership mess. The team's in first place, eight games ahead of its closest competitor. They get to watch Cliff Lee every five days, and he might be the best starting pitcher in baseball. They get to watch Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz supply mammoth power from the middle of the order. They get to watch Neftali Feliz close games out with exceptional heat. And they get to watch Elvis Andrus develop as one of the more electrifying all-around players in the league.
From the moment he entered the big leagues, it was clear that Andrus was one of the most gifted defensive infielders in the world. Between his range, instincts, and arm, he was flawless, his grace matched only by his tenacity to field every ball he could possibly reach. And while that would've been enough on its own, Andrus - as a 20 year old - showed a lot of promise at the plate as well, batting .267 with 31 extra-base hits and six home runs. Those numbers aren't exactly breathtaking, but when they come from an athletic shortstop who isn't yet old enough to pass out in a bar, they hint at incredible upside.
And, sure enough, Andrus has made some gains in 2010. He's lifted his average a little bit, possibly a side effect of putting more balls on the ground. And, more importantly, he's lifted his walk rate as well. Where a year ago he drew a walk every 13.5 times he came to the plate, that's jumped to once per 9.3 so far this season, as Andrus has demonstrated unusual patience and discipline for a hitter his age.
There is one point of concern, though. It's August 5th, and Elvis Andrus has yet to hit a home run. He only has 12 doubles and two triples, as well, the result being a .362 OBP and a .314 slugging percentage. Andrus' defense, for the most part, has been there, and the patience has been there, but the power is absent, and you don't like to see a guy so young taking a step backwards.
What's going on? As I've done before, I'm going to go to the spray charts, as provided by Texas Leaguers. First, we'll look at 2009 Elvis Andrus. Bear in mind that he is a right-handed hitter:
And now we'll look at 2010 Elvis Andrus:
When you compare those images, you see that not a lot has changed with regard to Andrus' ability to go up the middle or hit the other way. However, look at left field. Left field is where you expect a right-handed hitter to hit for the most power. And Andrus, to date, just hasn't pulled the ball deep at all. A year ago, Andrus pulled 12 balls to left field that wound up near or beyond the track. This year, he has one.
So Andrus isn't pulling the ball with very much authority right now. And when you look at the breakdown, it turns out he isn't pulling the ball as often, either:
2009: 39.7% balls in play hit to left field
2010: 29.8% balls in play hit to left field
So what we know is that Andrus hasn't pulled the ball as often this year as he did last year, and when he has pulled the ball, he hasn't hit it as hard. So it becomes apparent why he's still stuck at zero home runs. If a righty isn't hitting the ball out to left, then, generally speaking, he won't be hitting the ball out to center or right, either.
I'm not sure why we're seeing this from Andrus, exactly. It might be a coaching thing. It might be a conscious decision on Andrus' part. It's possible that this is a side effect of being more patient at the plate - Andrus may be taking longer to identify pitches out of the hand, the result being that he swings later and doesn't pull the ball as often. I don't know. But what I do know is that, as exciting and flashy as he is, Elvis Andrus isn't quite the same guy when he isn't yanking the ball to left. He can still be a valuable player, but without any power, he's not going to be a star.
I wonder how many people realize that Jim Edmonds took a year off. He hit well with the Cubs in 2008, and he took a year off. A whole year. Then he came back and announced his intention to try and play in the big leagues again, and signed a minor league contract with the Brewers towards the end of January. Edmonds earned a spot out of camp. Edmonds made it back to the big leagues. And Jim Edmonds - who is 40 years old - is playing like somebody half his age.
As of this writing, Jim Edmonds has a .289/.355/.502 batting line over 234 plate appearances. He's actually out-hit teammates Ryan Braun and Rickie Weeks, if you can believe it, and he's only getting stronger, as he's fresh off the heels of a monster July that saw him hit .378 with five home runs. I don't think anybody saw this coming from Jim Edmonds. I don't think Jim Edmonds saw this coming from Jim Edmonds. Edmonds - who is 16 years older than staff ace Yovani Gallardo - has wound up being one of the brighter spots on a disappointing ballclub.
What I really want to highlight are two things Edmonds has been able to do that are absolutely remarkable for a player his age. Those two things:
-Edmonds, according to our advanced defensive metrics, has been an above-average defensive center fielder
-Among hitters with at least 200 plate appearances, Edmonds is the league leader in line drive rate, at 28.6%
Good defense at an important position, and a greater rate of line drives than any other hitter in baseball. Edmonds has hit nearly as many line drives as he has groundballs. In the field, he remains focused and athletic, and at the plate, he's had zero trouble squaring the ball up. Note that he's also managed to hit home runs to left, center, and right fields.
Jim Edmonds, in his career peak, was a fast player with a fast bat. You'd expect those attributes to decline over time - certainly over 10-15 years - and they have declined to some degree, but what Edmonds is making abundantly clear right now is that he has an awful lot left in the tank. So it'll be interesting to see how he's treated on the open market this offseason should he opt to keep playing. On the one hand, he remains a valuable player, perfectly capable of assuming a semi-regular role in a contending team's outfield. On the other hand, Kenny Lofton had a big year in 2007 at the age of 40 and didn't end up signing another contract, so who knows. To what degree will front offices be afraid of Edmonds' age? To what degree should they be? Jim Edmonds' argument seems to be that they shouldn't be afraid at all.
The Dodgers have had a good amount of trouble hitting the ball. Especially lately. Their team .719 OPS ranks 12th in the National League, and since the All-Star break they've come in at a paltry .602. They've been shut out one fewer time than the Reds, and just as often as the Astros and the Pirates. In short, while the run prevention has been there more often than not, the lineup has failed to pick up the slack, which is a big reason why the Dodgers find themselves where they are in the standings.
Diving deep into the Dodgers' team splits reveals an interesting phenomenon, though. What I'm about to show you is OPS against, separated by run support. First, the Major League numbers:
0-2 runs of support: .750 OPS against
3-5 runs of support: .732 OPS against
6+ runs of support: .725 OPS against
In other words, in games where a team's offense has generated between 0-2 runs, the same team's pitching staffs have allowed a collective .750 OPS.
Now let's look at the Dodgers:
0-2 runs of support: .612 OPS against
3-5 runs of support: .759 OPS against
6+ runs of support: .709 OPS against
When the Dodgers haven't scored - and this has happened pretty often - the Dodgers' pitchers have buckled down. That .612 OPS against with 0-2 runs of support is by far the best mark in baseball, a full 64 points ahead of second-place Texas. In tight, low-scoring games, LA's pitchers have managed to avoid allowing solid contact, and by avoiding solid contact, they've avoided blowing the game.
This really becomes apparent when you break down the Dodgers' schedule. The Dodgers have scored 0-2 runs 35 times, and they've won 11 of those games. And since you can't win when you don't score at all, the more significant figure is that the Dodgers have gone 11-13 when scoring just one or two runs. The Yankees, for the sake of comparison, have gone 3-11. The Rays have gone 2-19.
Another way of looking at this is that the Dodgers' pitching staff has spun 12 total shutouts, and nine of them have wound up either 1-0 or 2-0.
That's just an unbelievable ability to bear down when the pressure's on. And though I'm skeptical that the Dodgers will be able to sustain this kind of performance, the fact that they're still hanging around the fringes of the playoff race despite everything that's gone on is due in large part to their managing to go 11-13 when they score just one or two runs. That's an astonishing record, and one that doesn't get enough credit for keeping the Dodgers just barely in the picture.