Just nine days after tasting the champagne bubbly from his first World Series championship, Houston Astros designated hitter Carlos Beltran announced today that he will be retiring after a distinguished 20-year career in Major League Baseball.
Although he was almost exclusively a DH this year and a right fielder in the previous six, Beltran was a center fielder for the first fourteen seasons of his career, in which he produced the bulk of his Hall of Fame value. If you look at his “Cooperstown Cred” below, I think it’s fairly safe to say that we are looking at a future member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. There’s plenty of material from which to write the text for his plaque.
Coopertown Cred: Carlos Beltran
- Career: .279 BA, 435 HR, 1,587 RBI, 1,582 runs, 2,725 hits, 312 SB
- 4th most HR all-time for center fielders (behind Mays, Griffey, Mantle) (minimum 50% games played in CF)
- 4th most RBI all-time for center fielders (behind Cobb, Mays, Griffey)
- 4th most HR all-time for switch-hitters (behind Mantle, Murray, Chipper Jones)
- 3rd most RBI all-time for switch-hitters (behind Murray, Jones)
- Career SB success rate (86.4%) is best in MLB history (minimum 200 SB)
- 9-time All-Star
- 3-time Gold Glove winner
- 4th in 2006 NL MVP vote (41 HR, 116 RBI, 127 runs scored, 150 park-adjusted OPS+)
- Career post-season: .307 BA, .412 OBP, .609 SLG, 16 HR, 42 RBI in 256 PA
- 4th highest post-season OPS (1.021) in MLB history (min. 150 PA) (Ruth, Gehrig, Pujols)
- Career WAR: 69.8 (best for any CF not already in the Hall of Fame)
(cover photo: Houston Chronicle)
Career Highlights (played for six teams from 1998-2017)
Carlos Ivan Beltran, a native of Manati, Puerto Rico, was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the 2nd round of the 1995 player draft. Incidentally, this was the same draft in which the Toronto Blue Jays selected the late Roy Halladay in the 1st round.
Beltran climbed through the Royals’ minor league system fairly rapidly. He made his MLB debut at the age of 21 on September 14, 1988. The following spring, he won the team’s starting center field job, which moved another budding star (Johnny Damon) to left field. Beltran made an instant spash, winning the A.L. Rookie of the Year award with 22 home runs, 108 RBI, 112 runs scored and 27 stolen bases. He also made his mark defensively, leading all A.L. center fielders in assists and putouts (and, as it often is with rookies, in errors as well).
After injuries and a sophomore slump limited him to 98 games and a .247 batting average in 2000, Beltran blossomed into a star in 2001. For four years, Beltran exceeded 20 home runs, 100 RBI, 100 runs scored, and a .500 slugging percentage, one of only three players to do that each year between ’01 and ’04 (the others being Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez). He also became a superb base stealer. Including 2000, Beltran had a five-year run in which he stole 162 bases while only being caught 15 times (for a remarkable 91.5% success rate).
During his early years in the majors, Carlos labored in relative obscurity in Kansas City. The Royals were in perpetual rebuilding mode, finishing well under .500 in all of his seasons with the team. Although not the same caliber of all-around player, popular first baseman Mike Sweeney was the team’s “designated lone All-Star” every year from 2000 to 2003. Sweeney slumped in the first half of 2004 so Beltran finally landed his first All-Star berth.
With free agency looming after the 2004 season and the Royals not in the market for a nine figure player, Beltran was traded (on June 24) to the Houston Astros. At the time, the Astros had a 38-34 record. A little over two weeks later, at the All-Star break, they were 44-44 and 10.5 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the N.L. Central. Manager Jimy Williams was fired (replaced by Phil Garner) and the Astros proceeded to go on a 48-26 tear to edge into the playoffs as the wild card team, finishing with a 92-70 record that was one better than that of Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants.
During that second half 74-game push for the post-season, the Astros’ newly acquired center fielder scored 59 runs, slugged 17 home runs, drove in 41, and swiped 27 bases without getting caught a single time. Of course, it was in the 2004 playoffs that Beltran emerged from a career shrouded in obscurity and became a legend of October baseball.
As the 2004 playoffs began, you have to remember that the Astros had been perennial post-season bridesmaids. In the previous seven years, Houston was on the losing end of the N.L. Division Series four times, with three of those losses at the hands of the Atlanta Braves. The two future Hall of Famers on those Astros teams (Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio) had hit a combined .139 (in 108 at bats) in those four losses. The addition of a fourth “killer B” to the Houston lineup (the third being Lance Berkman) changed the Astros’ fortunes, with Beltran overshadowing his more famous teammates.
In the 2004 NLDS (again against Atlanta), Beltran hit .455, slugged 4 home runs, drove in 9 and scored 9 in the Astros’ five-game series win over Atlanta. In the decisive Game 5 (a 12-3 laugher), Beltran went 4 for 5 with 2 homers and 5 RBI. Although the Astros would fall in 7 games to the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS, Beltran was again the hitting star, hitting .417 with another 4 home runs and 12 runs scored.
All told, Beltran’s 8 post-season home run belts tied for the most in single post-season with Barry Bonds (who did it in 2002 with the benefit of also playing in the World Series). A post-season legend was born and Beltran parlayed his October success into a 7-year, $119 million contract with the New York Mets.
Beltran’s tenure in the Big Apple didn’t initially go well. A quadriceps injury bothered him for the most of the season and, despite playing 150 games, he slumped to a .266 average with 16 home runs, 78 RBI, 83 runs scored and 17 stolen bases.
Although Beltran rebounded in 2006 with his best-ever season (41 HR, 116 RBI, 127 runs, .982 OPS, park-adjusted for a 150 OPS+). For his overall game (which included 18 stolen bases and his first Gold Glove in center field), his 8.2 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) was the second best in the majors (to Pujols). He finished 4th in the N.L. MVP voting; Ryan Howard‘s 58 HR and 149 RBI won the day.
Of course, those of us who are fans of the Amazins will forever remember Beltran’s lowest career moment, the at bat in which he struck out looking against the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 9th inning in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS. The October star of 2004 actually had a respectable post-season for the Mets (a .978 OPS) but the enduring image is the team’s title hopes going down the drain with his bat on his shoulder.
Beltran followed his spectacular 2006 outing with two more top level seasons. Still, Carlos never really was able to shake the feeling among Mets fans that he was a disappointment and that feeling was reinforced by his injury plagued campaigns in 2009 (81 games played) and 2010 (only 64). In 2011 (the last year on his contract), the Mets were out of contention so, on July 28th, Beltran was traded to the defending World Champion San Francisco Giants. The Giants were up by 3 games in their bid to repeat. Alas, it was an odd-numbered year and San Francisco slumped, going 26-32 in their final 58 games, finishing four games out of the Wild Card chase.
Now 34 years old and a switch-hitting right fielder instead of a center fielder, there were no more nine figure contracts in the offing; Beltran inked a two-year deal with the St. Louis Cardinals, where he had two solid but unspectacular seasons. The capstone was in 2013 when the Redbirds made it to the World Series, Beltran’s first appearance in the Fall Classic. Beltran was just average with the bat (hitting .294 with no extra base hits and a .694 OPS); the highlight of Beltran’s maiden World Series was when he robbed David Ortiz of a grand slam home run with a catch right in front of the right field bullpen in the second inning of Game 1.
A free agent again at 36, Beltran returned to the Big Apple by signing a three-year contract with the New York Yankees. In the middle of 2016, with the Yankees not seriously contending for the playoffs, he was dealt to the Texas Rangers. The Rangers won the A.L. West but were bounced in the ALDS by the Toronto Blue Jays, swept in three games; Beltran went 2 for 11 with one RBI.
In December 2016, now at the age of 39, Beltran signed a one-year contract to return to Houston, the city that made him a star during their post-season run of 2004. Statistically speaking, Beltran’s swan song was not special. He hit .231 with 14 home runs, 51 RBI and a lowly .666 OPS; his value to the Astros was mostly in the clubhouse and in the dugout.
Long known for being a clubhouse leader, the Astros had brought him back to Houston in part to serve as the team’s designated hitter but also in part to be a mentor for the team’s crop of talented young players. From a recent Sports Illustrated piece, the Puerto Rico native has been instrumental in helping Latino players; he was a driving force in the move to have every team have a translator available for Spanish-speaking players.
The 2017 Astros won the N.L. West with 101 wins, the most in the American League. They won the ALDS over the Boston Red Sox in four games. In what was the final signature moment in his 20-year career, the 40-year old Beltran he delivered an RBI double off the Green Monster in the 9th inning of Game 4. The hit, off the Red Sox’ Craig Kimbrel, gave the Astros a needed insurance run in their 5-4 series-clinching victory.
In 2004, in the NLCS, the Houston Astros fell in a 7-game series to the St. Louis Cardinals despite a historic performance from their recently acquired switch-hitting center fielder. In that series, Beltran hit .417 with 4 home runs, 12 runs scored and a 1.521 OPS. The rest of the team did not match his excellence and the team fell a game shy of the Fall Classic. In 2017, the Astros prevailed over the New York Yankees in a riveting 7-game series and this time, his teammates carried their team leader on their proverbial backs. With two all-time classic extra inning wins, Houston outlasted the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 7-game World Series. It was the first World Championship for the Astros and the first ring, finally, for Carlos Beltran.
In this, one of the greatest team sports, one of the best post-season hitters in history went out with a whimper at the plate (he went 1 for 15 in the ALCS and World Series) but he went out a champion, thanks to his teammates.
Beltran has said that he planned to retire no matter what happened in the World Series. As for his future plans, he’s indicated a desire to one day be a big league manager. Besides the fact that he’s a popular clubhouse presence, he’s embraced the role of analytics in baseball decision-making, a crucial factor in the hiring of all MLB managers today.
The Hall of Fame Case for Carlos Beltran
It’s pretty clear to me that Carlos Beltran accomplished enough in his 20-year MLB career to warrant a Hall of Fame plaque. The chief argument against his candidacy is that he never won an MVP and was only in the top 10 of his league’s vote only two times; this will bother some voters. He never led the league in an offensive statistical category; there is no black type on the back of his baseball card. There will be others who will be unimpressed with his career batting average of .279 and totals of less than 450 home runs and less than 2,750 hits.
Frankly, the argument against Beltran’s Cooperstown plaque is pretty flimsy. I’m going to share a couple of graphics here that I think you’ll find interesting. This won’t take long. Before we get into it, please take a moment to scroll back to the top of this piece and look at the accomplishments. Then come back for the icing on the cake.
Welcome back from your scroll.
When the writers remember that he spent the majority of his productive career playing in center field, his career numbers are short only of legends like Ty Cobb, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Ken Griffey Jr. His career WAR is 69.8, which the 7th best in MLB history for center fielders (behind only the aforementioned four plus Tris Speaker and Joe DiMaggio).
Until the PED era, the benchmarks for an automatic Cooperstown plaque used to be 500 home runs or 3,000 hits. However, if a player achieved a second tier in both categories, that has also resulted in a plaque as well. That second tier is 400 home runs and 2,500 hits. Before getting into some more advanced metrics, let’s stick to the basics. Here is the list of the 11 players in the history of baseball who have at least 400 home runs and at least 2,500 hits who are not yet in the Hall of Fame.
|Courtesy Baseball Reference|
Not a bat list, eh? Bonds, Rodriguez, Ramirez and Sheffield are all tainted by PEDs. Jones is eligible for the Hall of Fame this year, as is Guerrero, who got 72% of the vote last year and is a near certainty to join the Class of 2018 with Chipper.
It’s easy to make lists with Carlos Beltran’s career. How about this one? There are six players in MLB history with 1,500 RBI, 1,000 extra base hits, 1,000 walks and 300 stolen bases. It’s Beltran, Bonds, A-Rod, and Hall of Famers Mays, Cobb and Speaker.
Or this one: there are five players in MLB history with 400 home runs, 2,500 hits and 300 stolen bases. Those five players are Bonds, A-Rod, Mays, Andre Dawson and Beltran.
The presence of Dawson on that list is significant. On Beltran’s Baseball Reference page, the #1 match for his Bill James “Similarity Scores” (see Glossary) is Dawson. Both players had power and speed. Both started their careers in center field before moving to right field. And both played for a long time. Take a look at their numbers, side by side.
(By the way, in case you’re wondering why you didn’t see Dawson’s name on the lists of “most home runs” or “most RBI” for center fielders, it’s because more than 50% of his starts were as a right fielder.)
Beltran has two advantages over Dawson. The first is that he was a much more efficient stolen base artist. The second is that he drew nearly 500 more walks, resulting in a higher on-base percentage. The fact that both players have an park-adjusted OPS+ of 119 is because OPS+ also adjusts for the overall hitting environments of each player. Offensive numbers in general were higher when Beltran played than when Dawson did although, we have to remember, all players from the PED look a little worse in OPS+ than perhaps they should because the steroid abusers boosted the average offensive statistics of the era.
The Hawk, an eight-time Gold Glover, was a better defensive player but Beltran was a better base runner. In total, the comparison of Beltran to Dawson is a fair one.
Now, it took Dawson nine ballots to be elected to the Hall of Fame. Is that a fair expectation for Beltran? My guess is “no.” While I wouldn’t expect Beltran to be a first ballot selection, he’s not far away from that. I would guess three to five ballots would be enough. There are a few reasons.
- Beltran has the wild card boost of being an outstanding post-season performer. Dawson only got two bites at October baseball and hit .186 in 15 games.
- Beltran finished his career on a positive note with a World Series ring. Although it was his teammates who did the heavy lifting, there’s still the psychological factor of finishing a long career on such a positive note.
- Beltran has the intangible factor of having being a switch-hitter. Essentially, when it comes to “most HR for ______” he gets to be on two lists, the center fielder list and switch-hitter list.
- Beltran spent about half of his career playing in New York City. Big Apple = Big Media.
- Beltran has the right WAR.
Finally, there’s WAR. Beltran’s career mark of 69.8 Wins Above Replacement is 7th best in MLB history for a center fielder. The names higher on the list? Mays, Cobb, Speaker, Mantle, Griffey, and DiMaggio, Hall of Famers all. (Incidentally, Beltran’s WAR was 70.4 before the 2017 but WAR is a counting stat that can count backwards. In his swan song this year, Beltran posted a -0.6 WAR. This is not uncommon for players in their final year).
A career WAR of 69.8 does not guarantee a Hall of Fame plaque. Pitchers Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina each have a career WAR of over 80 and they’ve both been languishing on the BBWAA ballot for years. Larry Walker has a career WAR of 72.6 and he has yet to get more than 23% of the vote in 8 tries likely because of the skepticism due to his years hitting in Coors Field.
Long-time center fielder Kenny Lofton retired with a career WAR of 68.2, not far behind Beltran’s, and he was booted off the ballot after one year when he polled at just 3%. The difference between Lofton and Beltran is that Lofton’s high WAR is based on factors that can’t be understood without close analysis, base running and fielding. Beltran also scores well on both but by far the dominant factor in his high WAR are the the hitting credentials that Lofton lacks.
As WAR becomes a more mainstream statistic, voters will be looking at it and, if they can explain to themselves why a player’s WAR is high, they’ll take it seriously. In Beltran’s case, his high WAR is backed by the statistics that everyone understands.
Carlos Beltran will, at some time in the next 6-to-10 years, be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Thanks for reading.