January 30, 2015
Beltre broke into the league as an 18-year-old with Dodgers in 1998. Three teams and 10,001 regular-season plate appearances later, the soon to be 36-year-old Beltre is still performing as one of the best third basemen and fantasy third basemen in the game. While he is no longer the elite defender he was in previous earth years, he still plays a passable hot corner. Moreover, as the league’s offensive production has slipped, Beltre’s production has remained constant, making his usual production more valuable now than ever before. As with any 36-year-old baseball player, age is a concern, but how much of a concern it should be will dictate how we should value Beltre for 2015 and beyond.
What Went Right in 2014
Most things went right for Beltre from a fantasy baseball perspective in 2014. He posted the highest on-base percentage of his career (fueled by a .324 batting average and his highest walk rate since 2000), while keeping his strikeout percentage absurdly low (12.1) for a player who slugged .492. Additionally, Beltre posted the lowest swing rate of his career; thus, if he is losing any bat speed, he is maintaining his production by being more selective.
What Went Wrong in 2014
1. A 15-day DL stint
The combination of points one and two put a dent in Beltre’s runs batted in and runs scored in 2014. Down years from Shin-Soo Choo, Alex Rios, Elvis Andrus, Prince Fielder, and Mitch Moreland combined with the departures of Nelson Cruz, Ian Kinsler, A.J. Pierzynski, and David Murphy led to a disastrous year for the Rangers’ offense. Add in Beltre missing 14 games due to a quadriceps strain (note: this is not a lot of games missed for a normal player, but Beltre had played 154 or more games in three of the previous four seasons) and we can see why he posted his lowest runs batted in and runs scored totals since 2008.
3. Batted-ball profile
Beltre’s 2014 batted-ball profile seems pretty telling. Relative to his previous batted-ball profiles, Beltre hit more line drives and grounders, while hitting fewer flyballs and infield flyballs in 2014. All this allowed Beltre to provide a better average, but meant fewer home runs. While Beltre can certainly replace his power production through batting average production (making this entire point a bit of a nitpick), his previous value proposition is more enticing for fantasy baseball.
What to Expect in 2015
To figure out what we are to expect for 2015, we probably need to answer the following question: why did Beltre change as a hitter? In digging a little deeper into the month to month splits, Beltre was pretty much his usual slugging self through July, after which he became a more patient, line-drive-type hitter than ever before (he only hit four home runs after July, while posting a .326 AVG). The change in approach and results (swapping slugging for on base percentage) is so stark that it appears likely that Beltre was dealing with some sort of injury. Could he have hit some sort of aging-swing speed cliff on August 1st? Maybe, but it would probably not be wise to bet on that. Consequently, if Beltre had finished the year in his May through August (he missed 14 games in April) form, then he would have hit 25 home runs.
While I expect Beltre’s power numbers to be down from his 2012-2013 numbers, I think there is a better chance he comes in around 25 home runs than 20 home runs. When combined with the adjustments to approach that Beltre proved he can make and some positive regression from the Rangers’ lineup, I am very comfortable with Beltre as the number two third baseman in fantasy baseball for 2015.
The Great Beyond
Beltre shows no signs of steep decline, but he is on his way to being a low twenties as opposed to mid to high twenties home run per season player as his power slowly decreases. The interesting thing will be to see if Beltre can continue to improve his approach and AVG as the power declines. Moreover, for fantasy purposes, Beltre becomes an interesting case from a valuation perspective. Whereas older players tend to be undervalued, consistent players are often overvalued. It is very likely that we see these phenomena competing with each other in future seasons (kind of like what we have seen with David Ortiz and Torii Hunter) and, therefore, whether Beltre will be over or undervalued will vary greatly based on league.
The last point of note (and we are ending with the opposite of a bang here), is that Beltre figures to be a third baseman for the next few years. Playing in the American League has also allowed the Rangers to give Beltre semi-days off at DH (15.25 games at DH per year since 2011). This will continue to be a boon for Beltre’s playing time if he stays in AL once his contract with the Rangers is finished, but it is not something we can really forecast at this point.
All in all, continue to enjoy the wonder that is Adrian Beltre in 2015, but make sure you are not overpaying for consistency in future years.