Commentary

Carlos Beltran lived up to the hype

He didn't swing at that one curve, but he was the Mets' second-greatest hitter ever

Updated: August 17, 2011, 11:54 AM ET
By Matt Meyers | ESPN The Magazine

Carlos Beltran has a gift. It's the gift of effortlessness, the ability to do the spectacular while appearing to barely break a sweat. Problem is, that gift comes with some serious baggage.

If you spend any amount of time listening to local sports radio -- which is usually a decent proxy for the typical fan -- you know that there is a large section of New York Mets fans who perceive Beltran's smooth style as indifference, and view the called Strike 3 he took in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS as a microcosm of his passive approach to the game.

That perception, coupled with the expectations that came with Beltran's $119 million contract, led some to believe that Beltran isn't all he was cracked up to be.

Now that he has been traded to the San Francisco Giants, it's time to reflect on Beltran's legacy. Though some will say he was never worth the money, his production says he is among the best players in franchise history. In reality, he lived up to that contract as well as could have been expected and became the Mets' most productive player since Darryl Strawberry.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Beltran
William Perlman/The Star Ledger/US PresswireBeltran recaptured his old form this season.

In some ways, this isn't a particularly controversial statement; the Mets haven't exactly been churning out superstar players over the past two decades. The only other players who are seriously in the conversation are David Wright and, of course, Mike Piazza. While many would concede that Beltran was a better player than Wright during his Mets tenure, it's much tougher to convince Mets fans that Beltran had a better career with the team than Piazza did.

If you head to Baseball Reference and check out the Mets' career leaders for wins above replacement -- which measures hitting, defense and baserunning -- you'll see that Strawberry is the franchise leader, Beltran is second and Wright is just behind him.

Piazza? He's No. 8, despite the fact that he had 300 more plate appearances with the Mets than Beltran did. This is relevant because WAR is a counting stat, so more playing time should, theoretically, mean a higher WAR, and explains why Mookie Wilson ranks ahead of John Olerud. It also explains why the gap between Beltran and Wright is even larger than it looks. Despite the fact that Wright was called up to the big leagues half a season before Beltran signed with the Mets, Beltran still has him beat.

You may not put much faith in WAR, and while there are year-to-year quirks, it's useful for judging player performance over a number of seasons. (For example, the top five players in baseball history are Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, Ty Cobb, Willie Mays and Cy Young. Not bad, right?)

So why does Beltran rate so much higher than Piazza? There's a couple of reasons. For starters, although they both played premium positions, Beltran played his very well. He also had great value as a baserunner, succeeding on 100 of his 116 steal attempts during his career in New York. Lastly, after a poor first season with the Mets, Beltran has performed like a superstar ever since. In fact, his 151 OPS+ this year is the highest of his career, even higher than his 2006 season.

Piazza, on the other hand, finished out his Mets career with three mediocre seasons at the plate while supplying no defensive or baserunning value. And if you want to talk about peak value, forget it. As good as Piazza was, nothing he did compared to Beltran's 2006 season, when he set the team record with 41 homers while posting a .982 OPS and playing stellar defense in center.

Bill James once wrote that players who do one thing really well are typically overrated, while those with a broad set of skills are usually underrated, and Beltran most certainly falls into the latter category. Much of his greatness is subtle, such as his fantastic defense and baserunning.

You want to knock him for his injuries? That's understandable. But keep in mind that he is one of just five Mets to ever play in 161 or more games in a season. And when he was on the field, he always produced like the star he was paid to be.

Sure, he struck out to end the 2006 NLCS, but is it his fault that Billy Wagner gave up the go-ahead home run to light-hitting So Taguchi in Game 2 of that series? Or that the Mets started John Maine, Steve Trachsel and Oliver Perez in five of the seven games? It's easy to forget, but on the last day of the 2008 season, when the Mets were in the middle of their second straight collapse, Beltran hit a two-run homer off the Marlins' Scott Olsen to tie the game at 2-2. The Mets would lose the game, but through no fault of Beltran, who almost saved their season.

Point is, if you're going to criticize the guy for when he didn't come through, you also need to give him credit for when he did. (And don't forget the 1.086 OPS he had during that final month of the 2008 season.)

Over the course of his Mets career, Beltran posted a .280/.367/.500 line while averaging 29 homers and 108 RBIs, playing stellar defense in center and stealing bases at an efficient clip. If you expected the Mets to get more for their money, then your expectations are entirely out of whack.

None of this is to say you have to like Beltran, because choosing a favorite is extremely subjective. But there is no denying that he was an extremely productive player who should be remembered as one of the greatest Mets of all time.

Matt Meyers is an associate editor for ESPN The Magazine.

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