After nearly a decade of rumors fitting him for pinstripes, Carlos Beltran has officially become a Yankee by inking a three-year, $45 million contract. Beltran, entering his age 37 season, isn't the same all-around superstar who once complemented his big bat with high-percentage base thievery and gliding, Gold Glove-caliber defense in the outfield. The same can be said at the plate -- he's not the same hitter he used to be. But in this case, his production hasn't suffered much as a result.
Beltran has shown a keen eye during his big league career, posting a double-digit walk rate nine times in sixteen seasons. But as the switch-hitter has crossed his mid-30's, he has turned into more of a hacker: his unintentional walk rate dipped from 10.7 percent in 2011 to 8.1 percent in 2012 and 6.2 percent this past year. The last time Beltran drew so few walks was 1998, when he was a 21-year-old blue-chipper getting a late-September look with the Royals. Yet Beltran is still raking, putting up a park-and-league adjusted OPS 54 percent above average in '11, and 28 percent above average in both '12 and '13. What gives?
Turns out, the Yankees' latest mercenary replacement for Robinson Cano has expanded his strike zone against "soft" pitches -- curveballs, sliders and changeups -- while still doing damage against those offerings. Those extra chases haven't helped Beltran, but he has offset them by also becoming more aggressive on breaking and off-speed stuff thrown within the strike zone.
Here's Beltran's swing rate against soft pitches over the past three seasons. You'll note two key changes in Beltran's approach: he's chasing more curves, sliders and changeups thrown below the knees, but he's also letting it rip more often on soft stuff thrown high in the strike zone:
Beltran's swing rate vs. soft pitches, 2011
Beltran's swing rate vs. soft pitches, 2012
Beltran's swing rate vs. soft pitches, 2013
In 2011, Beltran's chase rate versus curves, sliders and changeups (29 percent) was comfortably below the major league average (32 percent). But he has lunged at more soft stuff in both 2012 (35 percent) and 2013 (38 percent). Bad things tend to happen when hitters swing at soft pitches thrown off the plate (they slugged a collective .197 on those offerings from 2011-13), and Beltran is no exception (his three-year slugging percentage is .235).
While Beltran has shown less patience on soft stuff thrown out of the zone, he has simultaneously become more discerning -- and deadly -- on piches tossed over the plate. Beltran's swing rate on in-zone breaking and off-speed pitches has climbed from around 71 percent in 2011 and '12 to 75 percent in 2013 (the MLB average is about 65 percent). Great things tend to happen when hitters swing at in-zone curves, sliders and changeups (.492 slugging percentage), and Beltran is once again no exception: he slugged .535 in 2011, .572 in 2012, and .582 in 2013.
Carlos Beltran has shown less ability to lay off breaking and off-speed pitches thrown outside of the strike zone, leading to more weakly hit grounders and fly balls. But he has become better at knowing when to take a cut at soft stuff thrown inside of the strike zone, leading to more drives that split the gaps or clear the fence. The result has basically been a wash. Beltran is a more aggressive hitter than he used to be, though not a worse hitter. He's just different.