September 15, 2004
Don't Forget Me (When I'm Gone)
Awards season will kick in soon, and with it, debates over who provided the most value, whether that value even mattered because a player had lousy teammates while another had good ones, whether things that can be more easily invented than measured--read, "who provided the most good copy"--should be factored into a ballot...
I'm not getting into all of that right now. What I do want to point out is that the guy who is one of the best players in baseball this year is going to be completely left out of all the debates, and may end up tallying a total of 27 or so ballot points in what is the best year of his career.
Carlos Beltran's peak season is occurring out of the spotlight because of the June 24 trade that cleaved his season in half, and the summertime funk that slid the Astros out of our consciousness. Have you even seen his full-season line?
Year AB H 2B 3B HR AVG OBP SLG SB CS WARP 2004 535 114 35 6 38 .273 .375 .574 36 3 8.9Included in that WARP is his amazing defense in center field, worth nearly three wins above replacement all by itself. Based on his full-season performance, Beltran would be right in the mix for the AL MVP award, clearly trailing only Carlos Guillen in terms of overall value. His VORP of 67.0 ranks 16th in MLB, and would be sixth in the AL. (Beltran would trail the deity in the NL, as well as a number of other players having great seasons. He would, however, deserve consideration.)
Beltran is having one of the most complete seasons of any player in recent memory, providing across-the-board offensive performance (92.3 SB%!) and Gold Glove-caliber defense. He has a very good chance to become just the fourth 40/40 player in history (and remember when that was a really big deal?), the first since Alex Rodriguez in 1998. There is absolutely nothing that Beltran doesn't do well on a baseball field, and he's put all of his skills on display in this, his age-27 season.
It's a quirk of record-keeping, perhaps the last vestige of the separte leagues, that we record a player's statistics separately for each league. When Beltran comes to the plate in a ballgame, the line you see on the scoreboard or your TV screen is his Astros' one. While that line in itself is impressive, the information lost--his great three months with the Royals--would be critical in showing just how amazing he's been in 2004.
This isn't a minor concern if you're Beltran. One of the popular ways to measure a player's career value is by how well he did in MVP voting. Beltran has already been shafted in recent seasons, playing for a lousy team and seeing much of his value--stolen-base percentage, defense--missed by a voter pool fascinated with stories and RBI. Now, his best season is likely to be lost to history.
Consider that in 1997, Mark McGwire batted .274/.393/.646, with 58 home runs--then the fourth-highest total in history--and 123 RBI. However, because he was traded on July 31 of that year from the A's to the Cardinals, he garnered the embarrassing total of six MVP points, none in the American League. (This may be even more ridiculous than his finishing second in the NL balloting a year later, when he hit 70 bombs.)
Like McGwire, and unlike Randy Johnson in 1998 or Rick Sutcliffe in 1984, Beltran has been a terrific player across both leagues, providing MVP-caliber performance to both his employers. That actually works against him in the balloting; if, like Johnson or Sutcliffe, he'd been clearly superior after being traded, his performance might have received more notice and more votes.
As it stands, Beltran is going to be ignored in the MVP voting, his NL numbers paling in comparison to the many great candidates in that league, and his AL numbers long forgotten by the electorate. It will be important, however, to not forget his great 2004 when it comes to evaluating his career. We're seeing the peak seasons of a great baseball player, and it would be silly to allow a trade to cloud our vision.