Perhaps it was just never meant to be. That's what fans began to think in early April as Carlos Beltran came limping out of the gate. 10 years earlier, the Yankees told Beltran that they didn't want him as a free agent, even though he had just accumulated 6.4 fWAR for the Royals and Astros. Of course, they probably didn't look at WAR back then, but the 2004 Yankees had a grand total of zero good defensive outfielders in their everyday lineup. Instead, they traded for Randy Johnson and let Beltran go to the rival Mets.
Then, after their injury-riddled 2013 season, the Yankees signed Beltran to a three-year deal, putting the nail in the coffin of their plan to get under the luxury tax threshold. Beltran promptly hurt his elbow and could barely run to first base at full speed, which made fans wonder if he had anything left in the tank. He entered the 2014 season at 64.8 career fWAR, leading many to believe that he was playing his way out of the Hall of Fame.
To make matters worse, the Cardinals used their compensation pick to draft Jack Flaherty, a high school pitcher from California who was teammates with Nationals super prospect Lucas Giolito. Flaherty has pitched very well in the lower levels of the minors, and while he is still very far from the big leagues and was never going to be a Yankee anyway, it didn't exactly soften the blow of Beltran playing at a below-replacement level when they could have had another exciting prospect instead.
This April, with the bone spur finally behind him, Beltran still struggled. By the end of the month, Beltran had an ugly 85 wRC+ as a Yankee, but then a switch went off. Since May, his wRC+ has jumped to 146 entering yesterday's game against the Twins. He has hit 13 home runs in 276 plate appearances after hitting 15 in his previous 523 trips to the plate. While everyone wants to know what he is doing differently, a better question to ask is what isn't he doing differently:
Unfortunately, we don't have exit velocity stats from last season at our disposal, but since May 1, Beltran has the 36th highest average exit velocity among hitters with at least 75 balls in play. At 91.66 mph, Beltran is just under Tigers slugger JD Martinez and right above Nelson Cruz.
Still though, a hitter's average exit velocity is not a perfect measure of his bat speed. When a hitter makes poor contact, his exit velocity could be in the low 40's. The upper bound for hit velo usually lies around 120 mph, so pop ups and grounders to the pitcher can weigh a hitter's average value down. Looking at the percentage of batted balls hit at 100 mph or greater, Beltran is 17th since the start of May.
Carlos Beltran has rebounded in virtually every facet of hitting, but sabermetric stats aren't the reason the Yankees simply couldn't pass on the 36-year-old free agent with bad knees and terrible defense. Over his career, Beltran has a 1.128 OPS in the playoffs. His clutch gene has been on display recently, as he has hit multiple high-leverage home runs in what is sure to be a hotly contested division race. If the Yankees do manage to cross the finish line and reach the playoffs, look for their rejuvenated right fielder to be a major contributor to a long postseason run.
*Data is courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball Reference, and Baseball Savant.