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Community Projection: Adrian Beltre

The first in an alphabetical and irregularly updated series of seasons-in-review for each of the players we predicted last winter. (All entries are linked in the right-hand sidebar, below the LL Exclusives.)

Projection: .280/.340/.494 (n=22)

Actual: .268/.328/.465

Not a bad projection by any means - the isolated patience (OBP - BA) was spot-on, and the rest only missed by eight hits and 18 total bases. That's well within the range of statistical error. Incidentally, Beltre's predicted performance was almost identical to his park-adjusted batting line, available on his Baseball Prospectus player card. Beltre's long been considered one of the more unpredictable hitters in baseball, but I'd say the LL community handled him pretty well in 2006.

Actually, now that I think about it, does Beltre really deserve the "unpredictable" label? I mean, just look at what some of the other more prevalent projection systems out there had to say about his 2006 season:

PECOTA: .275/.324/.474
ZiPS: .269/.321/.463
Bill James Handbook: .274/.331/.479

Everyone was in the same ballpark, and if you average out the four projected performances, you come out with a batting line that's only 20 combined points of BA/OBP/SLG off what he actually did. I think that's kind of remarkable, considering how difficult it is to predict what Beltre's going to look like on a day-to-day basis. I suppose the lesson to be learned is that, while no one knows what he's going to do on any given day during the season, by the end his slumps and hot streaks all add up to a line right around what you expected. Streakiness and predictability aren't mutually exclusive as long as you have a broad enough timeframe. But maybe that's just hindsight.

It's probably not a coincidence that the LL community expected Beltre to do better than any of the other systems. I don't want to say it stems from a sort of fanboy bias, because we're better than that, but at the same time I think we all have so much invested in his success that the contract and excitement generated by his signing have raised the level of expectations above what a more objective system would have to say. When you enter a season pencilling Beltre into the middle of the order, you're going to hope that he does well so much that it begins to rub off on your predictions, whereas, say, PECOTA looks at his track record and player comps and spits out a line free of emotional influence. It's easy to disregard what a projection system has to say by claming that, as a fan, you know more about a given player than a computer program, but it's important to remember that the best indicator of future performance is past performance. I think we're all guilty of forgetting that sometimes and getting a little carried away with the optimism. 16 of the 22 Beltre predictions gave him an SLG above .475, which he'd only done once in eight seasons prior to 2006. It made sense at the time, but we can probably learn something from this.

I think another issue that comes into play that's sort of unique to Beltre is the nature of his streakiness. When he's in a slump he swings at eh-heh-heh-heh-hevvvvvvvvverything and looks like the worst hitter in baseball, but when he's going well he looks positively unbeatable. And, as Mariner fans, we have a tendency to remember the good times a little better than the bad ones, which can drive our predictions higher. Not only that, but when he slumps there's always an excuse, like it's something he'll work his way out of so that it never happens again. Talk to some people and chances are they'll tell you that, when Beltre was absolutely miserable for the first two months of the season, he was just "adjusting (to something)," and as soon as he got it fixed he went off on a tear. As tempting as it is to believe this, though, Beltre's always had bad months and great months for as long as he's been in the Majors, so why should this particular season be any different? Being streaky is just part of who Adrian Beltre is as a hitter. Sure, there's the chance that he keeks up a hot streak for an entire season like he did in 2004, but he could also do just the opposite, which no one wants to acknowledge. And odds are he just ends up somewhere in the middle, like he did in 2006.

There are reasons to be optimistic about Beltre going into 2007. For one, he'll turn 28 next April, so he's still in the middle of his career peak, with the potential for further development and very little chance of decline. For another, he worked around a few slumps (remember the Detroit series?) to post terrific numbers down the stretch this year, proving that he can be successful without having to completely eliminate the occasional spells of cluelessness. Mind you, Beltre's always been a better second-half hitter (much like Richie Sexson, albeit to a lesser degree), but it's still something that you like to think can carry over into the following spring.

That's all well and good, but still there exists an even greater reason to hope for better numbers next year. Unlike 98% of the rest of the league, Adrian Beltre doesn't have to elevate his game to become a superstar. He only has to sustain it. On any given morning, Beltre has the talent and ability to wake up and be the best hitter in the American League. We see it on the field from time to time, although it never lasts as long as we'd like. This is what allowed him to have that incredible 2004 and earn himself the big contract. There's always a chance that Beltre gets on one of his rolls and just doesn't let up for the rest of the summer, putting up numbers someone like Raul Ibanez or Kenji Johjima couldn't dream of having even at their best. And that's precisely what makes him both so exciting and such a source of frustration. We always expect him to have better numbers because, based on his raw ability, he should have better numbers.

I suspect this winter's community projection of Beltre's 2007 will come out looking pretty similar to the one for his 2006, as people look for some carryover of his second-half success. And as much as I'd like to sit here and tell you to proceed with caution, having been burned by the guy for pretty much two years in a row, I know I'm going to have to really think hard about how I expect him to look next year, because I still can't get a good handle on how to properly weigh his upside against deliberate objectivity on my part. I don't know if anyone can. Nailing this projection might be due as much to luck as anything else, because while everyone tends to hover somewhere around an established mean, Beltre's range of possible outcomes might be the widest in baseball.