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Carlos Beltran Superstar

In the last two games against the Phillies, one player has gone 5 for 8 with two home runs, a diving catch, a statement made on the field and fiery talk off the field. This player has raised his average 46 points since September 3. He’s not a September call-up or a rookie, but a familiar face.

His name is Carlos Beltran. He’s nearing the end of its sixth season with the Mets, with questions about whether there will be a seventh. Looking back at his time in orange and blue, two things stand out:

1) He is a remarkably good baseball player.

2) He has been treated horribly by a ridiculous organization and too many of its fans.

Beltran’s 2009 was marred by injuries, as were the seasons of many of his teammates. But he came back late in the year, and I had hope that he might be whole in 2010. But then January brought unhappy news: Beltran had opted for knee surgery in Colorado, and wouldn’t resume baseball activities until April. The Mets were livid, fuming that he hadn’t had permission.

My reaction was pretty straightforward: I was disappointed, but then I remembered how the Mets had handled injuries to Jose Reyes and other players during the horror show of 2009. Remember all that? Remember how players were day-to-day, would sit on the bench without going on the DL, would re-emerge for a brief, ineffective game or two, then go on the DL for lengthy periods? Remember how medical diagnoses relating to the Mets seemed to have more to do with spin than reality? After all that, and the pussyfooting around Madoff, and Dave Howard’s word games about obstructed views, I wasn’t inclined to believe a word the Mets said.

Beltran didn’t come back from knee surgery until the All-Star break, joining the Mets in San Francisco for an 11-game West Coast swing. The Mets went 2-9, and if you listened to talk radio you’d have immediately concluded that the problem was Beltran. (Without Beltran, by the way, the Mets had ended the first half of the season with a 3-9 skid.)

Yes, it was pretty obvious that Beltran had returned too soon from a long layoff — his timing wasn’t there and he’d lost a step in the outfield, hampered by the surgery or his knee brace or both. But the analysis from the troglodyte wing of the city’s columnists and the mouth-breathers on the FAN had little to do with his surgically repaired knee and a lot to do with the supposed quality of his heart. It was the same barber-chair stuff it’s always been: Beltran plays without passion, he’s listless, he’s passive, not a leader but a cancer.

One of the great things about advanced stats is they allow you to test your impressions against reality, showing you where your gut is correct and where your eyes are deceiving you or your prejudices are getting in the way. This stuff will never be even fifth or sixth nature to me, let alone second, but one stat I love is WAR, or Wins Above Replacement. It’s an ideal tool for figuring out how rosters should be constructed, and for seeing who’s worth his salary and who isn’t. (Here’s a basic guide [1] to WAR  from our new pals at Yahoo Sports’ Big League Stew, and here’s Joe Posnanski on why he likes WAR [2].)

So here’s Carlos Beltran [3]. Basically, a player with a WAR of 2.0 or above is worthy of being an everyday player, and one with a WAR above 5.0 is a star. But don’t worry about that too much — remember Wins Above Replacement, and think how many guys the Mets have run out in recent seasons who definitely qualified as “Replacement.”

What do we see? We probably remember that Beltran struggled in 2005, and WAR backs that up: He put up a 2.2 WAR, which is OK but by no means impossible to find, and certainly not what you want from the first year of a seven-year megadeal. But after that? Holy God. In 2006 his WAR was 7.5, and the only player who did better was named Pujols. In 2007 he put up a 5.1 WAR; in 2008 he was ninth in all of MLB with a 7.1 WAR. In 2009 his WAR was 3.1, injuries and all. That’s two monster seasons, a very good one, one that was probably better than you figured, and one that was underwhelming but OK. Here [4] are the Mets’ all-time leading hitters as measured by WAR through June. Beltran’s fourth, right up there with Keith Hernandez. And if you convert the stat to WAR per 700 plate appearances, he stands alone. Fangraphs also tries to assign a dollar value to players based on their WAR, which you’ll find at the bottom of Beltran’s player page. I know advanced-stats folks consider those valuations kind of wonky (and all advanced stats are works in progress), but it’s still a useful guide for figuring out if a player is worth his salary. By Fangraph’s calculations, Beltran has been worth the money and then some.

So that’s Carlos Beltran according to statistics. Now let’s wade into the intangibles, which is where the conversation about Beltran often becomes full of yeah buts.

I’ve never particularly understood this. I’ve always thought that the complaints about Beltran lacking passion were based on fan interpretations of his body language, which seems slightly more reliable than phrenology in assessing a ballplayer. In the field Beltran has always been superb at positioning himself, reading balls off the bat and taking that first step necessary to be in position to corral drives into the gap or against the fence. If his first step were slower and he had to lunge or dive for balls instead of catching them on the run, would that be playing with passion? If he tarted up good catches with hotdoggy pratfalls, a la the loathsome Jim Edmonds, would that be intensity? Was his stumbling, game-saving snag against the Astros halfway up Tal’s Hill unsatisfying because he didn’t grit his teeth or come off the field whooping and hollering? Why isn’t his headfirst collision with Mike Cameron — which could have ended both careers if it had gone slightly differently — remembered as proof of his grit or toughness?

I suspect Beltran’s entire Mets career would be regarded differently if he’d swung and missed the final pitch of the 2006 playoffs instead of taking it for a called third strike, even though it would have changed absolutely nothing. But if this proves anything, it’s that a lot of fans are crazy. Being fooled by a 12-to-6 knee-buckler of a curve isn’t a sign of passivity, but a sign that a very good pitcher made a perfect pitch. Players get to two strikes, look fastball and get erased by perfectly thrown curveballs every goddamn day. Sometimes it happens while you’re in the can or around the corner getting Doritos, and sometimes it happens in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the League Championship Series. Should Beltran have swung too late to show he really cared? Should he have smashed himself in the face with the bat to express his grief? Does the case against Carlos Beltran really come down to the fact that he doesn’t grimace enough? And if it does, whom is that an indictment of: Beltran, or columnists and fans who judge a player’s value to a team by facial expressions?

The Walter Reed incident was particularly distasteful on many levels. Mets officials anonymously threw Beltran, Luis Castillo and Oliver Perez — three players they were unhappy with — to the wolves, setting them up for a public shaming. (Here’s Matthew Callan’s great post [5] from back then.) Beltran, though, had a reason he hadn’t been there — he’d had a lunch meeting about a school his foundation was building in Puerto Rico. I never heard a New York scribe challenge that, even though it would have sold a ton of papers. A couple of days later, Beltran’s agent Scott Boras had this to say [6] about Beltran’s treatment by the Mets: “The team has a duty to run the organization professionally. Giving the players [short] notice, knowing they have plans or obligations in their personal lives, and then to admonish the players without checking, it’s totally unprofessional on all fronts.” I don’t particularly like Boras, but take a moment to think back on how many times the Mets have come across as dysfunctional and/or disorganized in recent years and tell me he’s wrong.

None of this mattered to New York columnists, who criticized Beltran’s attitude and work habits despite the fact that he’d been pretty thoroughly absolved. Here’s a sample [7] from Mike Lupica: “All athletes worry about their next contracts when they get close to the end of their current ones. It is why Beltran wanted to get back on the field, even in his current diminished capacity, hoping he would look better than he has before his walk year, worried about what happens to him when he comes to the end of his $100 million contract a year from now.”

Really? Beltran returned early from knee surgery because he was worried about his 2011 performance? Beyond the character assassination by generalization (“all athletes”), it’s not even a logical charge. If Lupica were correct about Beltran’s motives (he doesn’t offer a shred of evidence that he is), wouldn’t Beltran have been better served sitting out for all of 2010 to avoid putting up subpar numbers and potentially reinjuring himself? Couldn’t you just as plausibly claim that Beltran talked himself into thinking he was more ready than he was because he loves to play baseball and wanted to help his teammates? I don’t know that that’s true, but why is Lupica’s version more believable than that?

And if you care about such things, Beltran has evidenced plenty of passion in talking with reporters. He’s the guy who called the Mets the team to beat in 2008. Just two days ago, he was the one who was most upset with Chase Utley’s takeout slide of Ruben Tejada, and admitted trying to take out Utley and Wilson Valdez. Contrast that with, say, David Wright’s purse-lipped, vaguely corporate bromides after awful losses, and ask which player you’d expect to be crucified for a lack of passion.

Carlos Beltran is one of the greatest players to ever wear a Mets uniform. If there’s anything shameful about his years in New York, it’s not that he had a subpar first season by his high standards, or that he got fooled by a great curveball when we really wish he hadn’t, or that he had the misfortune to be betrayed by his knee, or that he employs an agent fans dislike, or that he plays baseball with grace and ease instead of flailing Francoeuresque fire. What’s shameful is that he’s been treated shabbily and sometimes viciously by an organization and a fanbase that doesn’t appreciate him.