Carlos Beltran is a good hitter. At 36, he’s not as spry as he once was, but look at his offensive numbers, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a sign of decline. His wRC+ of 132 this year was better than his career average of 122. He didn’t walk as frequently in 2013, and he doesn’t hit the ball quite as far as in previous years. However, he made more contact, and enjoyed a career-high line drive rate. Beltran has been a very good player for a long time. His 64.1 career fWAR is on par with first-ballot Hall of Famers Tony Gwynn and Ernie Banks.
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In the postseason, Carlos Beltran has been even better. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of his regular-season and postseason numbers.
In case you were wondering, Carlos Beltran has the highest playoff OPS of any hitter with at least 100 at-bats. Because Beltran was a homegrown product of the Kansas City Royals, he didn’t get his first taste of the playoffs until his seventh season in the big leagues.
The legend of “the real Mr. October” started in 2004, after Carlos Beltran was dealt to the Houston Astros, who earned a wild card berth that season. Despite his lack of postseason experience, Beltran hit eight home runs in 12 games, with an otherworldly 1.588 OPS. He hasn’t dropped off much since. His .944 OPS in the 2013 NLDS was his second-lowest for a playoff series. With his walk-off double against seemingly invincible Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen in the 13th inning of game one in the NLCS, Beltran added to his legacy.
Of course, many players have been branded clutch hitters. The label is vastly overused.
David Ortiz, the all-time leader in playoff game-ending hits, often is cited as being clutch. The Boston Red Sox once presented him with a plaque labeling him the best clutch hitter in the history of the franchise. Once again, a comparison of his regular-season and postseason numbers.
Conclusion: David Ortiz is a really good hitter, and his playoff performance is no different. Call Ortiz clutch if you will, but the numbers don’t show he elevates his game come October. Two other supposedly clutch hitters, Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams, possess playoff OPS within 10 points of their career OPS. The original Mr. October himself, Reggie Jackson, had only slightly better numbers in the playoffs. The overwhelming majority of “clutch hitters” are good hitters who play in a lot of playoff games.
So, is Carlos Beltran’s postseason success a product of some special ability to reach a new level of performance in October or is it a collection of random hot streaks?
Sure, I could just mention the very small sample size, Beltran’s playoff plate appearances compose fewer than 2 percent of his career plate appearances. But, it would be boring if I concluded there.
That being said, let’s take a look at Beltran’s hottest months. Beltran has played 1.5 months worth of playoff games, but this is a good start. I used OPS, which is kind of a blunt instrument, but Baseball-Reference likes it.
1. August 2007: 1.153 OPS, 6 HR, 87 PA.
2. April/May 2004: 1.131 OPS, 8 HR, 99 PA.
3. September/October 2001: 1.118 OPS, 8 HR, 122 PA.
4. May 2012: 1.116 OPS, 10 HR, 105 PA.
5. September 2008: 1.086 OPS, 6 HR, 109 PA.
So, a couple of months come close to the numbers Beltran has put up in his playoff career, but even the best month is almost 50 points of OPS lower.
All right, has Beltran had a 40-game span that can match his playoff numbers?
Well, here’s his best 40-game stretch. It came from Aug. 18 to Oct. 7, 2001.
Still 72 points of OPS behind Beltran’s career numbers, and this span depended on a robust .403 BABIP. Playoff Carlos Beltran has a .310 BABIP, which is almost exactly his career average.
This method is far from perfect, it takes 40 continuous games, not a 40-game scattered in the course of 10 years. Still, Beltran’s best regular-season hot streak can’t match up to what he’s done in the postseason. His postseason success has been built entirely on the three true outcomes, it’s not just BABIP luck.
I don’t know if I can bring myself to say Carlos Beltran is truly a clutch hitter, but what he’s done in the postseason is nothing short of spectacular. Does his success have predictive value for future performance, or is it just descriptive? I couldn’t tell you. I can’t get inside Beltran’s head, and I doubt even Beltran could really explain his postseason heroics.
If I stuck to my guns, I could probably dismiss Beltran’s playoff performance as an example of random variation in performance. But, we’re talking about human beings, not sides of a coin, and there is almost always some signal amidst the noise. Maybe in Beltran’s case, there are lot of signals.
If you want to believe Carlos Beltran can raise his performance to another level this time of year, there might be something here to back you up. Provided it’s in reference to Beltran, I for once, will refrain from shaking my fist at the TV when Craig Sager, Rick Sutcliffe or another poorly dressed commentator talk about clutch hitters.