Carlos Beltran announced today on the Players’ Tribune that he is retiring from baseball. This ends a 20-year career in which Beltran made nine All-Star games, hit 435 homers, stole 312 bases, and accumulated 69.8 WAR. Thanks to his position as an elder statesman on this year’s Astros, he’s also finally a world champion.
It’s fitting that Beltran earned his lone World Series ring in such personally anti-climactic fashion—he gave Houston -0.6 WAR in the regular season and went hitless in three World Series at-bats—because the story of his career is one that has always been somewhat at odds with itself. Beltran is perhaps the greatest postseason hitter in history, and yet his most indelible postseason moment is him helplessly looking at That Curveball from Adam Wainwright in 2006; he’s a statistical marvel with a solid Hall of Fame case, and yet somehow the numbers undersell the brilliant and beautiful experience of watching Beltran play; he will be regarded as a franchise favorite by fans for years to come, but not just by one fan base—Beltran played on seven different teams.
If there’s anything that will hurt Beltran’s shot at making the Hall, it’s how the fluctuations of his career make it so difficult to pin down one enduring image of him as a player. It’s easy to close your eyes and imagine various archetypal Hall of Fame candidates—beefy rectangular sluggers and gliding shortstops and so on—without settling on one that suits Beltran. Does the fact that all his postseason dominance added up to just one lifetime achievement title preclude him from being the Postseason Hero? Does a lack of an MVP award and some statistical dips make it harder to imagine him as the Undeniable Stats Monster?
It might, but it shouldn’t. It’s difficult to capture Beltran’s career in a single image or smash it into some archetypal shape or other, but that’s a feature, not a bug. The problem, which isn’t really a problem at all, is that Beltran played long enough and well enough that he was many different players, in many different places, over the course of his career. This messes with the narrative arc a bit, and things like that tend to matter more than they probably should when it comes to Cooperstown votes, but viewed in its totality the sweep of Beltran’s career is a testament to his unique talent. In Kansas City he was the prospect made good and for a while probably the most complete five-tool player in the game; during his first brief stint in Houston he became a world-destroying playoff force; in New York, with the Mets, he became an unfairly maligned MVP-caliber player. Then came the latter years, when he was productive and professional and uncharacteristically unremarkable as a hired gun for various playoff teams. His greatest performances never earned the glory they deserved, and his one great failure was never followed by any dramatic redemption.
During all of this, the one constant feature of Beltran’s game was that he was a gorgeous player to watch. His swing, which was devastating from both sides of the plate, was a rare combination of aesthetic form and blunt function. There were no hitches or wasted bits of motion, but neither was there the rote and repeatable chop of a swing born in a hitting clinic. Beltran stood tall at the plate and kept his body straight and quiet as he whipped around a long swing that always managed to meet the ball right where it needed to. Some hitters, the ones who crouch low and jerk their hands through the zone, look like they need the use of every muscle in their body to hit a dinger. Beltran swung so easy that it often looked like the ball was slowing down to meet his bat.
If, for whatever reason, someone in the future asks me describe who Carlos Beltran was as a player, it will be a hard question to answer. Going straight to the strikeout that ended Game 7 of the NLCS certainly won’t cut it, and those 16 playoff homers won’t really tell the story, either. What will answer the question is that swing, and the image of him striding through center field to chase down a flare or a ball in the gap. All anyone in the future will need to do is watch a few Beltran’s highlights to understand that he was everything you could imagine a baseball player to be, all of them at the same time.