One of my closest friends is a St. Louis native, and after the tumult of contract misadventures this past off season, he asked me how I thought the Cardinals might fare in 2012. My comment was that they’d win more games in 2012 than they did in 2011 — bank on it. But most of that was wrapped up in the notion that they’d get Adam Wainwright back to form, Lance Berkman would be relatively healthy and better suited defensively at first base and Carlos Beltran would produce somewhere around four wins.
Some prognosticator I am. Thank goodness for Carlos Beltran — right, St. Louis?
After just 33 games, Beltran has already posted 2.2 wins above replacement, and although he has played decent on defense, his WAR total is almost entirely accounted for with his bat. His slash line stands at .298/.406/.653 with 13 home runs and 32 RBI. He is among the league leaders in WAR, and is just 0.1 WAR behind Matt Kemp. And what’s particularly notable about the current WAR leaders is the potential for regression:
You could say that Beltran is the unluckiest of the current leaders with a BABIP that at least somewhat resembles his career rate of .303 (his expected BABIP based on hit trajectory stands at .282, in part due to a fairly low line-drive rate). Certainly all of these players are off to pretty tremendous starts, but Beltran’s performance so far seems the most likely to be sustainable — even if it probably isn’t.
Looking at Beltran’s career wRC+, he has typically been a pretty steady performer over the course of the season, but also remember that he tends to start hot and finish hot:
In his 15-year career, Beltran has rarely began a season quite this sizzling. There’s just one year in which he started off better in terms of his overall triple slash, and that was in 2009 when he entered mid-May batting .370/.467/.583 with six home runs and 25 RBI in 33 games. But with a BABIP of .410 and fewer than than half the home runs he currently has, you’d have to consider 2012 to be the most productive start of his career.
Six years ago was arguably his most impressive season with the bat, going .275/.388/.594 with 41 home runs, 116 RBI and 127 runs scored. In 2006, he was batting .278/.417/.644 with nine home runs and 22 RBI through May 13 (but he had played just 26 games). His BABIP in those games was only .246, so it wasn’t inflated by any lucky hops either. There are actually a lot of parallels early on with that 2006 season. That year was the last time he was hitting more than 45% fly balls, seeing fewer first pitch strikes and walking at a rate over 14% — not to mention sporting an ISO over .300.
There aren’t any hulking, intimidating smoking guns when trying to decipher what — if anything — has changed in 2012. But there are some subtle differences. In general, Beltran is seeing more two-seam fastballs and more sliders. The sliders have given him a touch of trouble so far, but now the two-seamers. Pitchers seem to be trying to work the two-seam fastball in and down on him, but he’s rarely offered at it if it isn’t over the plate. He has swung and missed less than 4% of the time at the two seam fastball and he’s hit two for home runs.
Overall, Beltran is seeing fewer first pitch strikes and fewer balls in the strike zone than any other time in his career. The league average for first-pitch strikes is 59.2%; he’s seeing first-pitch strikes 48.3% of the time. The percentage of balls in the zone is down to 40.4%, versus a 45.6% league average. Concomitantly, his walk rate is at the highest mark since — you guessed it — 2006. And despite this safety dance that pitchers are playing with him, Beltran’s contact rate has remained at a healthy 90%, which is actually a tick above his career average.
Cognizant of this or not, Beltran seems to be taking this careful approach and using it to his advantage. After the count has gone 1-0, Beltran has hit nine of his 13 home runs (56 at bats). No, he’s not likely to maintain a 32% HR/FB rate, but it’s notable to point out that his home runs haven’t necessarily come off of scrubs. Ian Kennedy, Tommy Hanson, Johnny Venters, Mike Minor, Mat Latos, Johnny Cueto and Yovanni Gallardo account for the majority of his long balls. And the park really hasn’t been to his advantage, either: seven of his 13 home runs have come at Busch Stadium, three at Chase Field, two at Miller Park and one at Great American Ballpark. Mock the shot at Great American if you like, but the the three at Chase averaged 443 feet — including this one:
Could Beltran repeat his monstrous 2006? That largely depends on his ability to stay on the field — and considering he’s missing some time right now with an achy knee, that seems unlikely. But that’s really not the thing that makes this so amazing, and really, what makes me love baseball so much. That’s the the fact that here’s Carlos Beltran, playing in a pitchers park at age 35, when we’re supposed to be seeing strong evidence of a decline, and what we’re getting treated to is some of his best at bats of his career. Let’s hope the trainers in St. Louis manage to squeeze 600 plate appearances out of him.