January 7, 2005
BASEBALL: Crystal Beltran
With the Mets currently agonizing over whether to give Carlos Beltran a six or seven year contract, I thought it would be useful to take a season-by-season look at the career paths of the most-similar players to Beltran through age 27, as determined by Baseball-Reference.com. Looking at the comparable players, I eliminated 5 of the 10 who didn't, on a closer look, seem genuinely similar: Harold Baines and Gus Bell just weren't the kind of 5-tool athletes Beltran is, Jack Clark's legs were breaking down on him by age 27, Johnny Callison's career was already in decline at that age, and Gary Sheffield was always too good a hitter to be a useful comparison to Beltran. That leaves me with 5 guys who seem like much the same kind of all-around player as Beltran: Dave Winfield, Andre Dawson, Reggie Smith, Bobby Bonds, and Shawn Green. Beltran is a year younger than Winfield and Bonds were when they came to the Yankees and Smith when he left Boston for St. Louis, a year older than Green when he left Toronto for Los Angeles, and a few years younger than Dawson when he left Montreal for Wrigley. Let's look at how these five fared, on average, over the seven seasons from age 28 to 34 (leaving off Green after his age-31 season in 2004).
Notes - I multiplied Winfield's 1981 stats (age 29) by 1.5 to adjust for the strike. OBP includes HBP and SF, which are not displayed here.
Now, you can quibble with some of the particulars of the comparisons here - certainly none of these guys other than Bonds was the kind of base thief Beltran is, and Bonds got caught stealing about five times as often. Dawson also drags down the group's OBP. But overall, I think this is at least a useful experience-based look at how a guy like Beltran might age (especially when you factor in that if he came to Shea he'd be moving to a tougher place to hit, just as Smith, Green and Winfield did), and while the overall picture is one of consistent productivity, it's not spectacular.
None of these guys was as consistent season-to-season as they were when averaged out, not even Winfield - they had higher highs and lower lows. But one thing is clear: while it may be a business necesity to offer Beltran a seventh year to seal the deal, as a strictly baseball matter, you would really rather avoid paying him at age 34 if you can avoid it.
As a NY Mets Fan, I couldn't resist your comparative for Beltran. I hope Mets front office can get a view of your work.
One other point in Beltran's favor is that, for the most part, these guys weren't center fielders after age 27. Dawson and Smith (who had both been CFers for the early part of their careers) each had one season, and some of the others played there occasionally. As far as I know, there's no reason to expect Beltran to move any time soon. But, of course, you're right about the 7th year not being a very good idea.
Just out of curiosity, I looked at the similar lists for Bernie, Edmonds, Griffey and Andruw Jones. Griffey's is a lot better (7 HoFers). Bernie's is not as impressive (best player would be Ellis Burks or Amos Otis). Edmonds, who got a late start considering what he's done, is mostly recent players (although he does have Larry Doby and Pedro Guerrero). Andruw's is just plain weird (4 HoFers, including Eddie Mathews and Hank Aaron, Ron Santo, and Greg Luzinski?!?).
I always thought of him as a Johnny Damon or Claudell Washington with slightly more power
I sorted for post WWII CF through the age of 27 who hit HR at a rate of 1.5x the league average and stole bases at a rate of 3.0x the league average and found the following players who made the grade (name and number of seasons):
Cesar Cedeno - 4
Willie Mays - 4
Mickey Mantle - 3
Rickey Henderson - 2
Jimmy Wynn - 2
Carlos Beltran - 2
Duke Snider - 1
Vada Pinson - 1
Adolfo Phillips - 1
Roberto Kelly - 1
Jackie Jensen -1
Eric Davis - 1
That's a pretty interesting list, including three of the best CF in history. The outliers are probably Mays and Mantle at the high end and Phillips and Kelly at the low end, leaving Cedeno, Henderson, Wynn, Snider, Pinson, Jensen, and Davis as reasonable comps.
Cedeno and Davis were pretty much through by the age of 27 whereas Wynn, Snider, Pinson, and Jensen were good players through the ages of 31-33. Henderson was the only player who was still going strong at age 34 and that was really his last good season.
Even Mays and Mantle began to decline at around 35 and 32, respectively.
Players today seem to be taking better care of themselves so perhaps it isn't unreasonable to think Beltran could maintain his productivity through age 34, but there is no doubt you would be betting against history in hoping so.
My best comparison to Beltran is actually Carlos Lee. Check out my blog (a couple of posts down) for the stats, but aside from steals, they have very similar offensive stats. Ten million dollar difference in salary though