Carlos Beltran didn’t play in Triple-A. Technically, that isn’t true — Beltran appeared in five games with Omaha in the year 2000. But by that point, he was already a major-league regular. Beltran didn’t make the classic stop in Triple-A, and, for that matter, he didn’t make the classic stop in Double-A, getting called up after just 47 games with Wichita. They were 47 deeply impressive games, and the Royals couldn’t wait to use the 21-year-old center fielder for themselves. The Royals couldn’t have known then just how long it would be until they’d be relevant, but they knew they weren’t good. They also knew Beltran might pull them out of the ditch.
I don’t know for how long baseball people have been saying that the ball always finds the new guy, but when Beltran subbed in for his big-league debut on September 14, 1998, the first batter immediately hit the ball in his direction. So, also, did the second batter. With that, Beltran recorded his first-ever putout. Minutes later, he had his first-ever hit; minutes after that, he had his first-ever run. In just the next inning, he drew his first-ever walk. Beltran didn’t start the game, but he still made the most of it, and although debuts make for lousy predictors, the signs were right there. At arguably too young an age, Carlos Beltran hit the ground running.
Two decades later, Beltran has announced his retirement. He’s 40 years old, now, and he just won his first-ever World Series. There was really nothing left for Beltran to do. Beltran will presumably one day occupy a spot in the Hall of Fame, because along the way — and it was a long way — Beltran was just about everything.
Beltran was a champion, and he was a goat. Beltran was a leader, and he was a kid. Beltran was an All-Star, and he was support. Beltran was outstanding, and he was underrated. Beltran was consistent, and he was frustrating. Beltran was a part of the homegrown core, and he was a midseason splash.
Carlos Beltran isn’t in the conversation for baseball’s best-ever player. There was a time it seemed possible he would be, one day, in that the potential for young players always seems limitless, but life has a way of introducing its limits. Beltran wasn’t Babe Ruth. Beltran wasn’t Alex Rodriguez, or Barry Bonds. Beltran, for a time, if anything seemed like an under-performer, and age then took its various tolls. Yet Beltran, at his peak, was something extraordinary. We have the good fortune of being able to see now just how good Beltran actually was. He was a player built for the modern-day metrics.
I’ve isolated for Beltran, and for everyone else, the age-22 through 31 seasons. This gives us a decade of peak Beltran, before knee problems started to sap him of his athleticism. I examined Beltran and the whole of baseball history, using a minimum of 3,000 plate appearances within the age window. I’d like to show you how Beltran compares. I think this helps to highlight how Beltran felt underrated, despite being a star-level player.
I was working with a sample of 1,377 players. In this plot, you see Beltran’s percentile rankings among them, in batting runs, defensive runs, baserunning runs, and WAR. It’s worth remembering that this is selective for good talent in the first place, since bad players don’t play that much over that many years. Anyway, here’s the graph.
Within the window, Beltran posted a 117 wRC+. He topped out at 148, as he blossomed into more of a slugger. Clearly, Beltran was a good hitter, but he was seldom a dominant hitter, in an era in which even the analytical types were focusing on OBP. Beltran ranks here in the 81st percentile. Terrific, absolutely, but remember that offense is a player’s most conspicuous contribution. I think Beltran left some fans feeling like he could’ve become even more.
Then you look over. By defense, Beltran ranks here in the 89th percentile. This blends defensive performance and a positional adjustment. Defensive measurements are probably the most hotly contested, and the further back you go, the more unreliable they might become, but Beltran was a regular center fielder, and he was good at it. From 2002 – 2008, by UZR, Beltran was the fifth-best center fielder. From 2003 – 2008, by DRS, he was the second-best center fielder. Even among premium ball-catchers, peak Beltran could move around more than most.
And then you look over one more. By baserunning, Beltran ranks here in the 99th percentile. I used the numbers at Baseball Reference for this, since their historical baserunning measures are more comprehensive. Peak Beltran was, simply, an all-time baserunner. It’s not just that he has the third-best stolen-base rate, all-time. Beltran was excellent in between the stolen bases. He ran fast, he stayed away from outs, and he grabbed available extra bases. When Beltran was younger, the average baserunner came around to score roughly 31% of the time. Peak Beltran wound up at 37%, and he finished his career at 34%. When Beltran got on, he was always a threat to advance. You could never, in short, take your eyes off of him.
Beltran made a difference in every area. He was the kind of player WAR was built to shine a light on, and so even though Beltran was merely a good hitter, he’s still in the 97th percentile in WAR. Within, again, the stated age window. As Beltran’s knees went, so went his well-roundedness, but most players decline in their 30s. We know what Beltran most recently was. This is an occasion for remembering what he used to be. Beltran was one of the very best players in baseball, providing value every way he possibly could.
We also shouldn’t just pretend like Beltran turned into a pumpkin upon turning 32. He was no longer much of a runner, and he was no longer much of a defender, but he managed a 121 wRC+ over more than 4,500 trips to the plate. Beltran, the threat in every department, turned into Beltran, the clubhouse leader who could hit from both sides. Beltran was almost exactly as good from the left side as from the right. In one sense, his aging was abrupt, but in another, he also aged with grace. It’s all just a matter of what you choose to focus on.
Even isolating Beltran’s hitting alone, which ignores what made him a Hall-of-Fame asset, there’s a fun game to play. You can pore through all these splits and identify where Beltran was, quietly, extra helpful. He was better with runners on than with runners off. He was better when the leverage was high than he was when it was low. He was better against better teams. And there’s the rather important matter of Beltran’s postseason performance. There have been 318 players who have batted in the playoffs at least 100 times. Beltran ranks eighth in OPS. There have been 73 players who have batted in the playoffs at least 200 times. Beltran ranks second in OPS. What David Ortiz has on Beltran in postseason playing time, Beltran has in batting average, OBP, and slugging. Playoff Beltran, on the bases, was additionally 11-for-11 when stealing. It’s not often that postseason performance is all that meaningful, but, for Beltran, it’s only going to help his Hall-of-Fame candidacy. It should be sufficient to persuade any voter who’s otherwise on the fence.
Carlos Beltran seldom hit like a Hall-of-Famer. When you put everything in there together, though, it’s plainly evident that Carlos Beltran often played like a Hall-of-Famer. At his absolute best, there was little that he couldn’t do, and as the years rolled by and the footspeed waned, Beltran found other ways to lead by example, in the clubhouse and in the community. A perfect baseball player isn’t a player who makes the fewest outs. It’s a player who does everything he possibly can to be the most he can possibly be. In every sense, Carlos Beltran is a rare one who reached his ceiling.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.