ESPN announcer Steve Phillips gave viewers a vivid description of Carlos Beltran's shortcomings during Sunday's night Game of the Week telecast. Beltran is a very good player "in his own world," Phillips told us. "While he has that great talent, there are times when he doesn’t play the game and make plays."
Phillips’s cryptic and derogatory comments could mean he has an ax to grind (he was once the Mets' general manager, and was critical of other players, too), or that he's trying to rile up viewers (common practice) ... or he truly believes Beltran is deeply flawed — even though he's one of the ten best players in baseball.
Beltran has often been a whipping boy for the media, and for all too many fans. He doesn't know when to slide. "There's just something missing." Beltran belongs on the All-Overpaid Team — like, really overpaid. Beltran isn't a winner. Beltran is a choking choker who chokes.
And yet by any objective standard, Beltran is a true five-tool player, one of the best in the game by conventional or advanced measures. In his worst seasons he'll hit .275 with 70 walks, 25 homers, and 30 doubles while playing Gold Glove defense at one of the toughest positions on the diamond, all while stealing lots of bases and almost never getting caught. Despite his reputation for choking, Beltran's track record is actually better in clutch situations than otherwise. His run during the 2004 playoffs ranks as one of the greatest individual postseason performances in Major League history.
Why the disconnect? Many of Beltran's best talents are subtle, and subtlety doesn't always win you friends in baseball. (Beltran is cut from the same cloth as obscure greats like Bert Blyleven and Tim Raines.) Subtlety might be even less appreciated in New York. Beltran is an elite defender who glides to the ball, rather than manipulating plays into Jim Edmonds–style web gems. He's the best percentage base-stealer of all time. He walks a lot. He's smooth and graceful, without pumping his fist or sounding off to reporters or doing much of anything to draw attention to himself. Combine those broad, quiet skills with an unremarkable demeanor and a lack of quotability, and Beltran somehow comes across as an aloof overachiever, a player who doesn't get the most out of his talents, who "doesn’t play the game and make plays." The New York media, fixated as it is on bigger, splashier, personality-driven stories, only fans the flames. Why talk about Beltran's subtle talents when you can instead paint him as a fat, overpaid, lazy choker?
Most of the criticisms leveled against Carlos Beltran have little or nothing to do with Carlos Beltran. The Mets have underachieved in the past two seasons, folding down the stretch in spectacular fashion. Competing again for first place this season, the team still gets more flak than virtually any other contender. Granted, the Mets sometimes deserve that criticism, as Monday night's debacle illustrated. But poorly constructed rosters, lousy bullpens, bad luck, and ridiculous management have been the biggest reasons for the Mets' failures; they've fallen short in spite of Beltran, not because of him. Carlos Beltran's few failings as a baseball player get magnified because he's Carlos Beltran — a player with Hall of Fame talent who might never excite people.