Carlos Beltran hit the 16th postseason home run of his career yesterday, passing Babe Ruth on the career postseason home run list. If you've watched playoff baseball over the last decade you know all about Beltran's surreal ability to come up big in October, but there probably aren't that many casual fans who blurt out, "Carlos Beltran!" when asked to name the most dominant postseason hitter of the modern era. That's because Beltran has always had a knack for being great when we least expect him to be.
First, the numbers. They're staggering. If all Beltran had done is hit more postseason home runs than Ruth you could write that down to his having had more chances to do so, but his rate statistics are even more impressive than his raw counting numbers:
All of this is even more insane when you consider the kind of regular-season player Beltran has been. He's a five-tool player whose excellence has always manifested itself in statistical categories that don't include batting average or RBI, a stathead's darling who annually exits his niche as an underappreciated Jimmy Wynn type and then transforms into Shiva the Destroyer.
Beltran's first trip to the postseason was his most impressive. A midseason trade sent him from the Kansas City Royals to the playoff-contending Houston Astros, for whom he played in 14 playoff games, in 2004. He hit eight home runs, drove in 14 runs, and scored 21, running up a .455/.500/.1.091 line in the NLDS, followed on by a .417/.563/.958 encore in the NLCS. The league had gotten its first glimpse of the world-destroying Beltran, and when he signed with the New York Mets the next season, the spotlight was trained on him, expectantly.
In his first year in Flushing Beltran was solid, and over the next three years, he was a consistent MVP candidate. For whatever reason, though, that wasn't enough. The '07-'10 stretch saw some of the saddest collapses in recent baseball history, which were pitiful even within the inherently pitiful context of the Mets' pitiful history. Not only did he get the blame for it, but it somehow came to seem reasonable for people to say things like this, and this.
The most enduring memory that Beltran left Mets fans with was his strikeout against Adam Wainwright to end Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS. It remains one of the most brutal game-ending strikeouts you'll ever see:
Beltran hit .296/.387/.667 with three home runs in that series, but, you know, whatever.
After his years with the Mets, which trailed down into a desultory series of injuries, Beltran's chances to become a universally recognized great player and household name were effectively snuffed out. At 34 years old, he quietly moved into the twilight of his career, playing in 44 games for the Giants in 2011 before landing in St. Louis in 2012. And what's he done since then? Well... he's been Carlos Beltran. He's hit .282/.343/.493 with 56 homers as a Cardinal in the regular season, and continued to destroy baseballs in the postseason. He hit .444/.542/.944 with two home runs in last year's NLDS, and followed that up with a .300/.364/.600 line and 12 total bases in the NLCS.
It's this dichotomy—the difference between regular-season Beltran and unstoppable-postseason-monster Beltran—that has laced his career with an odd tension. He's a guy who should be a serious Hall of Fame candidate based just on his regular-season stats, but will likely only even sniff the Hall thanks to postseason heroics that have only come in situations that provide little lift to his career's narrative arc. Nobody gives a shit if you hit eight postseason home runs for the Astros or play hired gun for the Cardinals, but everyone cares if you're the one at the plate when a potential Mets dynasty gets washed away by one perfect, cruel curveball. You may be the best postseason hitter in baseball history; it only matters so much if you've never played in a World Series.
As a comparison, consider Beltran's closest career analog: Curt Schilling. Schilling put together a wonderful career in Philadelphia, but it's his postseason career in Arizona and Boston and the infamous bloody sock that guarantee his name will be shouted out—rightly or not—by casual fans when the question of who the greatest postseason pitcher of all time is comes up. Beltran has, in his way, been every bit as good as Schilling, but short of one game against the Cardinals seven years ago, his teammates have never quite given him that one chance to prove just how good he is in a crucial October series against a dynasty, or in some other significant setting. For all anyone knows, his chance is coming, but for now his career looks like it might end up as an object lesson, proving a simple point: in baseball, true greatness matters just about as much as its context.