Carlos Beltran aged well over a long career, but do his stats make a strong case for induction into the Hall of Fame?
Editor’s note: This story originally ran on May 15, 2017. Carlos Beltran announced his retirement Thursday. Nov. 13, 2017.
Do you remember Dos Carlos? If you’re a Kansas City Royals fan of a certain age, you surely do. That was the moniker attached to a pair of hotshot Royals rookies in the late 1990s: second baseman Carlos Febles and center fielder Carlos Beltran. During those years, Royals fans would grab at anything that looked like hope, and for a while, Dos Carlos was definitely a thing.
After both reached the majors late in the 1998 season, Febles and Beltran spent their official rookie campaigns together the following year in Kansas City. They were both good. Febles hit 10 homers, stole 20 bases and provided above-average, often flashy defense. He finished 10th among MLB rookies that season with 2.0 WAR, according to Baseball-Reference.com.
Meanwhile, Beltran exploded out of the gate. He hit .293/.337/.454 with 22 homers, 108 RBIs, 27 steals and 112 runs scored. He finished with 4.7 WAR, second among rookies behind Chris Singleton. Beltran ranked sixth among MLB defenders with 22 fielding runs above average and was named AL Rookie of the Year. Carlos and Carlos were both in their early 20s, and it seemed that the Royals were set at two key positions for years to come.
That turned out to be half-true. Febles’ rookie season turned out to be his best, and he was out of the majors before he reached his 28th birthday. Right now, as you read this, he is only 41 years old, just completed his second season as the manager of the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs and was recently added to the Red Sox’s big-league coaching staff for 2018.
Meanwhile, Beltran went on to become one of the best all-around players in baseball and one of the best in Royals history. His economic value long ago outgrew the constraints of the Royals’ budget, and he went on to star for several teams. A player who was once so uncertain of his own ability that he initially refused to return to the minors for injury rehab — Beltran was afraid he’d never make it back to The Show — earned more than $200 million playing baseball.
This is the shape of a Hall of Fame career: Great out of the gate. Great for an extended period of time. Productive even after skills begin to fade. And make no mistake, the 40-year-old Beltran retirement comes during the fading phase of his career. If that Dos Carlos thing seems like a long, long time ago, it’s because it was — Bill Clinton was president when Beltran reached the big leagues. That’s how long it takes to build a Hall case if you aren’t among the elite of the elite, one of those slam-dunk players whose Hall worthiness is never questioned.
Beltran’s Hall of Fame case is not a slam dunk. He has been an All-Star nine times. He has won three Gold Gloves, though these days he hardly dons a glove at all. He garnered MVP support in seven seasons but has never finished higher than fourth in the voting. On the all-time WAR leaderboard, he ranks No. 101, having lost two spots during his final season. Right above Beltran is Gary Carter and Barry Larkin. They’re both in Cooperstown. But others immediately ahead of Beltran — Scott Rolen, Rick Reuschel, Alan Trammell and Bobby Grich — have yet to be inducted.
Let’s consider Beltran’s case using one my favorite things: Bill James’ Keltner questions, which I used in January to look at three Hall-eligible players.
1. Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in baseball?
Probably not. The most damning evidence is the lack of MVP support that Beltran received, even during his best seasons. In 2006, the year he finished fourth in the balloting, Beltran ranked second among position players with 8.2 WAR, just behind peak-level Albert Pujols. However, there is an argument that Beltran was briefly the best at a very key time of the year. We’ll get to that.
2. Was he the best player on his team?
Beltran ranks 13th in Royals history by WAR, and none of the players ahead of him was an exact contemporary. It’s pretty clear that Beltran was the Royals’ best player during most of his time in Kansas City. With the New York Mets, Beltran was outperformed by David Wright, though Beltran ranks sixth in Mets history in WAR. Also, for what it’s worth, Beltran was probably the Astros’ best player during the partial season he spent there in 2004.
3. Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position?
Like most players with long careers, Beltran’s defensive responsibilities waned over the years. Nevertheless, 71 percent of his career starts came in center field, and that is the position for which he will be remembered. It was his primary position for 12 years, from 1999 to 2010. There are many ways to drill down on this question, but consider this: During those 12 years, among those who played at least 75 percent of their games in center, Beltran’s 56.5 WAR were nearly six wins better than anyone else’s, with Andruw Jones coming in a distant second. Beltran checks both of these boxes.
4. Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?
Beltran didn’t get much of an opportunity in this area when he was in Kansas City, save for the fleeting success of the Royals’ 2003 season. But the very next year, he helped put the Astros over the top in the NL playoff derby. He played in 65 postseason games in eight postseasons. Overall, Beltran played in three World Series: He hit .294 in St. Louis’ loss to Boston in 2013 and then played a bench role this year, getting just three at-bats in the Astros’ triumph over the Dodgers. His contributions as a clubhouse leader for Houston this year were trumpeted loudly and widely, though that knowledge is tough to weigh in an objective judgment such as this.
5. Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime?
Very much so. Beltran was an All-Star five times after he turned 30, including last season, when he was 39. Although he wasn’t a star on the world champion Astros, he was still a regular for much of the 2017 season.
6. Is he the very best player in baseball history who is not in the Hall of Fame?
No, even leaving aside those who aren’t yet eligible, were banned or are being shunned because of PED-related issues. But it’s close. I’d give Trammell and Mike Mussina the nod over Beltran. If we include those who aren’t in for reasons other than performance, Beltran is below the standard of Roger Clemens, Pete Rose, Barry Bonds, Joe Jackson, et al.
7. Are most players who have comparable career statistics in the Hall of Fame?
This is a mixed bag. According to the similarity scores at Baseball-Reference.com, just four of the 10 players with career numbers most similar to Beltran’s are in Cooperstown: Billy Williams, Andre Dawson, Al Kaline and Tony Perez. Another, Adrian Beltre, is an active player who is a future no-brainer enshrinee.
8. Do the player’s numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?
For this, we’ll use Jay Jaffe’s ingenious JAWS system. Again, it’s close. Beltran is just off the averages in both career WAR and peak WAR among Hall of Fame center fielders. Beltran’s below-replacement final season didn’t help his career value, as is often the case in end-of-career scenarios.
Also worth noting is the evaluation of Beltran in the updated version of the Hall of Fame Monitor in the 2018 Bill James Handbook. The system establishes the threshold score for Hall enshrinement at 100; Beltran finishes at 108. However, James points out that anything between 70 and 130 is a gray area. Which is why we’re going through these questions. James also called the Royals’ outfield from Beltran’s early days, when he played alongside Jermaine Dye and Johnny Damon “actually the best young outfield in baseball history.”
9. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than what is suggested by his statistics?
This might be the tipping point for Beltran, whose entire career played out in the wild-card era, in which postseason production has taken on added importance when it comes to assessing a player’s career value.
Anyway, Beltran not only played in a lot of playoff games but also often dominated when it matters most. His career postseason slash line is .307/.412/.609 with 16 homers.
10. Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame but not in?
Returning to JAWS, the answer is yes. Beltran ranks eighth among center fielders, and the top seven are in Cooperstown.
11. How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?
We’ve covered this. He never got into the top three in the voting, but his 2006 season was clearly MVP-worthy.
12. How many All-Star-type seasons did he have? How many All-Star Games did he play in? Were most of the other players who played in this many All-Star Games inducted into the Hall of Fame?
Beltran had five seasons with five or more WAR, the rule of thumb for an All-Star-type season, according to Baseball-Reference.com. He played in eight All-Star Games, and among the 77 players who have appeared in eight, 56 are in the Hall.
13. If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant?
In general, if a player has had an MVP-caliber season, which Beltran has, the answer to this question is yes. But it’s more concrete if the player was actually the best performer on a pennant winner, and that didn’t happen for Beltran.
14. What impact did the player have on baseball history? Was he responsible for any rule changes? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in any way?
Although Beltran hasn’t changed the game in any tangible way, his prominence as a Puerto Rico-born ballplayer has had a great deal of influence. Only Roberto Clemente has produced more WAR among those born in Puerto Rico. Beltran operates a baseball academy on the island.
15. Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?
Highest of marks in this area. A consummate professional on the field and a role model off it. Never was this more evident than in the 2017 season, when he was a touchstone for the Astros’ young stars and a strong community leader in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, which struck southeast Texas, and Hurricanes Irma and Maria, which devastated his native Puerto Rico. Beltran won the Roberto Clemente Award in 2013.
For me, the eighth question is the first to consider as the jumping-off point: Do the player’s numbers warrant Hall consideration? In Beltran’s case, they clearly do. From there, he skirts along the borderline on most questions. However, none of these questions would rule him out. When you get to his postseason record and his intangible characteristics, those soft factors ultimately tip the scale. Carlos Beltran is a Hall of Famer.
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