Has Carlos Beltran been worth it?by Dave Studeman
February 14, 2011
There has been some talk lately that Carlos Beltran's contract with the Mets is a stinker, that Beltran hasn't been worth the big bucks he was given starting in 2005. Of course, most of this is based on perception and not any sort of real analysis, and I think that Beltran suffers from a "perceptual bias" related to a number of things:
- The "what have you done for me lately" syndrome, in which people put a lot of stock in Beltran's most recent injuried-plagued years and forget about the early years of his contract.
- Baserunning and fielding, which are difficult to value. Beltran has been among the best baserunners in the majors during much of his contract, as well as one of the best fielders at a critical position.
- Beltran's apparent nonchalance on the field. When things are going well, we call that "effortless grace." When things aren't going well, we call that "lack of desire."
- The Mets' failure during his best years. They have only made the playoffs once during Beltran's tenure, and they famously "choked" at the end of the 2007 and 2008 seasons. As a highly-paid leader, he is expected to take some of the blame for the team's failure.
- That hanging curveball from Adam Wainwright.
So let's right this wrong. Beltran may still have a year left on his seven-year megadeal with the Mets, but it's not too early to pass judgment on it. After all, we're all baseball fans here. Passing judgment is what we do.
The background: in early 2005, Beltran signed a seven-year deal with the Mets for $119 million. The deal was structured by year this way:
2005: $17 million ($10 million plus $7 million of his signing bonus)
2006: $14 million ($12 million plus $2 million of his signing bonus)
2007: $14 million ($12 million plus $2 million of his signing bonus)
2008-2011: $18.5 million a year
In order to pass judgment on Beltran's contract, I'm going to analyze his performance within the context of what an average free agent was paid each year of the contract. Some people might want to compare Beltran's deal to, say, David Wright's instead.
But that's not a fair comparison; the Mets spent money developing Wright and were given the luxury of paying him a minimal salary for the first six years of his major league career. New York had to go to the free-agent market to pull in a player of Beltran's caliber, and that should be the standard against which we measure him.
Part of Beltran's salary has been deferred at a set compound interest rate but, given the Mets' woeful situation with Bernie Madoff, I'm not going to begin to analyze that. There were some other perks, such as a suite in the home park and special rooms on the road. Most importantly, the Mets agreed not to trade Beltran, and they also agreed to refrain from offering him arbitration at the end of his contract.
No-trade clauses are a big deal, but it's very difficult to put a value on them. Not offering arbitration is also a big deal, and, thanks to work by THT's Victor Wang, we can estimate that giving up the right to offer arbitration can cost a team $3 to $5 million. We'll get back to that at the end of our study. First, let's look at Beltran's performance year by year.
In 2005, Beltran started his tenure with the Mets by playing in 151 games, batting .266/.330/.414 (BA/OBP/SLG) with 34 doubles and 16 home runs. He scored 83 runs and knocked in 78 as the Mets finished third in the NL East with an 83-79 record. Both Fangraphs and Baseball Reference translate those stats into a slightly below-average major league hitter.
However, Beltran was a very good clutch hitter in 2005. For instance, he batted .298/.385/.503 with runners in scoring position and .289/.360/.478 in "late and close" situations. It seems Beltran should get some credit for hitting when it counted.
Luckily, we have a stat that does that. According to Win Probability, Beltran batted .316/.362/.571 in high-leverage situations vs. .232/.295/.338 in low-leverage situations, and his overall offensive contribution was actually 1.5 wins above average. We can debate the use of WPA till the cows come home, and I readily acknowledge that WPA is not a perfect stat (no stat is). But, given Beltran's tremendous clutch performance in 2005, I'm going to use it instead of more generic batting stats.
Advanced fielding stats, such as UZR, John Dewan's plus/minus system and TotalZone, all agree Beltran was average or slightly below average in the field. He did play center field, a difficult position, for which he gets a bit of credit (about two runs above average). According to Baseball Prospectus, he was the fifth-best baserunner in the majors, which resulted in an additional six runs over average.
In general, it takes ten runs to turn a loss into a win so, adding up his bat, glove and legs, Beltran contributed two wins more than the average player in 2005. As you can tell, I'm rounding here because I don't want to pretend these stats are precise to the tenth. They're good approximations of value, so round numbers will suffice.
During the 2005, 2006 and 2007 seasons, I maintained a spreadsheet of every major league player, including his salary and lots of other things about him (such as whether he was a free agent, how many years of service he had, etc.). I also calculated each player's Win Shares Above Bench, which is a different method of calculating his "win value." I found that teams paid $4.2 million on the free agent market for each win above bench ("bench" roughly correlates with replacement level).
I can use that $4.2 million for wins above average too, because I'm treating salaries as a linear function of all wins above bench. For instance, you can multiply Beltran's two wins above average times $4.2 million for a total of $8.4 million. I also found that the average 2005 player signed as a free agent, given Beltran's playing time, would have had a value of $7.6 million. Add $7.6 and $8.4 million, and you get a total value of $16 million for Carlos Beltran, $1 million less than his actual take of $17 million.
2006 was a huge year for Carlos Beltran. He batted .275/.388/.594 with 41 homers and 38 doubles. He continued his clutch hitting, with .313/.449/.600 averages in high-leverage situations versus .236/.341/.528 averages in low-leverage situations. Therefore, I am once again most comfortable using his WPA batting total of five wins above average.
He was also apparently better in the field (about ten runs above average) according to all the fielding stats, and he continued his fine baserunning (four runs above average, according to BPro). Adding it all up, Beltran was about 6.4 wins better than the average major leaguer and finished fourth in MVP voting (really, he should have finished second).
According to my data, the average 2006 player signed as a free agent, given Beltran's playing time, had a value of $7.4 million. Teams paid $4.4 million for each additional win above average; in Beltran's case, that means $28 million above $7.4 million, for a total of $35.4 million. Beltran was actually paid $14 million in 2005—the Mets gained $21 million of extra value from Beltran in 2006.
Unfortunately, Beltran also helplessly watched an Adam Wainwright curveball break over the plate to end the National League Championship Series. His fantastic season would be marred by that one singular image for many Met observers.
2007 was another excellent year for Beltran. He batted .276/.353/.525 overall, with 33 home runs and 33 doubles. This time, he didn't shine in the clutch, and his WPA was "just" two wins above average.
The fielding stats are split on Beltran's performance: John Dewan's plus/minus system ranked him the second-best center fielder in the majors, 13 runs above average. TotalZone also liked him a lot, but UZR gave him just 2.9 runs above average. On the basepaths, BPro again credited him with four runs above average. I'm going to call it three wins above average in total.
Free agent salaries inflated dramatically in 2007, on a value basis. According to my calculations (which I made available online), teams paid free agents $5.1 million for every win above bench level, a 21% increase over 2006.
Given Beltran's playing time, the average major leaguer who had been signed as a free agent would have been worth $8.9 million in 2007. When you add in Beltran's three additional wins at $5.1 million a win, Beltran's total 2007 value equals $24.2 million. He was paid $14 million, so the team came out $10 million ahead.
Unfortunately, the Mets finished a game behind the Phillies for the NL East crown, losing six of their last seven games after being up by seven games in early September. Beltran had a good final month for the Mets and hit three home runs that final week. But it wasn't enough to pull them into the postseason.
You may have questions about my use of season-specific salaries and values to determine the value of a specific contract signed several years before. Those are legitimate questions, but I think this approach is most appropriate. Free agent salary values soared in 2007 because young players—those not eligible for free agency—became a force in the majors. Their value pulled down the value of free agents without pulling down their salaries. Beltran, on the other hand, continued to perform exceptionally well, and this approach gives him the appropriate credit for it.
Beltran had his last injury-free season in 2008, batting .284/.376/.500 with 27 home runs and 40 doubles. His clutch stroke seemingly returned, as he hit .313/.404/.550 in high-leverage situations versus .266/.362/.475 in low-leverage situations for a batting WPA of 5.0. All the systems agree that his glove was outstanding, contributing 10-15 runs above average and BPro credits him with seven runs more than average on the basepaths. Adding it all up, 2008 ranks as Beltran's finest year, seven wins above average.
Unfortunately, I didn't keep detailed payroll information in 2008, but I'm going to assume that teams kept their salaries steady at $5 million a win from free agent players. The average 2008 major leaguer who signed as a free agent would have been worth $9.6 million. Beltran was seven wins above average, for an extra $35 million, or $44.6 million. He was paid $18.5 million, so the Mets gained an extra $26.1 million in value.
The Mets once again failed to make the playoffs after leading in early September, but you can't blame Beltran for that swoon. September was his best month, as he batted .344/.440/.645 with significantly positive WPA totals in each of the Mets' critical last five games.
Beltran played in just 81 games in 2009—the Mets' first in Citifield—but he posted his best averages that year: .325/.415/.500 with ten homers and 22 doubles. He even batted .325/.415/.500 in high-leverage situations for a WPA of 2.0. He was only average in the field and on the basepaths (which could be interpreted as a sign of aging or the impact of injuries), so we'll stick to two wins above average in total.
I'll keep free agent salaries at $5 million per win over bench. Given Beltran's limited playing time in 2009, the average free agent would have been worth $4.9 million. Adding two wins above average at $5 million per win results in a total of $15 million, $3.5 less than he was paid.
Last year was not a good year for Carlos Beltran. He batted .255/.341/.427 while playing just 64 games and was an average WPA batter. The fielding stats all agree that he was probably slightly below average in center field. His baserunning was also below average. I'm going to call him one-half win below average in the time he did play.
Keeping free agent salaries at $5 million once again, the average free agent player would be worth $3.6 million, given Beltran's playing time in 2010. Beltran's value was $2.5 million below that (one-half of $5 million) so his overall value was $1 million. He was paid $18.5 million.
Summing it up
Adding up the first six years of Beltran's seven-year deal, we get the following value totals per year:
2005 -$1 2006 $21 2007 $20 2008 $26 2009 -$4 2010 -$18 Arbitration -$5 Total: $39Using this approach, Carlos Beltran has been worth $39 million more than his $119 million contract. Even if he doesn't play at all in 2010, even if he goes all Roberto Alomar and ends his career with a plunge, Beltran will not waste away that excess value next year.
From 2006 through 2008, Carlos Beltran was the best player in the National League not named Pujols. His combination of hitting, batting eye, power, speed, baserunning smarts, fielding prowess and clutch hitting made him an extraordinary performer. It is very difficult to fault him for the Mets' collapses in 2007 and 2008. In fact, he was one of the few Metropolitans to step up to the challenge.
In early 2005, I thought the Mets had made a fine deal for themselves. If you don't want to follow the link, this was my conclusion:
OK, so is Beltran worth $17 million a year? Over the last four years, Beltran has racked up 27, 22, 28 and 31 Win Shares. I see no reason why he can't deliver 25 to 30 Win Shares annually over the next four to five years. Based on his Fair Market Value, he is worth $17 million a year if he can average 29 Win Shares a year. It's a stretch, but it's not unreasonable.I've gotten a whole lot of things wrong in the years I've been writing about baseball, but, in retrospect, I got this one right.
Those sixth and seventh years are another matter. Beltran will be 34 years old in the seventh year of this contract, the same age as Alomar when the Mets acquired him from the Indians. On the other hand, Jim Edmonds was 34 this past year. And he was pretty good. Still, seven years is a big risk. If you're upset about anything with this contract, get upset about the length, not the money.
Addendum: the Mike Cameron scenario
According to typical "replacement level" standards, a player who can play an average center field has added two or three runs more than the average major leaguer. But you may recall that the Mets already had a pretty good center fielder, name of Mike Cameron, who had signed a three-year deal (with an option year) for considerably less money just the year before. The Mets moved Cameron to right to make way for Beltran, which resulted in that terrible outfield collision in August.
So, really, Beltran was replacing a typical right fielder in this specific situation, which is something that didn't really come into play in my analysis. I just sort of ignored that angle, because it really wouldn't have affected the final conclusion.
In November, the Mets traded Cameron to the Padres for Xavier Nady. Nady lasted just half a year with the Mets, when he was traded to the Pirates for Roberto Hernandez and, um, Oliver Perez. Cameron had four fine years with the Padres and Brewers. Hernandez had a decent half year for the Mets; Perez had one fine year and has stunk ever since, at a very high price.
If you want to argue that the Mets shouldn't have signed Carlos Beltran, this is the angle you want to pursue. Cameron had some fine years at a good price at the same time Beltran was having his superstar years at a high price. Plus, the Mets might have avoided the nightmare that is Ollie Perez if they hadn't signed Beltran (or given him a no-trade clause).
It's a big stretch, and I wouldn't go there. But it's a better argument than the performance angle.
References and Resources
Bill Petti's post at Beyond the Boxscore inspired this study.
I purposely chose not to use Wins Above Replacement for this article even though it is widely used for baseball salary analyses. I wanted to dig below the surface and show you my specific reasoning for each calculation.
You might be concerned that I'm using Win Shares to establish my salary standards but other stats for for measuring performance. That's a legitimate concern, but not a big one in my book. Win Shares and WAR (not to mention WARP and other value measurements) sometimes differ a lot for individual players, but they generally all come to the same conclusions on a macro level.
You also may be concerned that I measured each player against average and not replacement level. Never fear—I built replacement level into my calculations for "salary for an average player." Specifically, I assumed that "wins below bench" cost only the major league minimum salary for each player.
All of the stats quoted were found on the Fangraphs and Baseball Reference pages.
Dave was called a "national treasure" by Rob Neyer. Seriously. Comments about this article can be sent to him through the miracle of e-mail.