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Adrian Beltre and the Ticking Clock
2003-02-25 08:30
by Jon Weisman
Note: The Dodger Thoughts blog has moved to the Los Angeles Times.

When your philosophy is that an organization should build from within, and when you've watched the poster child for that philosophy make unsteady progress, it's a little scary.

I really want Adrian Beltre to succeed, both so that the Dodgers will do well, and to validate my belief in him and what he represents. I've had bigger attachments to individual Dodgers in the past, but I don't think that I have more personally invested in anyone on the team this year than Beltre.

But I have to admit, the doubts crept in.

I think most people expected Beltre to turn the corner in 2002. He had shown promise from 1998-2000, then declined in 2001. That was the year he almost died following an emergency appendectomy that was a big E-5, and so everyone was pretty willing to write that year off.

But it didn't happen. Beltre's OPS in 2002 was about as bad as it had been the year before. He had three good months and three bad months, in no particular order. He was a mystery, and the Dodgers, in a playoff chase, came close to trading him rather than try to solve it.

Beltre still doesn't turn 24 until April 7, so I felt very strongly all last year that it was too soon to give up on him, and was relieved that he remained the starter through all his troubles. But I'm aware that everyone's patience might be exhausted in 2003 if he doesn't step it up. So, I wanted to take a close look at Beltre's stats to see if I could figure out what the problem was.

He has never hit at well at home as on the road, but that's not unusual for a Dodger. His walks and batting average have been going down, which is discouraging - because it might imply that pitchers have figured out that if they just throw it over the plate, he won't do that much damage.

The Raul Mondesi syndrome. I feared it might be terminal.

To try to get just a hint of why we might expect from Beltre this year, I went to BaseballReference.com. The site provides lists of players whose stats are closest to a player at a given moment. Using a formula created by Bill James, the site ranks the similarity of these players on a scale where a virtually identical player comes in at 1,000 points.

These scores are calculated using a number that effectively includes OPS and other stats. You can skip the upcoming italicized section if the methodology doesn't concern you. (I believe the methodology below refers to career statistics - I'm assuming it's adjusted for seasonal statistics, though I don't know how.)

To compare one player to another, start at 1,000 points and then you subtract points based on the statistical differences of each player:
One point for each difference of 20 games played.
One point for each difference of 75 at bats.
One point for each difference of 10 runs scored.
One point for each difference of 15 hits.
One point for each difference of 5 doubles.
One point for each difference of 4 triples.
One point for each difference of 2 home runs.
One point for each difference of 10 RBI.
One point for each difference of 25 walks.
One point for each difference of 150 strikeouts.
One point for each difference of 20 stolen bases.
One point for each difference of .001 in batting average.
One point for each difference of .002 in slugging percentage.

Okay - welcome back. Here, then, are the players most similar in baseball history to Adrian Beltre, career through age 23:
1. Ron Santo (975)
2. Bob Bailey (913)
3. Rusty Staub (907)
4. Carney Lansford (907)
5. Buddy Bell (903)
6. Ruben Sierra (902)
7. Ken Keltner (901)
8. Gary Sheffield (895)
9. Eric Chavez (895)
10. Bill Mazeroski (893)

Santo, the former Chicago Cub third baseman who has been cited by some as the player most overdue for Hall of Fame recognition (and who happens to be profiled by Ross Newhan in the Times today), has also been the most similar player to Beltre each individual season from ages 20-23.

Here are their OPS marks by age:
Age 20: Beltre (.780), Santo (.720)
Age 21: Beltre (.835), Santo (.842)
Age 22: Beltre (.720), Santo (.659)
Age 23: Beltre (.729), Santo (.820)

Looking at those numbers, Beltre and Santo are not as similar as you might be led to believe. In part, this can be explained by the fact that we're comparing players not only from different teams, but different eras.

To help combat that, I'm going to use the Adjusted OPS statistics, or OPS+, provided by BaseballReference.com. OPS+ factors in the park and league in which each player played, and is expressed as a percentage above or below a league average of 100.

OPS+ by age
Age 20: Beltre (100), Santo (97)
Age 21: Beltre (116), Santo (121)
Age 22: Beltre (93), Santo (74)
Age 23: Beltre (98), Santo (129)

This helps, but again, we're reminded that although Santo and Beltre were similar from ages 20-23, they were not identical. Beltre was pretty even with Santo for the first two seasons. They diverged more in the next two seasons, mainly because Santo went way down at age 22, then way up at age 23, while Beltre declined less precipitously but stayed there.

I did find it interesting, if coincidental, that the year Santo's production went down was the year Beltre had to recover from his botched appendectomy. (Perhaps Santo's struggle with diabetes is the reason?) Even more interesting, like Beltre, all 10 players on the list had at least one season-to-season decline in OPS+ before turning 24:
Ron Santo - declined between 21 and 22
Bob Bailey - declined between 21 and 22
Rusty Staub - declined between 20 and 21, as well as 21 and 22
Carney Lansford - declined between 21 and 22, as well as 22 and 23
Buddy Bell - declined slightly between 21 and 22
Ruben Sierra - declined slightly between 20 and 21, as well as 21 and 22
Ken Keltner - declined slightly between 22 and 23
Gary Sheffield - declined between 19 and 20, as well as 21 and 22
Eric Chavez - declined between 20 and 21
Bill Mazeroski - declined between 21 and 22, as well as 23 and 24

If we get nothing else from this exercise, it helps to know that a temporary decline at a young age is not unusual. It does not mean greater success won't come.

Now ... let's venture intrepidly toward the future.

Here are the 10 players' OPS+ scores at age 24:
Ron Santo - 164
Bob Bailey - 83
Rusty Staub - 131
Carney Lansford - 133
Buddy Bell - 105
Ruben Sierra - 111
Ken Keltner - 118
Gary Sheffield - 120
Eric Chavez - 122
Bill Mazeroski - 94

A pretty wide range, there - but eight of the players were above average and above Beltre's age-23 level. Santo, the player most similar to Beltre, had the best season of his career at age 24, in 1964. He posted a regular OPS of .962, batting .312 with 33 doubles, 13 triples, 30 home runs, 86 walks and 114 RBI.

Here's my experiment. I'm going to multiply the age-24 OPS+ scores by the similarity scores - thus weighing each score based on how similar the player has been to Beltre - and then average them out:

Santo: 975 x 164 = 159,900
Bailey: 913 x 83 = 75,779
Staub: 907 x 131 = 118,817
Lansford: 907 x 133 = 120,631
Bell: 903 x 105 = 94,815
Sierra: 902 x 111 = 100,122
Keltner: 901 x 118 = 106,318
Sheffield: 895 x 120 = 107,400
Chavez: 895 x 122 = 109,190
Mazeroski: 893 x 94 = 83,942
Total: 1,076,914
Sum of similarity scores was 9,091
Average age-24 OPS+ is 1,076,914 divided by 9,091: 118.45

An OPS+ mark of 118 would slightly exceed Beltre's best season so far. When Beltre had an OPS+ of 116 at age 21 in 2000, he had a regular OPS of .835, batting .290 with 30 doubles, 20 home runs, 56 walks, 85 RBI in 138 games. If he put up similar numbers over a full season this coming year, I think people would be relieved, if not happy.

As I prepared to examine Beltre's career, I was not expecting to find anything encouraging. I wasn't aware that a decline at a young age so commonly preceded a rejuvenation. So even though this is nothing to bet the house on, I can afford a little more optimism that Beltre will at least have a better season this year than last.

Just before publishing this, I received my Baseball Prospectus 2003 yearbook in the mail. Using a system that in evolution is like space travel to my using a Big Wheel, Nate Silver and his colleagues are predicting Beltre to show a slight improvement.

The numbers unadjusted for park effects don't look that glamorous: .268 batting average, .328 on-base percentage, .434 slugging percentage, .762 OPS, 18 homers, so the mainstream fan might not be appeased.

Still, all those people waiting for Beltre to come around, like me, may finally be rewarded for their patience - whatever patience they have left.

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