Yeah, it's not a perfect comparison. Carlos Beltran played center, Jayson Werth plays right. Beltran was stealing 30-40 bases a year, Werth generally only snags around 15-20. Beltran's career K rate sits around 15%, Werth's is nearly 10% higher than that. So in general, you can take away from this that Carlos Beltran was a better player in his prime that Jayson Werth has been in his.
But just shake those things off for a moment, and think about the similarities between these two guys as they signed their big free agent contracts. Hitting free agency, both Beltran and Werth were big-name outfielders, guys that also improved their reputations through recent, strong postseason performance. They both signed massive contracts for the same term length, seven years, and for similar guaranteed money, with Werth getting $126 million and Beltran receiving $119 million. In essence, these are two deals that could be regarded as fairly similar investments.
And somehow, both players proceeded to put up some incredibly disappointing numbers in their debut seasons with their new teams, putting up shockingly similar numbers across the board.
Most people already know about the Beltran story by now. He had a monster postseason with the Houston Astros in 2004, firmly establishing himself as one of the best players in the game, and the Mets rewarded him with a seven-year, $119 million deal. Over the previous four seasons, he had proven to be an elite player: from 2001-2004, Beltran averaged 6.1 wins above replacement each season.
But 2005 was a shocking disappointment for Beltran. His numbers plummeted across the board, with his WAR dropping from 6.6 in 2004 to just 2.7 in 2005. After being an absolute monster at the plate one year before, Beltran completely devolved as a hitter. His walk rate went from elite to average. The same thing with his power, and his stolen base totals, too. Suddenly, he was just a normal regular, a roughly average hitter and a solid defender in center.
He would bounce back in a big way, though, putting up MVP-caliber numbers in 2006 while maintaining his status as an elite player for more than half of the contract. There are a few key differences between Beltran and Werth, though, and they're the kind of differences that should prevent Nats fans from expecting a similar resurgence from their costly outfield man.
First, let's just take a look at a few of Beltran's 2005 numbers in comparison to Werth's 2011 ones:
Okay, as I said before, these are two very, very similar seasons in terms of performance. Werth and Beltran essentially equal each other in terms of offense for these two respective seasons, while Beltran's positional advantage and slightly larger sample size manage to nudge him ahead of Werth in WAR. But generally speaking, you're looking at two odd, precipitous declines from the top of the hill.
Fortunately for the Mets, when Beltran struggled, everything pointed towards major improvement for the next season. But with Werth, you don't just see nearly as many of those positive indicators when you skim through his numbers. I'm wondering if this is where our comparison ends.
Above all else, let's just start with their ages. In 2005, Beltran was 28. He was smack dab in the middle of his prime. Right now, Werth is 32. This alone is a MASSIVE difference, one that really makes you wonder why the Nationals felt so comfortable committing to such a long, expensive deal.
But the things go beyond that. Beltran's walk rate decline basically made no sense; in the previous four seasons, that rate had increased from 8% to 10% to 12% to 13%. It was fairly obvious, even after 2005, that Beltran's future walk rates would be closer to 13% than to 8%. Beltran had seen similar improvements in other parts of his game, too, like avoiding strikeouts and power-hitting. After four consecutive years of major improvement, Beltran totally regressed in 2005; logically, you'd expect him to get back most of his mojo for the following season. And we all know he did.
Werth doesn't have that laundry list of good news, though. He's right at that point when many players begin to decline, as they enter their mid-30's. When we see his numbers dropping, it shouldn't be met with nearly the same sense of "What the hell is going on" as people met the Beltran decline with. I can't say for sure that Werth's bat is slowing down, but given what he's done this year it wouldn't surprise me if that's what scouts reported.
Let's be fair here, though. I'm not saying that Werth is done as a good player. Even this season, with all of his warts, he's still been a very solid everyday right fielder. He still plays good defense, runs the bases well and has solid on-base skills. But the top-notch power, along with consistently high BABIP marks, pushed Werth into the upper echelon. Given how far those two marks have dropped this season, you have to assume that he simply isn't hitting the ball as hard as he used to.
Maybe he'll improve like Beltran. In 2005, a major increase in groundball rate helped to explain the disappearance of Beltran's power. You can point to a similar culprit for Werth's 2011, as his GB rate has jumped from 37% to 43% this season. That's a whole lot of balls that can't be home runs, and are highly unlikely to turn into extra bases. But we can't just assume that this increase in grounders is a blip on the screen with someone that's as old as Werth. Maybe this is just how he's adjusting to a swing that doesn't feel as explosive as it did even a year ago. But he'll be better than he's been.
I'm sure there are some Nationals fans out there that look at Beltran's 2005 and think, "Hey, if he can bounce back after that year, why can't Werth do it, too?" And they're right. There's definitely a possibility that Werth gets back his power swing and fosters the rise of big baseball in Washington. But they should be fully aware that Werth has a much taller hill to climb than Beltran did.