Like every Mariners fan, I was both frustrated and disappointed with the lack of production the team got from its superstar free agent third baseman last year.
Like many Mariners fans, I was surprised by his struggles, and left wondering what happened.
Like some Mariners fans, I thought an explanation might be found by looking at his statistics.
Like zero Mariners fans, I found myself staring at a page full of numbers from Baseball Info Solutions in my pursuit of an answer.
Now, I was only able to obtain these numbers under the condition that I promise not to publish them, and for that I apologize. But just because I can't share the exact figures doesn't mean I can't share my general observations. So let's go ahead and play the Dispel Certain Myths About Adrian Beltre game!
Beltre's biggest problem was the low-and-away slider. This pitch was a problem, yes, but sliders only accounted for roughly a fifth of the pitches he faced, and the same goes for his plate appearances. He had a much bigger problem, which I'll mention in a minute.
Beltre chased that low-and-away slider because he'd had success against it in the past. Incorrect. Adrian Beltre has never been anything even close to resembling a competent hitter on balls out of the strike zone, so that's not a valid explanation.
Beltre's breakout season was due in large part to terrific control of the strike zone. Beltre actually had fewer of his plate appearances end on pitches out of the zone in 2002 than he did in 2004. In other words, he didn't flip out because he was swinging at fewer balls.
Beltre is totally fooled by anything offspeed. While he's pretty helpless against curveballs, Beltre has been at his best when hitting changeups over the past four years (which is as far back as the numbers go). He was actually the 10th best hitter in the AL against changeups last year, with similar success in 2002-2004.
Even with his problems against bad pitches, Beltre was still able to crush balls in the zone last season. Beltre's BPS (BA + SLG) against strikes dropped nearly 350 points between 2004 and 2005, sinking pretty close to where it was in 2002.
Beltre does a lot of damage to fastballs. I already kind of disproved this with the two most recent answers, but this is something that I feel needs to be stated as clearly as possible - Adrian Beltre was not a good fastball hitter in 2005. He wasn't even close to doing what he did in his breakout season. This is a problem, and one might argue his biggest one, considering that fastballs make up three-fifths of the pitches he sees in a season. To put it another way, here's part of what Dave had to say when he saw the numbers: "The enduring memory for me is not him chasing the low-and-away slider, but missing the very hittable pitch." That's not the kind of thing you like to see from the biggest free agent in franchise history.
More than anything else, the numbers I got from BIS make two things abundantly clear: (1) Beltre's big 2004 explosion came at a time when he was absolutely crushing both fastballs and sliders more than he ever had before in his career, and (2) his success against those two pitches came to an abrupt end in 2005. Meanwhile, his success against curveballs and changeups remained fairly stable.
There has to be a connection between Beltre's success against fastballs and sliders, but the trick is figuring out what, exactly, that connection is. And the short of it is that, right now, I don't know. I can sit here and tell you that Beltre's key to having a good season is being able to hit those two pitches, but I can't tell you why that is, or even in what order he needs to start hitting them. All I can do is hypothesize.
Is it an arm action thing? That seems unlikely, given that changeups, sliders, and fastballs are all thrown with pretty much the same arm speed and release point. If he's hitting the changeups, you'd think he'd be on top of the other two, as well. Is it a pitch recognition problem? This one seems a little more probable; sliders and fastballs, especially of the two-seam variety, can look very similar out of the hand, making it difficult to discern between the two. This might explain why Beltre was always looking fastball on those low-and-away sliders early in the season, and then swinging late on fastballs in the zone during the summer. Perhaps he became so committed to laying off the slider that he started expecting it on every pitch, forcing him to miss hittable fastballs.
If this is the problem, I can't help but think that a little familiarity with the league could help Beltre out. As he gets more experience against AL pitchers, maybe he'll start to pick up on the difference between certain guys' fastballs and sliders earlier on, enabling him to have better success at the plate. I'm skeptical, and it feels like I'm really reaching for something to grab onto here, but I don't want to face the possibility that our 27 year old third baseman had one of the biggest fluke seasons in the history of baseball immediately before signing with the Mariners. I want to say that's not true. I want to say that Beltre just had a bad year last season, that it can happen to anyone, and that he'll take off again in 2006. I just don't know how to back it up. At least he's still young, right?
When I requested these numbers from BIS, I anticipated being able to make a post declaring that I had figured out what went wrong with Adrian Beltre last year, and why he'll rebound in a big way in 2006. Looking back, I don't know what I was expecting. Even if they gave me a clear and complete illustration of why he tanked so bad, how could I take that to mean that he'll bounce back to where he was in 2004? It's hard enough to describe the past without having to explain why it's suddenly going to reverse itself in the future.
Here's what we know: where good Adrian Beltre is able to destroy fastballs and sliders, bad Adrian Beltre isn't. However, I'm not quite sure why that is, and educated guesses are the best I can do. Don Baylor couldn't figure it out, either, but he's gone now, replaced by a guy whose most famous achievement is turning a similarly frustrating player in Sammy Sosa into a competent hitter. So Godspeed, Jeff Pentland. This is your top assignment for at least the next calendar year. For the sake of Mariners fans everywhere, I sure as hell hope you know what you're doing better than the last guy.