Baseball 88: Carlos Beltran

One reason I'll never be a true sabermetrician -- there are many reasons having to do with intelligence and understanding of stats, this is only one -- is that I can't help but root for outcomes. I'll usually begin a "study" (using that term loosely) with the hope of proving something that I believe to be true, and I'll be annoyed if the data doesn't back up my thesis, and then I'll get frustrated because I'm SURE I was right and the numbers HAVE TO BE wrong, and I'll fight with this for way longer than a serious person should.

That's not how sabermetricians work. But, as mentioned, I'm a poor imitation.

I, of course, wanted Carlos Beltran in my Baseball 100 because Beltran is the greatest every-day baseball player I covered intently from start to finish. This is one of the joys of sports, of life: the joy of discovering someone or something early, first, before the hype blows up, before the world catches up. One of the coolest things on earth is being among the first to like a band that eventually hits it big.*

*When I was a columnist in Augusta, Ga., a group of us became fans of a band called "Donkey." They were this great swing band out of Atlanta back in the "Swingers" phase of music, and I thought for sure that they were going to hit it big. I guess it's not going to happen. The world missed out.

The point is, I wanted Carlos Beltran in the Baseball 100, but I absolutely didn't want to skew the system to get him in there. So -- and this isn't fair to Beltran, but I did it anyway -- I went the other way. I weighed him down with a couple of penalties that he probably didn't deserve just to prove to myself that I wasn't helping him.

He ended up No. 88 on the list anyway.

If I had treated Beltran like everyone else, he would have found himself in the 60s.

There really is no doubt in my mind that Beltran is one of the 100 greatest players in major league history, even though I imagine that to many people he doesn't seem to be that good.

The thing about Beltran is that when he was truly great, the perception wind was blowing against him. It was only when he started closing in on various career achievements -- after he had become a limited player -- that Beltran started getting his due. It's a strange part of baseball. Craig Biggio was like that. Adrian Beltre is like that (though Beltre remains entirely awesome). I wonder if CC Sabathia will be like that.

We seem to have a hard time appreciating greatness while in the moment. We get it only when it's gone. Maybe that's not just baseball.

When Carlos Beltran was at his best, his very best, he brilliantly did everything that a baseball player can do. We talk all the time about five-tool players, but as I've written about many, many times, there are more than five tools and, more importantly, there are just not many players in baseball history who truly could do EVERYTHING.

Let's use WAR's runs above average for three categories:

  1. Batting runs above average

  2. Fielding runs above average

  3. Baserunning runs above average

That doesn't cover everything, obviously, but it's a pretty good starting point -- you have hitting, running and fielding. If you look closely enough at those three things, you'll find not only the five tools (hitting, power, speed, defense, and arm) but also a few things that aren't on the tools list (the ability to get on base, instincts on the bases, etc.).

OK, so for Carlos Beltran through age 31, you get this:

Batting: 156 runs above average

Fielding: 71 runs above average

Baserunning: 57 runs above average

How good is that? Well, I can tell you -- it's ridiculously good. Only two players since 1900 finished their careers with 150 batting runs, 50 fielding runs and 50 baserunning runs -- Willie Mays and Rickey Henderson. That is IT.

But, as you probably guessed, that's how many players finished their career above those markers. What about players who reached the markers and then, because of age and their declining years, fell below them?

In other words: How many players since 1900 have achieved 150-50-50 at any point in their careers?

Answer: Five.

-- Henderson got there by age 30 and stayed there.

-- Mays got there at age 32 and stayed there.

-- Max Carey got there at 36 but then had a terrible offensive season for two teams (.231/.294/..300) and never again got to 150 batting runs. He's still in the Hall of Fame.

-- Ichiro got there by age 36, but then had a whole series of sub par offensive seasons (he hit .268/.310/.343 over the last 1,000 or so games of his career) and dropped well below 150 batting runs.

-- Carlos Beltran got there by age 31 and he just kept on hitting. But his speed began to go, and so his brilliant outfield defense began to fray. He finished with 264 batting runs, which is 42nd in baseball history. He finished with 54 baserunning runs, which is 11th all-time. But he did drop to 36 fielding runs, which is just outside the Top 100.

[caption id="attachment_23577" align="aligncenter" width="454"] You want a complete player? Beltran was it.[/caption]

For a decade, Beltran was everything. He was the best centerfielder. He was the best baserunner. He wasn't quite the best hitter*, but he was good for 100 runs and 100 RBIs just about every year, and he hit with power; he's 27th all-time in doubles and 46th all-time in home runs.

*You could argue that he was the best hitter in 2006, when he hit .275/.368/.594 with 41 homers, 127 runs, 118 RBIs, etc. But that was his career year. He did have another year with 38 homers and 42 stolen bases. Man, he was good.

The thing about Beltran's prime is that it was clouded by three effects that shaped how people saw him -- this is that "perception wind" I talked about above.

Effect 1: He played his first few years for Kansas City, when the Royals were terrible and practically invisible. It seemed like nobody knew how good he was and nobody cared. When he went to Houston in 2004 and had his playoffs for the ages, many acted like he had come down from outer space. "OK, but you didn't know he was THIS good," people would say to us poor K.C. shleps. But we did.

Effect 2: Beltran struck out looking with the bases loaded to end the 2006 National League Championship Series, leading to the "Swing the bat, Carlos," motto that followed him for the rest of his career.

Effect 3: Beltran was a unicorn, a player so graceful that he made it look too easy. He seemed to be cruising at about 85% of his potential, and so the constant storyline that hounded him was: "He should be better." I recall former GM Steve Phillips once criticizing Beltran for various intangible and unprovable crimes (not making enough "plays," not being a leader, not coming through in the clutch) and that was sort of the general vibe that people felt about Beltran.

Right around that same time, a longtime baseball official said, "We will never know how good Carlos Beltran could have been if he actually liked baseball."

It wasn't fair, and it wasn't true. I talked with Beltran about it a couple of times, once in his hometown in Puerto Rico, and he sort of accepted that people would never see his passion for baseball. "I play the way I play," he said, with a shrug. "I love baseball, but maybe I don't show it enough for some people."

I've written about Beltran so many times ... so let me try to just talk about watching him run from first to third. There's so much wonder in watching a brilliant baserunner go first-to-third; I was thinking about this while watching Mookie Betts do it in the postseason. There's a moment in our movie that they show daily at the Baseball Hall of Fame, where the line is something like, "If you are poet, baseball has a certain rhythm to it." And (in one of my few contributions to the film) I said to director Jon Hock, "Clemente! When we talk about poetry we have to show Clemente running first to third."

And it's utterly perfect, if I do say so myself. (And I do!)

Beltran didn't run from first to third. He soared. He glided. In Kansas City, in those early days, Beltran would get on first base and someone like Joe Randa or Mike Sweeney or Raul Ibanez would rifle a single to right, and Beltran would break through some sort of time portal. His feet barely seemed to touch the ground. It was this gorgeous optical illusion; Beltran moved so much faster than the motion of his body suggested possible.

More than the sheer elegance of it was the perfection. It really was the perfect run. I'm sure that if you clocked players, Beltran wasn't the fastest man in baseball history -- he might be Top 100 or something, but I'm sure that Willie Wilson and Billy Hamilton and Vince Coleman and any number of other players could have outrun Beltran, even at his fastest.

But it isn't about speed: Think Jerry Rice. There were a lot of receivers that were faster than him. Rice's gift was the genius of precision; he ran routes so exactly that they said he stepped in his own spike marks. And that was Beltran too, his jump utterly perfect, the way he cut the turn at second base utterly perfect, the way he turned first-to-third into the closest possible approximation of a straight line, the way he slid at the end -- pure, flawless, dazzling, perfection.

I would hear people complain about Carlos Beltran for whatever reason ...

... and I would think, "Have you not seen this man go from first to third?"

Beltran did garner appreciation in the last few years of his career, when he became the old man, particularly in his time on the Yankees and Astros. They finally appreciated his love for the sport, after he'd played through too many injuries, when he kept coming back and performing even with his body wrecked. And then the big numbers started falling, 400 homers, 500 doubles, 1,500 RBIs, 1,500 runs, 300 stolen bases, just those five career totals put him there with Mays, Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez. Those are the only players who have 400 homers, 500 doubles, 1,500 RBIs, 1,500 runs and 300 stolen bases.

On top of that, there are fun ways that you can manipulate those numbers.

400 homers, 500 doubles, 50 triples, 1,500 RBIs, 1,500 runs -- only Beltran, Bonds and Mays.

400 homers, 550 doubles, 1,500 RBIs, 1,500 runs -- only Beltran and Bonds.

400 homers, 500 doubles, 1,500 RBIs, 1,500 runs, fewer than 50 times caught stealing -- only Beltran.

But to manipulate the numbers is not the best way to tell the Beltran story. Beltran was not as good as Bonds, Mays or A-Rod. There's a pretty clear gap there.

The story is that Carlos Beltran was a unique player. How many terrific players in baseball history can make you honestly ask: Was he at his very best as a hitter, fielder or baserunner? It's a very short list. Carlos Beltran is on it.