Postseason performance enhances Beltran's emerging Hall of Fame case
The rally that helped the Cardinals overcome a two-run ninth-inning deficit and steal the Division Series from the Nationals was sparked by a player for whom October heroics are becoming routine. Carlos Beltran's double off Drew Storen started the four-run outburst, and capped off a tremendous series in which he hit .444/.542/.944 in 24 plate appearances.
Prior to the rally, the high point of Beltran''s series had been his two home runs in St. Louis' Game 2 rout of the Nats. It was the third multi-homer game in his postseason career and put him in the company of Manny Ramriez (three times) and Babe Ruth (four times) as the only other players with more than two multi-homer postseason games. It also made him the only player to do it with three different teams (the Astros in 2004 and Mets in 2006 being the others).
The homers were his 12th and 13th of his postseason carer, and while he needs one more to crack the top 11 (there's a three-way tie for ninth), his rate per plate appearance tops all of the men above him except one:
Furthermore, Beltran's .817 slugging percentage ranks first among hitters with at least 40 postseason plate appearances. A small segment of fans and media may use his 2006 NLCS-ending strikeout against Adam Wainwright to define him as unclutch, but his overall line — .375/.488/.817 — suggests quite the contrary.
Beltran, 35, continues to pad his postseason credentials at a time when his career is on the rebound. More than two years removed from knee problems that required surgery, and coming off a strong — if uneven — season in which his first-half play generated MVP discussion, he's at a point where his Hall of Fame case is coming into focus. In the past 13 months, he has surpassed the 300 homer, 300 stolen base and 2,000 hit milestones, putting him a select group with five other ballplayers: Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, Alex Rodriguez, Andre Dawson and Steve Finley.
Mays and Dawson are in Cooperstown, while Bonds and Rodriguez have the credentials, though performance-enhancing drug-related transgressions may forestall their entry. Finley, who just makes the cut via 304 homers, is the Sesame Street outlier of the group ("One of these things is not like the other thing…"), a very good player whose career is farthest from the Hall of Fame standards; among other things, he made just two All-Star appearances and never finished higher than 10th in an MVP vote. Beltran, by comparison, has seven All-Star appearances and three Gold Gloves, not to mention a fourth-place finish in the 2006 NL MVP voting.
Those milestones alone won't be enough to put Beltran over the top, but with his career back on track, he's poised to climb higher. With this year's 32 homers, he's now at 334; if he can get to, say, 2,500 hits and 400 homers, he'll be one of 26 hitters with such a pair. Seventeen of those players are already in the Hall, and the rest — Bonds, Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., Rafael Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez, Gary Sheffield, Chipper Jones, Vladimir Guerrero — have the resumes for it, if also some PED allegations to complicate matters.
Beyond the sticky issue of PEDs, future Hall of Fame voters will increasingly have to reckon with the impact of the expanded postseason format on a player's Hall of Fame case. The three-tiered format has given more players an October showcase, and many have put up impressive enough numbers that they might push themselves over the top. Consider this trio of starting pitchers, all of whom have yet to reach the ballot:
• John Smoltz is the only one of the Braves dynasty's triumvirate (along with Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine) not to reach the 300 win mark; Tommy John surgery and four seasons as a closer limited him to "only" 213 wins to go with a 3.33 ERA and 3,084 strikeouts (16th all time). But Smoltz went 15-4 in 41 postseason games (27 starts) totaling 209 innings, with a record 199 strikeouts; his wins total ranks second, his innings total third. His teams went 17-10 in his postseason starts. By comparison, Maddux went 11-14 with a 3.27 ERA in 198 postseason innings, and his teams went 13-17 in his starts. Glavine went 14-16 with a 3.30 ERA in 218 1/3 postseason innings, while his teams went 18-17.
• Andy Pettitte never won a Cy Young award, but he has racked up 245 career wins, and while his 3.86 ERA is 0.06 higher than any pitcher in Cooperstown, he has made 44 career postseason starts, pitched 276 2/3 innings and notched 19 wins. He is first in all of those postseason categories and second in strikeouts with 178. His teams are 26-18 in his postseason starts, including a loss in Game 1 of the ALCS against Detroit.
• Curt Schilling never won a Cy Young, either, but he finished second three times, won 216 games and struck out 3,116 hitters, 15th all time. His 11-2 postseason mark, with a 2.23 ERA and 120 strikeouts in 133 1/3 innings, is remarkable enough on its own; when you add Game 7 of the 2001 World Series and Game 6 of the 2004 ALCS — the Bloody Sock Game — you get two of the biggest postseason performances against the Yankees dynasty of the era. Schilling was 4-1 with a 2.06 ERA in seven World Series starts; his team won five of those, and 14 of his 19 postseason starts overall.
Reaching the Hall of Fame thanks to the extra help of postseason credentials is hardly a new fad. Whitey Ford, Red Ruffing, Waite Hoyt, Chief Bender and Catfish Hunterare among those who fell short of 300 wins but helped their causes with strong showings in an extraordinary number of World Series opportunities; all rank in the top 10 for Fall Classic starts, led by Ford's 22. That said, all but Ford and Hunter were among those elected by the Veterans Committee, which held players to lower standards than the Baseball Writers Association of America voters who got first crack at the candidates.
Furthermore, position players who rank similarly high on the World Series games played leaderboard haven't received the same kind of bounce based on those opportunities (Roger Maris) or are in the Hall more in spite of their October performances than because of them (Phil Rizzuto and Pee Wee Reese). The player who ranks third on the total postseason games played list, former Yankee Bernie Williams debuted with just 9.6 percent of the vote on the 2012 ballot. With 2,336 career hits and 287 homers, Williams' major counting stat totals aren't tremendous, but he was a five-time All-Star, four-time Gold Glove winner and four-time world champion who hit .297/.381/.477 in the regular season and .275/.371/.480 with 22 homers (second all-time) in the postseason. He's hardly chopped liver.
When it comes to Hall of Fame evaluations, I invariably turn to my Jaffe WARP Score (JAWS) system, a tool for comparing candidates to the players at their position who are already enshrined, with the goal of identifying and endorsing above-average candidates who won't further erode the standards of the institution.
WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player) measures each player's hitting, pitching and fielding contributions relative to those of a freely available reserve or minor-league callup, with built-in adjustments for park and league scoring levels so that we can more fairly compare players across eras. To prevent longevity from being the sole determinant of enshrinement, I compare players according both to career total WARP and to their peak WARP, defined as a player's best seven seasons. JAWS is the average between a player's career and peak WARP total. It's not a system that attempts to predict the voting, nor does it capture the awards, honors and postseason performances that can enhance a candidate's case, but it gives a good idea of which ones are in range of election, while admitting that the the mental math to determine the impact of those other credentials tends to be more subjective.
Including this season, Beltran has 57.0 career WARP and 38.9 peak WARP, for a 48.0 JAWS score. That's a hair better than Williams (54.0/40.3/47.2), who at one point appeared Cooperstown-bound but ceased being a productive player after his age 33 season, compiling just 2.5 WARP over his final four years. Both are still shy of the average Hall of Fame centerfielder at 72.8 career, 46.8 peak, and 58.3 JAWS, though it's worth noting the top-heaviness of the rankings:
Not shown are the scores of three centerfielders with higher JAWS than Beltran who have already been rejected by BBWAA voters, and three players who aren't yet eligible. The former group consists of Jimmy Wynn (68.9/52.9/60.9), Willie Davis (64.3/37.6/51.0) and Cesar Cedeno (58.2/43.2/50.7), while the latter group is Griffey (79.4/50.0/64.7), Jim Edmonds (67.1/43.9/55.5), and Andruw Jones (56.5/41.1/48.8). Griffey is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, while Edmonds may face an uphill battle due a hit total of just 1,949; no position player whose career took place in the post-1960 expansion era has been elected with fewer than 2,000 hits.
Beltran's peak is further below the average than one might have suspected going in, though he still has a case as one of the top 10 centerfielders in history — no small accomplishment, and one that may trump any relation to the standards in the minds of actual voters. From the standpoint of JAWS, while he may be able to stick around past age 40 and add a couple of WARP per year (he was worth 3.3 last year, and 1.9 this year, with −8 FRAA defense in each season cutting into his value), increasing his peak score at this stage is a taller order. His seventh-best season was worth 4.2 WARP, a mark he hasn't exceeded since 2008, when he was 31 and still playing centerfield. Even allowing that his postseason accomplishments are worth a handful of extra WARP, he'll have work to do just to surpass any of the aforementioned contemporaries. That said, he's not done yet — either in the grand scheme of his career, or in this October.