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July 29, 2011
Prospectus Hit and Run
Beltran and Damon
The Carlos Beltran era of Mets history came to an unceremonious end on Thursday, when the Mets and Giants agreed on a trade that that sent the resurgent slugger to the Bay Area in exchange for pitching prospect Zack Wheeler. On his way out of town, Beltran has been cast as a symbol of the Omar Minaya regime's failures; as news of the trade broke, more than one national writer returned to his 2006 National League Championship Series-ending strikeout as a frozen moment that defines not only his legacy in Queens, but also some weakness of character. Hardly a farewell befitting a Hall of Fame-caliber player.
When Beltran signed his seven-year, $119 million deal with the Mets in January 2005, he was just 27 years old and coming off a career year. Drafted by the Royals in the second round of the 1995 draft out of Manati, Puerto Rico, Beltran reached the majors at 21 in September 1998, and won Rookie of the Year honors the following season. He didn't really hit his stride until 2001, but from the beginning of that season through June 24, 2004, he hit a combined .293/.365/.514 with 94 homers and 121 steals in 136 attempts, a stellar 89 percent success rate. The Royals, who had posted just one winning season during his time there, couldn't afford to keep the pending free agent, so they dealt him to the Astros in a three-team deal well ahead of the deadline. In one of the stranger footnotes to the deal, Beltran was named to the AL All-Star team for the first time by the players, managers, and coaches, but wound up playing for the NL team because of the trade. He caught fire in Houston, bashing 23 homers in just 90 games, then adding a record-tying eight among his 20 hits in 12 post-season games as the star-studded Astros fell one win short of making the World Series for the first time in their franchise's history.
That outburst more or less coincided with Minaya's hiring by the Mets. Given the center fielder's age, one could hardly blame the new GM of the league's largest-market team for doling out what became the seventh-largest contract in baseball history, and the largest in Mets history. The move came just three weeks after Minaya had landed Pedro Martinez, the opening salvo in what became a double-barreled spending spree designed to restore relevance to a team that had suffered three straight losing seasons.
The Mets became relevant again, but not overnight. The 2005 club went just 83-79, but they did improve from 11th to sixth in attendance, bringing back an additional half million paying customers to Shea Stadium with their highest attendance mark since 1989. Beltran struggled that season; in his big walk year, he batted a disappointing .266/.330/.414 with 16 homers. He did play 151 games despite recurrent quad problems and a horrific head-on collision with Mike Cameron on August 11, one that resulted in a fractured cheekbone and a concussion for Beltran, and two fractured cheekbones, a concussion, and a broken nose for Cameron. "I just feel happy that I'm alive and that I'm going to be back on the field," said Beltran a few days after the collision. He missed less than a week despite all of those injuries, but batted just .263/.340/.365 the rest of the way; in light of the way the Mets would mishandle the concussions of Ryan Church and Jason Bay in later years, it's fair to wonder if he returned too soon.
Fortunately, he rebounded with a vengeance the following season, clubbing a career-best 41 homers while batting .275/.388/.594, good for a .333 True Average (fourth-best in the majors) and a major league-best 8.1 WARP. The 97-65 Mets reached the postseason for the first time since 2000, sweeping the Dodgers in the Division Series before falling to the Cardinals in a thrilling seven-game NLCS.
The Dodgers pitched around Beltran in the Division Series, walking him five times in 14 plate appearances while yielding just two singles. The Cardinals went after him but had a difficult time stopping him; Beltran went 8-for-27 with four walks, a team-high eight runs scored, and three homers—a two-run shot off Jeff Weaver that accounted for all of the scoring for either side in Game One, and a pair of solo homers that bookended the Mets' 12-5 rout of the Cards in Game Four; he scored four runs in that one.
Beltran collected hits in each of the next two games as the Mets split, and helped them get off to a fast start in Game Seven, doubling and scored the game's first run in the first inning. With the score knotted 1-1 in the eighth, he drew a leadoff walk that went for naught. Yet it's his final at-bat that remains too much to get past for some. As MLB.com's Barry Bloom tweeted on Wednesday in response to a reader questioning whether he was a better player than Bernie Williams: "Well, one big difference: Bernie played on 4 World Series, 6 AL pennant winners. Beltran? Called strike 3."
The Cardinals had scored two in the top of the ninth inning of Game Seven via Yadier Molina's two-run homer, and the Mets loaded the bases against closer Adam Wainwright via back-to-back singles to open the frame, followed by a two-out walk. Beltran took a called strike, fouled a pitch off, and then took another called strike, ending the game and the season. In some mind, he should be forced to wear a scarlet letter for the remainder of his career: a backward K, of course.
The New York Times' George Vescey couldn't let go, either:
Now that era is over, and Beltran has his name attached to it because he lasted more than six and a half seasons, and personified the time with one signature called third strike to end the seventh and last game of the 2006 National League Championship Series. Even if he had taken one last lusty “Casey at the Bat” swing, and missed, perhaps his fate would have been different. But he gawked.
Not just a called third strike, mind you, but a signature one, the kind that the talk radio hacks and their crowd would come to read as evidence of mental softness, even cowardice. Never mind all that Beltran had done to get the Mets within sniffing distance of the World Series. Never mind his effort to get back into the at-bat with the count 0-2. Never mind that Carlos Delgado, who'd been even hotter in the series (.304/.448/.826 with three doubles and three homers) was on deck if Beltran could dig his way out of that hole. Never mind that Wainwright, after closing out both an NLCS and a World Series as a rookie, would go on to develop into a Cy Young-caliber starter.
The pitch was too close to take, but he took it. That hardly constitutes a failure of character. It's just baseball.
The memory of the moment lingers, of course, because the Mets would collapse in in 2007 and 2008, coughing up playoff spots on the final day of the season both times, the first in historic fashion via a 5-12 finish. Beltran enjoyed two strong campaigns, worth 4.9 and 5.2 WARP, ranking 12th and 10th in those years, third on the team behind Jose Reyes and David Wright, and he didn't exactly disappear in those seasons' Septembers (.282/.328/.555 with eight homers in 2007, 344/.440/.645 with six homers in 2008) even as his teams played .500ish ball in those months.
Things only got worse for the Mets in the following two seasons, with Beltran among the numerous key players—most prominently Johan Santana, Jose Reyes, and Francisco Rodriguez—who missed significant time due to injury. He played in just 145 games in 2009-2010 as the Mets not only slipped back under .500 but turned into league laughingstocks via antics both on and off the field. Beltran's own medical care was part of the reason the team drew ridicule, as the front office openly charged that he failed to obtained team permission to go under the knife to remove cartilage fragments and bone spurs in January 2010. Can't anybody here play this game, or at least fill out a proper insurance form?
Beltran hit just .255/.341/.427 in 63 games following the surgery, but in the pitcher-friendly environment, that came out to a .280 True Average. A strong September (.321/.365/.603) further heightened the hope that he could regain his form this season. Without complaint, he shifted to right field to lessen the strain on his knees, and played in 98 of the team's first 103 games, ripping at a .289/.391/.513 clip prior to being traded; his .325 True Average ranks sixth in the league. Such production helped new general manager Sandy Alderson turn Beltran's final two months under contract into a frontline pitching prospect, just when it appeared as though that wouldn't be possible.
Despite his injuries, Beltran gave the Mets a very reasonable return over the life of his contract. No center fielder produced more WARP from 2005-2010:
Among center fielders, only Hamilton (.311) hit for a higher True Average than Beltran's .299 in that span, albeit in some 1,200 fewer plate appearances. If you throw in this year and expand the field to all outfielders, only one outproduced Beltran during his time with the Mets, and only three outhit him while making at least 2,500 plate appearances:
Essentially, Carlos Beltran was just about as good as they came during the time he was most heavily compensated, costing the Mets about $3.8 million per win above replacement—considerably better than the going rate of about $5 million per win. That the Mets weren't able to get over the top during his time in Queens isn't on him.
With 1,863 hits and 295 home runs, Beltran doesn't yet have the counting stats to make a convincing case for Cooperstown, but then he's just 34 and still burnishing his credentials. JAWS looks upon him quite favorably. I haven't yet shifted from Clay Davenport's version of WARP to Colin Wyers' because the latter has yet to publish new values for pre-1950 players, so the numbers will differ from what you see on his PECOTA card, but here's how Beltran stacks up among the heavyweights:
Beltran has already put together a Hall of Fame-caliber peak, and it's not out of question he could improve that score; by Clay's numbers, he's at 3.2 WARP prior to the trade, with 4.7 representing his seventh-best season. He's still got some work to do to reach the career standard, but overall, he's already ahead of 10 Hall of Fame center fielders, including the BBWAA-elected Duke Snider and Kirby Puckett. He's ahead of the aforementioned Williams—whom he probably should have replaced in the Bronx, if Brian Cashman had to do it all over again—mainly due to an advantage of about 100 runs’ worth of defense.
He's also ahead of another ex-Royal whose name has been tossed around a whole lot lately with regards to the Hall of Fame, that of Damon. Now 37 years old and serving as the Rays' primary designated hitter, Damon has 2,676 hits, giving him a reasonable chance at joining the 3,000 hit club. Twenty-four of the 28 players in that group are in Cooperstown; Pete Rose's lifetime ban for gambling has rendered him ineligible, Rafael Palmeiro's positive steroid test gave the voters a reason to snub him in his first year of ballot eligibility, and neither Craig Biggio nor Derek Jeter have reached the ballot. The latter two will get their plaques without delay, but the question is whether 3,000 hits be enough for Damon?
JAWS doesn't think so. Going by Clay's numbers, Damon has accumulated just 41.1 WARP in his career and just 28.1 at his peak, numbers miles below the standard; his 34.6 JAWS is far shy of the mark as well, far lower than what I held to be a subpar choice for Cooperstown in Dawson. Among BBWAA-elected center fielders, only Puckett (37.6) is in the same vicinity; among BBWAA left fielders, Jim Rice (31.4) is the low man. Furthermore, Damon's JAWS is lower than every member of the 3,000 hit club save for Lou Brock (32.1).
Brock retired while holding the single-season and career stolen-base records, and was an absolute monster in the three postseasons in which he played, hitting .391/.424/.655 in 21 games overall. He helped the Cardinals win the 1964 and 1967 World Series, and batted .464/.516/.857 with two homers and seven steals in a losing cause in 1968. Damon owns some iconic post-season moments—the grand slam that provided the coup de grâce to the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS, a few big hits in the four-game sweep that gave the Red Sox their first title in 86 years, the World Series-turning dash to an unoccupied third base in 2009—but his overall .279/.328/.455 line in October is nothing special.
Neither is his otherwise respectable .287/.354/.435 line during his 17-season career. Those numbers are no shame for a leadoff type who spent almost two-thirds of his career playing center field, but Damon did his work while playing mostly in favorable hitters' parks—Kauffman Stadium, Fenway Park, Yankee Stadiums I and II—in a high-offense era. His .272 True Average is nowhere near the collective .305 compiled by the Hall's center fielders. He earned All-Star honors just twice, never took home a Gold Glove (worthless trinkets though they've become), and never cracked the top 10 in an MVP vote.
Even 3,000 doesn't look to be all that sure a thing. Damon left his power stroke in the Bronx; over the past two seasons, he's batted .273/.343/.408 while DHing more often than he's played the field, because his throwing arm makes wet noodles blush with embarrassment. While he may be capable of compiling two more 150-hit seasons, his secondary skills are diminishing, and now that he's in the migrant phase of his career, a rough stretch of a month or two could lead to his release. Milestone or no, he's a popular and likeable player whose merits don’t go beyond the Hall of Very Good. There's no shame in that, but there should be no overwrought hyperbole either. We've already got enough of that going around.