Adrian Beltre’s “Fluke” 2004 Happens Again

When Adrian Beltre put up one of the best seasons in the history of baseball in 2004, it was labeled many things: an historic fluke, evidence of steroid usage, and/or the greatest example in history of a player trying to cash in on a big contract in his walk year. He went from hitting 23 home runs in 2003 to 48 in 2004, and posted a higher WAR in that one year than he had in the prior three seasons combined.

The narrative just got louder when he went to Seattle and regressed back to his prior levels in his first year under the new contract. It was called a fluke to end all flukes, or it was proof that Beltre just started juicing in order to land a huge paycheck, and then he stopped taking PEDs after he got rich off the deal. These are the conclusions people drew. These are the conclusions people still draw, 10 years later; Just do a twitter search for Chris Davis+steroids.

Well, maybe it’s time to reevaluate those conclusions, because Adrian Beltre has done it again.

Year AB PA H 1B 2B 3B HR BB SO
2004 598 657 200 120 32 0 48 53 87
Last 365 652 700 218 138 36 2 42 41 78

The first line is Beltre’s ’04 season, while the second line is what he has done over the last calendar year. These are just the raw numbers, the actual accounting of what he’s done. The last 365 includes 165 games played because the 2013 season started earlier, so it’s apples to slightly different sized apples, but you can rescale the 2013 line to the 2004 plate appearance markers and the results still come out very similar. Or, more easily, you can just look at his rate stats, and then compare those to the league averages of the time.

In 2004, Beltre hit .334/.388/.629, while an average National League position player hit .270/.341/.437. So, he was +64 points in batting average, +47 points in on base percentage, and +192 points in slugging percentage, relative to an average NL hitter that year. Over the last calendar year, Beltre has hit .334/.379/.589, while an average American League position player hit .255/.319/.407. That leaves him up +79 points in batting average, +60 points in on base percentage, and +182 points in slugging percentage. His raw numbers aren’t quite as impressive, but offense is way down since 2004, and when you put the adjusted numbers next to each other, things look very similar.

Of course, there are park effects in play too, and Texas is a much better plate to hit than Los Angeles. But that’s why we have wRC+, which adjusts for both park effects and the league averages of the time. In 2004, Beltre posted a 161 wRC+; over the last 365 days, he’s at 158. And remember, that’s in a larger sample size. Over the last year, Adrian Beltre has been as good of a hitter as he was in 2004.

There are a bunch of takeaways from this:

1. Adrian Beltre is really freaking good.
2. The obvious narrative isn’t true just because it’s obvious.
3. Assuming that every surprisingly great performance is due to PED usage is silly.
4. The Past Calendar Year split is a lot of fun.
5. Aging curves are averages, and not every player follows them precisely.

It’s long past time anyone stopped referring to Adrian Beltre’s 2004 season as a fluke. He’s proven that he can hit at a high level, and now he’s even shown that he can have that same kind of offensive performance again over a full year’s worth of playing time.

The things people said about Adrian Beltre 10 years ago simply weren’t true. There’s no evidence he’s ever used PEDs. The contract year phenomenon is a myth. He’s revered by his teammates as perhaps one of the most team-centric, hard working players in the game.

And 10 years after putting up one of the great seasons in Major League history, he’s showing that it wasn’t a fluke.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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