Carlos Beltran and the Inhibitors of Glory

Confession: while I enjoy no-hitters as much as most baseball fans, part of me wanted Johan Santana‘s no-hitter to get broken up. That impulse did not stem from a particular animus against Santana or the Mets. It most certainly did not stem from a liking for the Cardinals. In fact, the desire only reared its head when Carlos Beltran faced Santana. I thought it would be cool if Beltran rocked one out of the park in the midst of a dominating display. What can I say: I like watching Carlos Beltran, and I feel like he “deserves” to have some more memorable moments on the positive side of the ledger. I believe Beltran has a Hall-worthy resume already, but he also shares a few characteristics of the sort of players who get overlooked, which makes me wonder if he will be left out in the cold.

There is no sabermetrically-established hard-and-fast line for deserving induction into the Hall of Fame. To avoid repeating myself at length, I will refer you to some of my own past posts in which I discuss particular cases, such as those of Omar Vizquel (no) and the two halves of Rickey Henderson (yes, yes, and yes). A rough summary might be something like this: around at least 60 total career Wins Above Replacement, with at least three seasons of around seven or more wins, and several more excellent seasons. Along those lines, outfielder Andre Dawson‘s career provides a particularly good “baseline” for a Hall of Fame-worthy career:

I have used Dawson as a baseline before, for example, in discussing why I think that Johnny Damon‘s case for the Hall is pretty hilarious (no matter how much he openly campaigns for it). Indeed, it was looking at Damon in comparison with Dawson that made me wonder if Damon’s own fame (due to being a good player on some memorable championship teams) might end up getting him more votes than a much-more-qualified former teammate of his:

These graphs and WAR are not meant to be used here as a conversation stopper about the Hall. There are various uncertainties and limitations in such usage in his case and others (e.g., the uncertainty in defensive metrics relative to offensive metrics) that we could go into if that was the focus of this post (it is not). I do think that we can clearly see that one would need a lot of “fudging” to see Damon as being Dawson’s equal. More germane to this particular post, while Beltran has not had as many seasons, or as many “average” seasons as Dawson, his peak was both longer and superior.

My point in not so much to argue Beltran’s case. I think that Dawson was a fine (if not a slam dunk) admission into the Hall, and if he is a Hall of Famer, Beltran should be, too. However, I wonder if the shape of Beltran’s career might make his election more problematic than it should be. In this, I am loosely inspired by some of Bill James‘ comments in the New Historical Abstract.

Beltran does not have all of the characteristics James notes for classic underrated players, but he does have some of them. While most people think of Beltran as an excellent player in his prime, there is not one aspect of his game that stands out as incredible, at least not ones generally considered by voters. A .283 career batting average (so far) is good, but not mind-blowing. Beltran has had very good power (.215 ISO) so far, but he probably will need some luck with aging to reach 400 home runs (he is at .317 right now), and even then 400 home runs ain’t what they used to be. Beltran hit 30 home runs in three different seasons, including 41 in 2006 in power-unfriendly Shea, but voters have not paid that much attention to park effects. He stole a lot of bases in his younger days with a remarkable rate of success, but again, he was not a “specialist.”

Before age and injuries sapped his range, Beltran was generally thought of as a good center fielder, and he won three Gold Gloves, but he was never considered otherworldly in the field on the level of, say, Andruw Jones. Beltran is probably also hurt a bit by having to move off of center field the last few seasons because of age and injury, which makes it harder to remember just how good he was in center field. While players like Beltran can become great by being “only” very good at a lot of things rather than awesome at one, it also tends to make them less memorable to the voters.

Beltran is also held back by having some of his best years on some terrible (other than the wonderfully mediocre 2003 team, I guess) Royals teams. He did have a memorable and massive 2004 postseason run (.435/.536/1.022, 310 wRC+) after being traded to the Astros at the 2004 deadline, but they did not win the World Series, and so not many people remember that Astros team.

Of course, Beltran had a great run in the bright lights of New York with Mets. He probably had the best overall season of his career in 2006, but his series-ending strikeout in the NLCS against Adam Wainwright seems to have soured the memory of many about his generally great time in New York (yes, despite the injuries). Sure, the Mets might not have made it to Game Seven without Beltran’s .278/.422/.556 (162 wRC+) line in the playoffs that year, but that memory sticks.

[Just to hammer a point home, here is Carlos Beltran’s career postseason line: .366/.485/.817, .547 wOBA, 239 wRC+. He’s no David Eckstein, I guess.]

Going through that list of teams also points to another thing Beltran shares with players undervalued by the Hall voters: he has moved around a fair bit, being on his fifth team. This is generally not punishment for being a “hired gun” (indeed, Beltran has only signed two free agent contract; he has been traded twice), but makes associating a player with a particular place in the memory more difficult. It is not necessarily malicious, but it also is not really fair.

Perhaps if, like Johnny Damon or (to point to a Hall-worthy player) Curt Schilling, Beltran had been more glib, clever, and quotable, he would stick in the mind better. Maybe he should start a gaming company, but since he is not really associated with a particular franchise, I am not sure what pool of suckers investors or legislators would get behind him.

All of this is not to say that Beltran definitely will not get elected to the Hall of Fame. After all, his career is not over, and he is currently crushing the ball. Perhaps if he is part of another Cardinals’ run in the playoffs (which would be ironic given his past), he will garner more attention. Moreover, he has been an excellent player, and despite the oft-discussed exceptions, a big chunk (if not always sufficiently big) of voters tend to recognize that. Carlos Beltran has had a Hall of Fame career. Still, there are reasons to be concerned that not enough voters will have noticed it when his time comes.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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