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Defending Carlos Beltran from the Steve Phillips screwdriver

One of my favorite things when I was a kid was watching the oddsmaker Jimmy the Greek match up football teams on the old NFL Today pregame show. CBS had set up one of those high-tech boards -- kind of like the one in the game show Password Plus -- where the piece of cardboard would slide out to reveal check marks. This team would get a check mark for having the better offense, but the other team might get the check mark for better defense. Then, if I remember right, there was coaching and home-field advantage.

And finally, there were "intangibles." Even as a kid, I loved the irony of Jimmy the Greek giving one team an edge in "intangibles." To me, it was like a grownup version of "cooties" -- this girl has more cooties than that girl. But Jimmy would do it all right, and he would explain those intangibles, too. He would say that this team was playing better so they had an edge in intangibles, or that team wasn't very good on the road so they had a disadvantage in intangibles, and it was all quite enjoyable.

As I got older, though, I started to realize that there is something troubling about intangibles ... people tend to use them whenever they want to make a point that makes no tangible sense. I worked in a factory for a while, and there was this guy in there that everybody liked. He had a good sense of humor, and he always made sure to say hello to everyone, and he buttered up the boss, and he would always offer to buy the person next to him a can of Coke when he went to the break room. Good guy. But he didn't do squat. I mean, he didn't do ANYTHING. Trucks would come with boxes, and he was nowhere to be found. Barrels needed to be moved, and he was nowhere to be found. Then, you'd run into him, and he'd say he was doing something, and he'd tell you a joke and offer to buy you a Coke, and life went on. THAT guy had intangibles. He also was virtually worthless.

I bring this up because Sunday night, ESPN announcer Steve Phillips apparently found a way to rip Carlos Beltran. Now, I want to make this very clear: Carlos Beltran is hitting .367 with power, and he he has walked more times than he has struck out. He is on pace to steal 30 bases while getting caught five times. He has won center field Gold Gloves each of the last three seasons, and he deserved them all -- he has won the Fielding Bible* award as the best center fielder in baseball two of the last three years.

*I always point out: I'm on the Fielding Bible panel. But I'm only one man!

Beltran has also been the best base runner in the game for the last seven or eight years. He has faltered a touch this year, but he has been a +32 base runner every year since 2002 -- that's 32 more bases than the average base runner every single year (going first to third, second to home, first to home on a double, stolen bases, etc.)

My point is not to say that Carlos Beltran is above criticism. My point is to say that ... well, yeah, at the moment, Carlos Beltran is above criticism. Are you kidding me? A brilliant defensive center fielder who hits, hits with power, steals bases, runs the bases, draws walks ... and this year, so far, he's hitting .367. Is he perfect? Of course not. But if you want to judge him by certain criteria ... well, hey, wait a minute, here's some criteria right here, courtesy of Steve Phillips himself (quotes from this insightful article from the typically insightful Ted Berg):

"That guy who's a good base runner, a good defender, doesn't give up at-bats, gets the hit when you need the hit, drives in a run when you need the run, always seems to be in the right position. I think the good teams have that guy ... that singular flawless player that in every aspect of the game, lead."

Sure. Lots of teams have good defenders and good base runners who get the hit when you need the hit and drive in the run when you need the run and always seem to be in the right position and lead and also are flawless. Absolutely. Can't have a team without one of those guys.

So, who would fit all that? Mighty Hercules?*

*Hercules! Hero of song and story!Hercules! Winner of ancient glory!Fighting for the right! Fighting with his might!With the strength of 10 ordinary men!Hercules! People are safe when near him!Hercules! Only the evil fear him!Softness in his eyes! Iron in his thighs!Virtue in his heart! Fire in every part of the Mighty Hercules!

Well, how about Albert Pujols? Sure. Steve Phillips pointed him out quickly, though it should be noted that Steve Phillips' Mets did have 13 chances to draft Pujols just like everyone else, and swung and missed. Anyway, how about Pujols? He's the best player in the game, I've said that a million times. So can he be Steve Phillips' Mighty Hercules?

Good base runner: Yeah, he's good. But that check mark goes to Beltran.

Good defender: Pujols is an excellent first baseman. Beltran is a world-class center fielder. Check mark to Beltran.

Doesn't give up at-bats: Check mark to Pujols, though Beltran is on-basing .466 at the moment.

Gets the hit when you need the hit/drives in the run when you need the run: Check mark to Pujols, but Beltran is no slouch in the clutch. There are some pretty decent playoff numbers that prove the point.

Always seems to be in the right position: And here we have the bull hockey -- the intangibles. What is this supposed to mean? No, really, what? Carlos Beltran has driven in 100 runs and scored 100 runs eight times in his career. Seems to me, that's where he's supposed to be.

Flawless? Leader?: No idea. Check mark to Jimmy the Greek.

Well, it sure looks like Beltran holds his own. You want to put him up against Dustin Pedroia? Chipper Jones? Kevin Youkilis? These are the players Steve Phillips mentioned. Beltran's a much better base runner than any of them. I would say he's a better defender than any of them, though you could argue for Pedroia.

Chipper Jones is a better hitter -- he's a GREAT hitter -- but he has not played even 140 games in a season since 2003, which would make it difficult to give him the "Always in the right place" check mark.

Dustin Pedroia has had one good year and he put up a 122 OPS+ in that year.

Kevin Youkilis has had one good year and he's a barely average runner, at best.

My point is not to knock those guys. They're great players. They do some things better than Beltran. And there are other things they don't do as well. If you want to have a fair fight and compare what they do, how they play the game, fine. But saying stuff like this drives me mad:

"I think at times, while he puts up some numbers, his game is inconsistent. There are times where, in pressure situations, he hasn't gotten the job done."

See? Here we go. Even though Beltran puts up "some numbers" his game is "inconsistent."

Some numbers = tangible.

Inconsistent = intangible.

Carlos Beltran is actually quite consistent. He's a great center fielder year after year. That takes consistency. He is the best percentage base stealer in baseball history. That takes consistency. He has, as mentioned, scored 100 runs, driven in 100 runs eight times. That takes consistency. He has only once in the last seven years hit fewer than 25 homers, driven in fewer than 100 runs, put up an OPS+ of less than 126. If anything, Beltran is TOO consistent, and that consistency has left knuckleheads demanding that he be greater than great ... you know, by improving his intangibles.*

*Or is it increasing his intangibles? Monetizing his intangibles? Tangiblizing his intangibles?

One more Phillips gem:

"While he has that great talent, there are times when he doesn't play the game and make plays."

Yep, those players who don't play the game or make plays, those are the worst kinds of players in the world. You want a player who plays the game, makes plays, a player who makes game plays, the plays gamers play to make, a player who makes plays for plays that playmakers make.

And, man, I really hate the "while he has great talent" line ... especially for a 32-year-old player that has been as good as Carlos Beltran. That to me is a slap in the face -- you know, lots of people have great talent. Steve Phillips may have had great talent ... he was drafted in the fifth round by the Mets and he had enough speed to steal 39 bases in Class A ball one year. Like I say, lots of people have talent.

But here are the number of 32-year-old players who had already hit 250 homers and stolen 250 bases: four.*

*Alex Rodriguez, Barry and Bobby Bonds, Carlos Beltran.

And here are the number of players who have scored 100 runs and driven in 100 runs eight times before they turned 32: 15.

Of those, five are eligible for the Hall of Fame, five are in the Hall of Fame.*

*The seven active players to pull the trick: A-Rod, Pujols, Beltran, Vlad Guerrero, Chipper Jones, Manny Ramirez and Ken Griffey Jr. A few Hall of Famers on that list, too.

And, oh yeah, let's remember again: Beltran is off to his best season so far.

Steve Phillips went on some convoluted rant about how Beltran doesn't get a hit every single time up, didn't slide once at home plate and overthrows his cutoff man by a mile. Yes, intangibles. Maybe these are true things ... Beltran has his flaws. But I would like to point out that I have seen Albert Pujols strike out with runners in scoring position, and I saw Torii Hunter make a bad throw to the plate, and I saw Cal Ripken make a base-running blunder and I saw Derek Jeter (no!) throw to the wrong base. The game is one of failure, and if an alien came down on some spaceship and was shown the entire hitting career of Ted Williams, he might say (though his four-nostril nose), "This guy sucked! He made outs half the time he came to the plate."

The alien also would probably be a better announcer than Steve Phillips.

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