Carlos Beltran, whose Houston Astros will begin the World Series tonight against the Los Angeles Dodgers, has a reputation as one of his generation’s greatest postseason performers, despite a lack of ring to show for his efforts.
In 253 postseason plate appearances, Carlos Beltran has a batting average of .311, an on-base percentage of .417, and a slugging percentage of .618. He has also stolen 11 bases in the playoffs without being caught once. Beltran has always been a great player in the regular season, and he will merit serious Hall of Fame consideration once his playing career is over. But in October, he becomes superhuman.
Five players in MLB history have a higher OPS in the regular season than Beltran has in the postseason (while facing generally tougher competition, mind you): Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Barry Bonds, and Jimmie Foxx. And while Beltran is a DH today, much of this production came while he was a Gold Glove-winning center fielder.
From the regular season to the postseason, Carlos Beltran’s OPS increases by 23.7%. Compare this with Beltran’s contemporaries celebrated for postseason heroics, Derek Jeter and David Ortiz—Jeter’s OPS increased by 2.6% while Ortiz’s OPS increased by 1.7%. The evidence that “clutch” exists beyond merely a statistical fluke promoted for storytelling purposes is debatable at best and dubious at worst, but if one were to operate under the assumption that it is real, or that it ought to at least be celebrated because it is enjoyable to believe in it, it would be hard to not label Carlos Beltran as the epitome of clutch.
But for the first five full seasons of Carlos Beltran’s career, he never got the chance to display his talents in the playoffs. Although he was already taking form as one of the best players of his generation—between his Rookie of the Year-winning 1999 season and 2003, only Andruw Jones, Jim Edmonds, and Mike Cameron were more valuable by FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement as full-time center fielders—the lackluster performance of his Kansas City Royals kept Beltran home come October.
2004 was Beltran’s final season before free agency, and with the Royals in the midst of what turned out to be their first of three consecutive 100-loss seasons, the team was in no position to re-sign Beltran nor were his contributions going to salvage their season. So the Royals made the smart, obvious move, trading Beltran to a contender willing to part with potential future assets to improve their chances in 2004—the Houston Astros.
In just over half a season with the Astros, Beltran was terrific—with a .926 OPS, he finished 12th in National League MVP voting despite the notable handicap of not playing in the NL until late June. In the National League Division Series against the Atlanta Braves, the Astros needed all five games to advance, which they did on the strength of Carlos Beltran’s bat, hitting two home runs in Game 5.
Beltran led the team in runs scored, runs batted in, and home runs. With a 1.591 OPS, Beltran would have easily won the series MVP award if such an award existed.
Next came the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Cardinals, of course, were coming off the heels of a 105-win regular season. They had three of baseball’s best hitters that year—Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, and Scott Rolen. In the NLCS, Edmonds was good, Rolen was better, and Pujols was out of his mind. And Carlos Beltran was once again the undisputed offensive juggernaut of the Astros lineup. As the second batter of the entire series, Beltran hit a two-run home run.
The next day, Beltran drew three walks and went deep once again, making it three consecutive games in which he hit a home run.
And in Game 3, with the Astros clinging to a one-run lead in the eighth inning, he did it again.
By Game 4, from a Cardinals fan’s perspective, it was starting to get really annoying.
Beltran did not homer again in Game 5, instead having to settle for “scoring the game-winning run on Jeff Kent’s walk-off home run.” The Cardinals, of course, took Games 6 and 7 in St. Louis, but Beltran more than pulled his weight—he scored two runs in Game 6 and scored a run in the third inning of Game 7 to give the Astros a two-run lead. Albert Pujols was named MVP, and it’s hard to say he didn’t deserve it, but Beltran was no worse than 1A for 2004 NLCS production.
Carlos Beltran signed in the off-season with the New York Mets (for years, Astros fans booed him whenever he would return to Minute Maid Park, because sports fans are weird), and while the Mets missed the postseason in 2005, they returned in 2006. After a relatively pedestrian NLDS, Beltran once again would square off against the Cardinals.
The Mets won Game 1 in a tightly-contested 2-0 affair. Jeff Weaver pitched mostly well for the Cardinals, save for a two-run sixth inning home run hit by, well, you know.
Down 2-1 in the series, the Mets offense came charging back into the series in Game 4, leading the way in a 12-5 victory. Beltran hit two home runs, one to tie the game in the 3rd inning and another as a final punctuation mark on the blowout.
In Game 7, Carlos Beltran hit a two-out bases-empty double, and following a Carlos Delgado walk and a David Wright single, Beltran scored what would be the only run for the Mets in the game. And as valuable as Beltran was in the series—he and Delgado were easily the front-runners for NLCS MVP had the Mets won it—he will always be remembered most for what he didn’t do.
Beltran continued to be great, but the Mets didn’t. Following a stint with the San Francisco Giants, Beltran signed in free agency with his old foe, the St. Louis Cardinals, following the 2011 season. Beltran was still a good player, but he was no longer the MVP candidate of his younger years, and following five playoff-less seasons, he was willing to acquiesce being his team’s biggest star to make another run at a World Series ring.
If the 2012 NLDS, in which the Cardinals faced the favored Washington Nationals, had an MVP, it would have likely been Carlos Beltran. He had a 1.486 OPS on the series and hit two icing-on-the-cake home runs in Game 2, an unofficial must-win game—had the Cardinals lost, they’d have needed three consecutive victories in Washington to advance. In Game 4, Beltran produced the sole Cardinals RBI in a losing effort.
And in Game 5, as the team starting to crumble, Beltran rose to the occasion, producing two doubles, a single, and two walks in five plate appearances. In the fourth inning, Beltran scored the Cardinals’ first run to make the game 6-1—per Baseball Reference, the Cardinals’ win probability rose from 4% when Beltran came to the plate to lead off the inning to 10% two batters later after Matt Holliday had drove Beltran home.
Most memorably, with the Cardinals down two entering the top of the ninth, Carlos Beltran led off with a double. He later scored a run on a Daniel Descalso single. Adron Chambers also scored. You may remember this. Perhaps you also remember what Pete Kozma did in the next at-bat.
In the NLCS, against his former team, Beltran helped lead the charge, OPSing at a mark of .964 on the series. It wasn’t quite the absurd level of production of 2004, but he was once again rising to the occasion in the postseason.
In 2013, Beltran continued to build his impressive playoff legacy. Among Cardinals who played in all five NLDS games against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Beltran led in OPS and drove in the first three runs of the series for the Cardinals. I still can’t believe this stayed fair.
And in Game 3, a game which the Cardinals ultimately lost, Beltran had what should have been one of his many legendary clutch highlights.
In Game 4, he scored on a Matt Holliday home run in a game the Cardinals won 2-1, and although Beltran had a forgettable Game 5, his Game 1 against the Los Angeles Dodgers became perhaps his definitive Cardinals legacy. First, he tied the game in the third inning with a two-run double. Then Beltran, by this point generally a defensive liability, threw a perfect strike to home plate to prevent Mark Ellis from scoring the go-ahead run in extra innings. And then in the 13th, against Kenley Jansen, he hit a walk-off single. All in a day’s work.
2013 marked the first World Series of Carlos Beltran’s storied career. And while he was pedestrian at the plate by his standards (at .694, his OPS still only trailed Matt Holliday and Allen Craig among regulars), he produced yet another memorable defensive moment, keeping the Cardinals within reasonable proximity during Game 1 against the Boston Red Sox, in what was seemingly the only out David Ortiz hit into during that year’s Fall Classic.
Following the season, Beltran signed with the New York Yankees. His split from the Cardinals was amicable—the team wanted to move in a younger direction, Beltran wanted continued regular playing time with a contender. And for the next three seasons, first with the Yankees and then with the Texas Rangers, Beltran pursued a ring.
Carlos Beltran signed with the Astros before the 2017 season, and it would be disingenuous to pretend he is not a shell of his former self. By fWAR, he was worth -1.1 wins in 2017—a 76 wRC+ (in Cardinals terms, Aledmys Diaz was at 78 this year) for a designated hitter just doesn’t really cut it.
But starting tonight, Carlos Beltran has a chance at a ring. The ring, if acquired, will likely be won not by Beltran but by Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Justin Verlander, and company. But it will be a chance for one of the sport’s elder statesmen, a universally-praised gentleman of the game to accomplish a feat that he, on an individual basis, has deserved many times over.
At the end of the day, there’s no “right” way for Cardinals fans to root in this series—the team has had contentious playoff sets in back-to-back seasons against both the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers in recent years. But even though Beltran’s global baseball legacy will not be defined by time with the Cardinals, his impact as a lethal offensive powerhouse throughout my baseball watching life is enough to make me hope he finally wins a championship in 2017.