Making The Leap

While watching the NBA playoffs over the past few weeks (that Miami/New Orleans first-round series lasted just slightly longer than the Tampa Bay Devil Rays‘ playoff chances), I’ve been thinking about a topic that my favorite sports columnist, Bill Simmons, often discusses: “The Leap.”

Simmons is more of a basketball and football guy, unless it has to do with the Red Sox, but we’ll forgive him for not being as obsessed with baseball as he should be. While Simmons often talks about this concept in regard to his two favorite sports, The Leap is something that works beautifully in other areas too. It can work in music or movies or even, as Simmons once discussed, dating. And, of course, baseball.

The Leap is, as you might guess, something a player makes. That is, an already good player enters a new level of excellence. Usually it is a younger player who, whether physically or emotionally or simply through experience and hard work, steps his game up a notch or two and enters a whole different realm of dominance.

About Len Bias, a tragic figure in Simmons’ beloved New England sports history, he writes:

I almost broke an ankle hurling myself onto the Bias Bandwagon. There was one play when Bias drained a 15-footer, then came flying back in to steal the inbounds pass and dunk the ball behind his head, fluidly, all in one motion. I can’t even really describe it. When somebody makes The Leap right before your eyes in sports … well, you remember. You always remember.

In a column entitled “Beware the heartbreakers”, on former Patriots wide receiver Terry Glenn, another somewhat tragic figure in New England sports history, Simmons writes:

With Glenn, maybe fate played a bigger factor than anything. Every time he seemed to be making The Leap, something held him back. The loss of Parcells. An untimely leg injury in ’97. A deteriorating offensive line that couldn’t protect Bledsoe. Constant double-teaming from opponents. Off-field distractions. There was always an excuse.

And finally, regarding Michael Jordan, a guy I think we are all familiar with, Simmons writes:

His fifth season, normally the season when a star player makes The Leap and starts scratching the limits of his talents. Jordan carried a mediocre Bulls team during the ’88-’89 season and carried a mediocre Bulls team to the Eastern Conference Finals (during a time when the league was extremely competitive, no less).

As a pure scorer, this was the year when he peaked — his athletic ability was unparalleled; the referees were awarding him “Larry/Magic”-level respect; he would never be faster or more explosive; and he did whatever he wanted offensively. You needed three people to guard him. Period.

I’ve been thinking about The Leap as it applies to the 2004 baseball season. Which player is a prime candidate and who is showing signs of making The Leap right now?

Well, as I said earlier, Leapers tend to be young players, though not too young. They need some time to establish themselves first as simply good players, before turning into great ones. As Simmons said, somewhere around the fifth season is usually a good time. And in baseball, the general idea is that hitters peak right around the age of 27.

With that in mind, I bring you the guy I think is making The Leap this season…

Carlos Beltran | CF | Kansas City Royals | Age: 27

There are, I would think, two kinds of Leaps. One is a player going from being a good, solid everyday player to an All-Star. The other, more impressive Leap, is going from being a star to a superstar. This is when an All-Star turns into an annual MVP candidate, an elite player.

I think we can all agree that Carlos Beltran has been a star for a few years now. Though he hasn’t been an All-Star yet (Can you believe that?), he has been one of the better centerfielders in the American League for the past three seasons. He had his only top 10 MVP finish last year, when he placed ninth, between Vernon Wells and Bret Boone.

The Incompleat Starting Pitcher
The end of the nine-inning start and how we got here.

This is the year I think Beltran goes beyond that level. This is the year I think he becomes one of the best players in baseball. Perhaps not coincidentally, this is also his “contract year.”

Beltran is really an amazing talent. Whether you want to talk about him as a “five-tool player” or a “seven-skill player,” he’s got it all. He does just about everything there is to do on a baseball field well, and he’s a phenomenal athlete.

Perhaps his most overlooked skill — and maybe his best skill — is baserunning. Look at Beltran’s yearly stolen base numbers and try not to drool all over your keyboard.

YEAR      SB     CS     PCT
1998       3      0     100
1999      27      8      77
2000      13      0     100
2001      31      1      97
2002      35      7      83
2003      41      4      91
2004       7      0     100

That’s really quite amazing. His worst season as a base stealer was in 1999, when he was a very respectable 27-for-35. Take that year out and Beltran is 130-for-142 during the rest of his career, which works out to an incredible 91.5% success rate.

The funny thing is, if Beltran weren’t so good at hitting doubles, triples and homers (the stuff that keeps him from standing on first base), he could probably be one of the great base stealers in baseball history. I’m referring to total stolen bases, of course, because Beltran already is one of the greats in baseball history when it comes to his success rate.

Caught stealing totals are a little sketchy (and often non-existent) in early baseball history, but take a look at how Beltran’s stolen base percentage stacks up over the last 60 years (among players with 150+ stolen bases).

                          SB      CS      PCT
CARLOS BELTRAN           157      20     88.7
Tim Raines               808     146     84.7
Eric Davis               349      66     84.1
Tony Womack              318      63     83.5
Willie Wilson            668     134     83.3
Barry Larkin             378      77     83.1
Davey Lopes              557     114     83.0
Stan Javier              246      51     82.8
Doug Glanville           161      36     81.7
Julio Cruz               343      78     81.5

Not bad, huh? For those of you wondering, the king of stolen bases, Rickey Henderson, is at 80.8% for his career (1,406 SB, 335 CS). The worst success rate? None other than Charlie Hustle, at 57.1% (198 SB, 149 CS).

While Beltran’s base stealing has always been amazing, his ability to get on base hasn’t always been that great. From 1998-2000, Beltran had an on-base percentage of just .327. As is the case with any player, much of his OBP was tied to the amount of walks he drew.

During his rookie season, Beltran drew a total of just 46 walks in 723 plate appearances, and two of those were intentional. However, take a look at how his non-intentional walk rate has improved over the years.

1998       .048
1999       .061
2000       .080
2001       .074
2002       .097
2003       .113
2004       .132

Aside from an extremely slight step back in 2001, Beltran’s walk rate has been on a constant rise since he debuted in 1998. Even setting aside his numbers so far this season, he has essentially doubled his walk rate, going from .061 BB/PA in his rookie season to .113 BB/PA last year. Over the course of 700 plate appearances, that is the difference between 42 walks and 79 walks, or about 53 points of OBP. He’s on pace for over 100 walks this year.

Along with the hike in walks, Beltran’s strikeout rate is another sign that he might be stepping things up a notch:

1998       .190
1999       .170
2000       .167
2001       .176
2002       .187
2003       .134
2004       .116

After whiffing in 17-19% of his plate appearances from 1998-2002, Beltran struck out in just 13.4% of his plate appearances last season. And he’s whiffing even less so far in 2004, with just 14 strikeouts in 121 plate appearances (11.6%).

And, of course, as you might expect from a guy whose walk rate is rising and whose strikeout rate is falling, Beltran’s strikeout/walk ratio has seen some pretty huge improvements:

1998       4.00
1999       2.80
2000       2.09
2001       2.40
2002       1.93
2003       1.19
2004       0.88

You can see some fairly steady improvements from 1998 to 2002, then the big jump last year, and another big jump this season.

From 1998-2002, Beltran struck out 459 times versus just 207 walks, a ratio of 2.22 SO/BB. Then last year, his strikeout and walk totals were close to even, with 81 strikeouts and 68 non-intentional walks. Right now, Beltran is on pace for more walks than strikeouts for the first time in his career. He’s on track for 99 non-intentional walks and 87 strikeouts this season, which is simply a great ratio.

I’m a big believer in improvements in plate discipline and strike zone control leading to positive developments in other areas. Like what? Ah, good question…

Isolated Power is a stat that takes a player’s slugging percentage and subtracts his batting average, to show strictly what type of power a hitter has. Take a look at Beltran’s ISO numbers over the years:

YEAR       ISO
1998      .190
1999      .161
2000      .118
2001      .207
2002      .228
2003      .215
2004      .354

It is my general feeling that someone is officially “hitting for power” when their ISO reaches .200 or better. Beltran has been at that level now for three seasons, and he’s hitting for huge power so far in 2004.

In particular, look at his home run rates:

1998       .000
1999       .033
2000       .019
2001       .039
2002       .046
2003       .050
2004       .081

Once again, a nice, mostly steady climb. It’s unlikely that Beltran will continue to hit .081 homers per at-bat this season (that would put him on pace for about 50), but I definitely wouldn’t put 35-40 long balls past him.

Perhaps the most telling stat in regard to Beltran’s all-around improvements over the years is his Secondary Average. Essentially, Secondary Average is a stat that looks at everything a player does offensively, beyond batting average. In other words, it takes into account power and walks and even stolen bases, all of the “secondary” skills. Beltran’s improvements here are undeniable:

YEAR       SecA
1998       .293
1999       .259
2000       .247
2001       .340
2002       .383
2003       .424
2004       .616

That’s what happens when you have a guy who is getting better in just about every area of his offensive game. Beltran has gone from a great talent who was a good player, to a guy who hits for average, draws walks, controls the strike zone, hits for power and is exceptional at stealing bases. He also switch-hits and plays outstanding defense in center field. In other words, he has turned himself into the total package.

Since I mentioned the fact that Beltran switch-hits, I might as well point out his career totals from each side of the plate:

             AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS      GPA
as LHB      .288     .352     .481     .833     .279
as RHB      .289     .356     .495     .850     .284

As with just about everything else, Carlos Beltran is great at switch-hitting too.

One final thing to note about Beltran is that he has played his home games in Kauffman Stadium, a good ballpark for hitters. During his career, Beltran has definitely performed better at home. In 379 career games at Kauffman, he has an .863 OPS. In 373 games away from Kauffman, he has an .812 OPS. That’s a difference of about 6%. His GPA gap is similar, with a 7% home advantage.

However, in general most players do better at home than on the road. Over the last five seasons, American League batters as a whole had a home OPS that was about 4% better than their road OPS. In that sense, Beltran and Kauffman isn’t like, for example, Todd Helton playing his home games in Coors Field. During his career, spent entirely with the Rockies, Helton’s OPS at home has been about 28% better than it is on the road and his home GPA has been about 26% better.

Okay, so let’s see…

Base Running? Check.
Defense? Check.
Hitting For Average? Check.
Hitting For Power? Check.
Plate Discipline? Check.
Strike Zone Control? Check.

Ready To Make The Leap? Check.

As Bill Simmons might say, I wish I could buy stock in things like “Carlos Beltran will be the best centerfielder in baseball for the rest of this decade.” This is what The Leap looks like.

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