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Adrian Beltre Is Not Movitated by Contract Years

It has long been assumed that Adrian Beltre was going to cash in on his big year in Boston and head back to the AL West, though most speculation had him landing in Anaheim. The guesses proved partially true – right division, wrong team. While it is not yet official, it appears that Beltre will be competing directly against the Angels as the new starting third baseman for the Texas Rangers, signing a five- or six-year contract for around $15 million per season.

In a piece for ESPN three weeks ago, I suggested the Rangers make exactly this move, so it’s not surprising that I think this is a pretty good move for Texas. However, Beltre’s a pretty polarizing player, and you will surely read a good number of skeptics listing off reasons as to why the Rangers are crazy to give him this kind of long-term deal. I figure that it might be worthwhile to confront the most common criticism of his value ahead of time, so let’s tackle the most frequently repeated complaint about Beltre.

“Beltre only hits well in contract years.”

This is one of the most popular knocks against him, since his career includes two monster seasons – 2004 and 2010 – which came in years where he was eligible for free agency after the season. Clearly, any correlation that happens twice is proof of causation, right?

Err, no. The theory that Beltre is motivated by the chance to make significant money and uses that to perform better is riddled with problems. The largest of those problems is selective use of data, by only focusing on 2004 and 2010. In reality, Beltre has had five seasons in which he was playing under an expiring contract. More often than not, he’s performed worse, not better.

In 2002, Beltre was entering the final year of a three-year contract he had signed after his second big-league season. He would end the year as an arbitration-eligible player with four years of service time, and a big year would represent a significant raise. He hit .257/.303/.426, and had to settle for just $3.7 million as his arbitration reward.

In 2003, he had another chance to impress the arbitration panel with a big year. Instead, he hit .240/.290/.424, performing even worse than the year before, and had to settle for a very modest 35 percent raise, far less than what everyday players generally get in their final arbitration year.

In 2004, he had one of the great seasons of all time, and then became a free agent. This, you hear about.

In 2009 – the last year of his contract with Seattle – Beltre hit just .265/.304/.379, which was one of the main reasons he had to settle for a one-year deal with Boston to begin with. Instead of landing a long-term contract, Beltre had to take a deal that would put him under pressure to have a big year to earn his money, something he only had a 25 percent success rate at up to this point.

In 2010, he had a great year, and again will land a big contract as a result. For the second time in five chances to earn himself significant money through good performance, Beltre delivered.

If Beltre had the ability to become an offensive monster whenever it suited his desire to land a big raise, why did he not flip that switch in 2002, 2003, or 2009? Or, there’s this question: if Beltre is really interested in just landing huge contracts, why doesn’t he just have a great year in his last two seasons before free agency? After all, guys who put together back to back monster seasons earn far more than guys whose resume of greatness only extends back one year – just ask Jayson Werth.

The idea that Beltre can hit well when he wants to, but chooses not to in years where he’s not playing for a contract, just falls apart once you actually look at the facts. Beyond the fact that he’s only had big years in 40 percent of the seasons where his contract was expiring, there are more compelling alternative explanations that far more easily explain the drastic shifts in offensive production – most obviously, changes in playing environments.

The 2004 and 2010 seasons have one thing in common besides being years in which Beltre was playing under the final year of his contract: they are the last two seasons in which he was not spending half of his games hitting in Safeco Field. Besides perhaps San Diego, there is no place in baseball more difficult for a right-handed pull power hitter than Seattle.

From 2005 to 2009, when Beltre had to hit in an extremely hostile environment, he had the sixth worst offensive performance at home of any regular position player in baseball, posting a .314 wOBA. Notably, one of the five players with a worse line was Jose Lopez, another right-handed pull-power Mariner. His road wOBA over that same time frame was a much more reasonable .341, which puts him in the same general range as Ryan Zimmerman, Torii Hunter, and humorously enough, Michael Young.

Given that there is a demonstrated advantage to playing at home for most players, Beltre’s 27-point drop in wOBA somewhat understates the effect that Safeco had on his offense. In reality, the harm was more likely in the 30- to 35-point range. Over 300 plate appearances, 30 points of wOBA is worth 10 runs per season. Safeco essentially took one full win off his raw numbers each year. Since the park adjustments included in metrics like wRC+ or WAR are not hand-specific, they actually underestimate his performance during his time in Seattle, and yet, even still, he was worth the money the Mariners paid him during his contract.

Rather than looking for speculative motivational issues that don’t stand up to an actual examination of the facts, applying Occam’s Razor to Beltre’s performance suggests that one should conclude that basic park effects – and not a greedy cash-grab – are mostly responsible for the timing of Beltre’s big years.