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Is Carlos Beltran a Hall of Famer?

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With Carlos Beltran announcing his retirement, let us do what we always do when a great player announces his retirement: figure out whether he’s a Hall of Famer.

Before we do that, though, can we stipulate that, however irresistible it is to ask this question, it’s not a question that must be answered in the affirmative for a player to be appreciated? We’ve gotten somewhat binary when it comes to talking about former players in recent years, with them cast as either Hall of Famers or Hall of Fame “snubs” on the one hand or totally forgettable on the other. I get why the conversation runs this way — posts like this encourage it, actually — but the value of a baseball career is not bound up in its status as Hall of Fame-worthy or not a Hall of Fame-worthy.

That goes for the guys with no Hall of Fame argument like, say, Zane Smith or Kal Daniels, of whom I have some pretty cool memories. It also goes for guys like Dale Murphy or Alan Trammell who, unfortunately, are invoked far more often in anger, as Hall of Fame “snubs” than invoked fondly as wonderful players, regardless of how the BBWAA voted on them after they retired. That’s kind of a shame, because I’d like to think about guys like Dale Murphy without being mad. So, while it’s good fun to look back on a career and ask whether or not the player in question will make the Hall of Fame, and while we won’t stop doing that when great players retire, let us not limit our appreciation of a player solely to his Hall-worthiness or non-Hall-worthiness, OK? Cool.

So let’s talk about Beltran. Here are the pros and cons for his Hall of Fame case, on a broad level. In listing this, I’m couching it in terms of how his candidacy will be discussed, generally speaking, more so than I’m making an argument for myself (that will come at the end). So:

PRO

  • Rookie of the Year Award;
  • Nine-time All-Star;
  • Ranks 101 all-time in bWAR, a tenth of a point behind Gary Carter and ahead of Manny Ramirez,  Tim Raines, Tony Gwynn, Carlton Fisk, Ivan Rodriguez and Eddie Murray, Ernie Banks, Ryne Sandberg among many other notable players.
  • Fantastic defense for an extended period of time at a key position, including multiple Gold Glove Awards;
  • Was, for a good stretch, the best all-around center fielder in the game which means, by definition, he was one of the best all-around players in the game;
  • Was a standout postseason performer, with an overall postseason line of .307/.412/.609, 16 homers, 42 RBI and 11 stolen bases in 65 games. He famously single-handedly carried the Astros in the 2004 playoffs, in which Houston pushed the Cardinals to the seventh game of the NLCS;
  • He is probably the best center fielder not yet in the Hall of Fame;
  • Has a reputation as a good citizen, team leader, community leader/philanthropist and mentor to younger players.

CON

  • Never led the league in anything except games played in one year;
  • Never finished higher than fourth in the MVP voting, though he deserved to be higher than that a couple of times;
  • Was not considered “The Best Player in the Game” at any point during his career, even if he was thought of as one of the best “all around” players. More on that in a second.
  • Had solid all-time counting stat numbers — 435 homers, 2,725 hits, 312 stolen bases — but did not hit any of the milestone numbers many voters and fans consider the signatures of a Hall of Fame career.

It’s pretty clear, having read all of that, that Beltran’s candidacy is one about being an all-around great player, not as a supremely great hitter who achieved some hallowed milestone or who was some sort of freakish specialist in any one aspect of the game like defense or base running or batting average or something. Unfortunately, Hall of Fame voting has, historically, been more about narratives and milestones, favoring the guys to whom voters could point and say “He had 3,000 hits!” or “He was the best [something] of all time!” however tortured the superlative happened to be. Beltran’s case doesn’t lend itself to that sort of narrative focus.

Beltran, however, finishes his career at a time when, more than ever, the media and fans have come to appreciate the value of the all-around player. Assessing defense is not an exact science, but we appreciate defense a lot more now than we have in the past. Beltran may not be a 600-homer guy or have 500 stolen bases, but we’re so much better now at appreciating how arbitrary a lot of those milestones are, especially when you adjust for the fact that he played most of his career at a position where offense is not as critical as it is at other positions. Yet he still was a superior offensive performer.

Beltran may be the kind of player that a certain, more aged Hall of Fame voter makes wait several ballots or, never votes for at all, but I think the composition of the electorate has changed enough to where his all-around case will not be as big a problem for him as it was for players like, say, Bobby Grich or Alan Trammell. When you listen to baseball writers talk now, they usually say, “yeah, Carlos Beltran is a Hall of Famer.” And I think that carries the day for him, maybe not in his first year on the ballot, but at some point not long after.

The voters aside: I think he’s a Hall of Famer. What do you think?

Must-Click Link: Do the players even care about money anymore?

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Yesterday I wrote about how the union has come to find itself in the extraordinarily weak position it’s in. The upshot: their leadership and their membership, happily wealthy by virtue of gains realized in the 1970s-1990s, has chosen to focus on small, day-to-day, quality of life issues rather than big-picture financial issues. As a result, ownership has cleaned their clock in the past few Collective Bargaining Agreements. If the union is to ever get back the considerable amount of ground it has lost over the past 15 years, it’ll require a ton of hard work and perhaps drastic measures.

A few hours later, Yahoo’s Jeff Passan dropped an absolute must-read that expands on that topic. Through weeks of interviews with league officials, agents and players, he explains why the free agent market is as bad as it is for players right now and why so many of them and so many fans seem not to understand just how bad a spot the players are in, business wise.

Passan keys on the media’s credulousness regarding teams’ stated rationales for not spending in free agency. About how, with even a little bit of scrutiny, the “[Team] wants to get below the luxury tax” argument makes no sense. About how the claim that this is a weak free agent class, however true that may be, does not explain why so few players are being signed.  About how so few teams seem interested in actually competing and how fans, somehow, seem totally OK with it.

Passan makes a compelling argument, backed by multiple sources, that, even if there is a lot of money flowing around, the fundamental financial model of the game is broken. The young players are the most valuable but are paid pennies while players with 6-10 years service time are the least valuable yet are the ones, theoretically anyway, positioned to make the most money. The owners have figured it out. The union has dropped the ball as it has worried about, well, whatever the heck it is worried about. The killer passage on all of this is damning in this regard:

During the negotiations leading to the 2016 basic agreement that governs baseball, officials at MLB left bargaining stupefied almost on a daily basis. Something had changed at the MLBPA, and the league couldn’t help but beam at its good fortune: The core principle that for decades guided the union no longer seemed a priority.

“It was like they didn’t care about money anymore,” one league official said.

Personally, I don’t believe that they don’t care about money anymore. I think the union has simply dropped the ball on educating its membership about the business structure of the game and the stakes involved with any given rule in the CBA. I think that they either so not understand the financial implications of that to which they have agreed or are indifferent to them because they do not understand their scope and long term impact.

It’s a union’s job to educate its membership about the big issues that may escape any one member’s notice — like the long term effects of a decision about the luxury tax or amateur and international salary caps — and convince them that it’s worth fighting for. Does the MLBPA do that? Does it even try? If it hasn’t tried for the past couple of cycles and it suddenly starts to now, will there be a player civil war, with some not caring to jeopardize their short term well-being for the long term gain of the players who follow them?

If you care at all about the business and financial aspects of the game, Passan’s article is essential.