I've been hanging on to this for a while, because it seems presumptuous in many ways. But why the heck not, because it's a good question: Is Carlos Beltran Hall of Fame material?
Now's not a terrible time to talk about this. There isn't much that isn't depressing about the Mets right now, barring trades, we pretty much know the identity of next years Mets team, and Beltran, after years as history's greatest villain, experienced a super fun resurrection this season, both on the field and with his reputation, before being traded and promptly getting hurt while in the employ of a different team. But while in New York this year, you could barely find anyone who thinks Beltran is selfish, overpaid, overrated and the cause of the Mets' problems. Indeed, when Carlos was traded there was a long overdue appreciation of the man who may very well have had the best three (and a half) year stretch of any position player in team history.
Of course, here's the thing. Beltran probably won't be a Hall of Famer. The way I see it, Hall of Famers tend to have one of a few things in common. Either they...
Carlos Beltran certainly doesn't, nor will he, fall into any of the first three categories. But just because he won't be a Hall of Famer, doesn't mean he shouldn't be. But what makes a Hall of Famer, exactly, then? Some guys, the Albert Puljos's and Alex Rodriguez's of the world, are no-brainers. But for most guys, the question is murky. I think the way to figure this out is to start weeding people out by subjecting a player's career to various tests. And if you haven't weeded out the player by the end, well....
Test No. 1: Was he undoubtably one of the best players at his position for an extended stretch?
The answer for Carlos is yes. No doubt. Throughout Carlos's career, only Andruw Jones, and at various points, Ken Griffey Jr., Grady Sizemore and Jim Edmonds could be judged as Beltran's equal for more than a year at a time. Check out Beltran's ranking by WAR (via Fangraphs) among players who made the majority their starts in CF during his prime, 2001-2008.
2005 is a weird outlier, as Mets fans know. And even 2007, when he ranked number 5 among CF, he was likely better than that. Beltran's UZR in 2007 was 2.9. But in '08 it was 12.1 and in '06 10.3, which looks to me like that number was artificially low, as defensive stats can be. So yeah, Beltran was among the best at his position for a long time. For what it's worth, pre-injury, Beltran was right there in 2009, accumulating 2.7 WAR through 57 games, a pace which would've certainly ended up putting him among the top 2-3 CF in baseball yet again. And now, at a new position, he's emerged as an elite RF, and even with recent injuries still ranks 5th among every-day RF by WAR.
Test No. 2: Was he one of the very best players in baseball at least a few times?
Yep. Beltran has five credible MVP-caliber seasons: 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2008. Under different circumstances, Carlos easily could've been named the MVP in any of those years, like say if Albert Puljos had been hurt, or if everyone randomly decided he was the MVP without for no discernible reason (like what occurred with Jimmy Rollins in 2007.) I think we can all agree that Derek Jeter is going to the Hall of Fame (and well he should), but how many MVP-caliber seasons has he had? Probably about five, right? By WAR, Beltran has ranked top 10 among all major leaguers 4 times during his career (2003, 2004, 2006, 2008), and probably should have in 2007.
For comparison check out Beltran's career compared to Jeter and Pudge Rodriguez, both future Hall of Famers, via Fangraphs WAR graph tool.
Pretty similar, right?
Test No. 3: What do the Numbers Say
Depends which numbers you look at. The traditional numbers are good, but not startling, though even they might be better than you think. 295 home runs doesn't sound like a ton, but it's more than Hall of Famer Robin Yount hit. Beltran is clearly one of the 5-10 best hitters at his position over the last 30 years. His counting stats already place him in the top 10 among CF in most categories, and he's still accumulating numbers, unlike those in front of him.
His rate stats tell a pretty similar picture, too.
Only five CF's have accumulated more wins above replacement over the last 45 years than Beltran: Ken Griffey Jr. (a sure-fire Hall of Famer), Robin Yount (already a Hall of Famer), Andruw Jones (should be a Hall of Famer, but, like Beltran, probably won't be), Jim Edmonds (ditto) Kenny Lofton (surprising!) and Andre Dawson (a Hall of Famer, albeit a controversial one.) It's worth noting that Beltran has played roughly 350 less games than Jones, about 400 less than Lofton, 1,000 less than Griffey and Dawson and 1,200 less than Yount. Beltran will probably catch Dawson in terms of career WAR this season and, if he can stay healthy, would probably pass Lofton in 2012, and Jones and Edmonds in 2013. If he could play for 4 more years at a reasonably high level, he'd end up passing Yount too, have the second-most WAR of any CF of the last 45 years after Griffey, and would, in this scenario, only trail Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Tris Speaker, Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, Griffey and Al Simmons among all CF, ever. Obviously this is speculative, and predicting that Beltran will be healthy and good for 4+ more seasons seems crazy, but it just puts in perspective how great Beltran has been that this is even in play.
Test No. 4: Was there something special about the guy?
Beltran ended up as one of the most controversial players in Mets history, and that's precisely because, yes, Beltran was special. Some Mets fans loved Beltran because he was so damn smooth in the field. Because he took those long, graceful strides, and easy routes to every ball. Because when he tried to steal a base, he did. Because when he got a hold of a home run, he got a hold of one. Those who hate Beltran do so in large part because everything looked so easy and, evidently (or because they are jerks and/or idiots), he should've been grunting, and looking awkward like Daniel Murphy, rather than being so damn good it looked easy.
As I said, I don't think Beltran will end up in the Hall of Fame. Nor do I think this is an open and shut case. Beltran is probably a borderline case in the grand scheme of things, someone you could make a good case either way (much like recent inductees Roberto Alomar, Andre Dawson, Jim Rice and Eddie Murphy, actually). But that's because the Hall of Fame is weird like that. Andruw Jones probably won't ever get in there. But Ozzie Smith is in. How is Smith -- arguably the greatest defensive SS of all time -- a sure thing, but Jones -- arguably the greatest defensive CF of all time and a much better hitter -- not worthy? Chipper Jones will definitely get in. Scott Rolen won't. It's unclear that Chipper has had any better of a career than Rolen. Guys like Bobby Abreu and John Olerud and Keith Hernandez and Jeff Kent had long, excellent careers that by the numbers look just as good as Andre Dawson's (if not better). None of those guys will be in the Hall of Fame. But if are talking about an ideal world, where the standard of a Hall of Famer passes the threshold of the lowest caliber guys generally inducted, than Carlos Beltran has already made his case, and could make it a slam dunk (for those who are logical) in 10 years or so.