This is the dilemna: The one genuine, should-be Hall of Fame lock among the newcomers on the Baseball Writers Association of America’s 2023 ballot is also the first major figure from the Astrogate cheating scandal to arrive upon a such a ballot.
With Barry Bonds (actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances), Roger Clemens (see Bonds), and Curt Schilling (vile public commentaries since his retirement, despite his overwhelming Hall case) out of their BBWAA eligibility and now in the hands of the Contemporary Era Committee, it didn’t mean controversy left the BBWAA voters with those three. This new candidate by himself makes up for the loss, unfortunately.
There’s another new candidate among many on the ballot. This one might have had a Hall of Fame career if not for a series of injuries on the field that made him a very unfair pariah. His name is Jacoby Ellsbury. We’ll discuss him in due course, after first addressing . . .
The Newcomers: Carlos Beltrán
Before the exposure of the Astro Intelligence Agency’s illegal, off-field-based, electronic sign-stealing operation of 2017-18, Carlos Beltrán figured to have ended his playing career (as the Astros’ 2017 designated hitter) looking forward to accepting a plaque in Cooperstown. That and managing in the major leagues.
The number-nine center fielder of all time (according to Baseball-Reference via Jay Jaffe) who’d been respected as a student of the game and managerial material in the making found himself having to yield the bridge of the Mets (for whom he’d once starred as a player)—before he had the chance even to manage a spring training exhibition.
Though Commissioner Rob Manfred handed all 2017-18 Astro players immunity from discipline in return for spilling AIA deets, Beltrán was the only player Manfred singled out by name in his Astrogate report. It was Beltrán who suggested the Astros needed to “upgrade” from mere replay room reconnaissance, prompting then-bench coach Alex Cora to arrange the long-infamous real-time camera feed to an extra clubhouse monitor for sign deciphering and the long-infamous trash can transmissions.
That was despite Manfred’s September 2017 warning against using replay room reconnaissance and other such off-field chicanery, after the Red Sox (eventually using their own Rogue Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance in 2018 regardless) and the Yankees were caught trying a few tricks from the dugouts.
Beltrán landed the Mets’ managing job twelve days before Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich (in The Athletic) dropped the first full Astrogate revelation in November 2019. Within 72 hours of Manfred’s January 2020 report, all three incumbent managers named in the Rosenthal-Drellich exposure—Beltrán, Cora (who managed the 2018 Red Sox to a World Series championship), and the Astros’ A.J. Hinch (who acted feebly at best when catching onto his AIA cheaters)—were out.
Hinch was fired by Astros owner Jim Crane in hand with general manager Jeff Luhnow, but after sitting out his Manfred-imposed season’s suspension and some very contrite interviews, he found new life on the Tigers’ bridge. Cora sat out his Manfred-imposed season’s suspension, gave a few interviews in which he expressed genuine remorse for his Astrogate role, and was brought back to manage the Red Sox.
Beltrán said little about his Astrogate culpability until he returned to baseball as an analyst for the Yankees’ YES cable television network in April. There, he owned up in an interview with YES colleague Michael Kay:
Looking back now—yes, we did cross the line. I made my statement about what happened in 2017, and I apologized . . . This happened in such an organic way for ourselves. We all did what we did. Looking back today, we were wrong. I wish I would have asked more questions about what we were doing, I wish the organization would have said to us, “What you guys are doing, we need to stop this.” Nobody really said anything—we’re winning.
Obviously, Beltrán either didn’t know or chose not to know that “the organisation” as headed by Luhnow was in it up to its kishkes, having deployed the Codebreaker sign-stealing algorithim despite its creator’s warning that it was legal to use only before or after games but not during.
Had Astrogate never happened, Beltrán would have been a very likely first-ballot Hall of Famer. He played twenty seasons, and his peak with the Royals, the Astros (the first time, helping them reach a postseason with his second-half term there), the Mets (helping them to the 2006 postseason), and the Cardinals (two postseasons) was All-Star caliber or better. (He was actually a nine-time All-Star.)
He earned 67.6 wins above replacement-level (WAR) from his first full Kansas City season through the second of two with the Cardinals. That was despite missing significant time due to injuries in his final Met seasons. And his value wasn’t strictly in his bat, though my Real Batting Average metric (total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances) shows him not far off the middle of the Hall of Fame center field pack that played in the post-World War II/post-integration/night-ball era:
|Ken Griffey, Jr.||11304||5271||1312||246||102||81||.620|
Now, however, marry it to Beltrán’s defensive prowess. He’s the number seven center fielder all-time for run prevention above his league average with +104. He was rangy, smart on the fielding lanes, and was a top of the line reader of batted balls from his position before Father Time finally began to exact a penalty.
Until Astrogate, of course, Beltrán had only one genuine black mark against him, especially so far as Met fans were concerned: frozen solid by an Adam Wainwright curve ball for strike three called—with the bases loaded, the Mets down two runs, and the pennant on the line in the bottom of the ninth, in Game Seven of the 2006 National League Championship Series.
You know something? It happens. Even to Hall of Famers. Beltrán wasn’t the first superstar to get himself tied up at the last minute of that critical a postseason set, and he won’t be the last. That’s not enough to damage a man’s Hall case. No eleventh-hour shortfall should have been. Not even for Babe Ruth.
You want to continue condeming Beltrán for that? How about The Big Fella getting himself caught stealing on a likely busted run-and-hit play to end the 1926 World Series in the Cardinals’ favour—with Bob Meusel at the plate and Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig on deck?
How about Willie McCovey—with second and third, two out, and the Giants down only 1-0—hitting a howitzer shot speared by Bobby Richardson to end the 1962 Series in the Yankees’ favour instead of sending the tying and maybe winning runs home?
How about Carl Yastrzemski fouling out with two out and the Red Sox down a single run to end the 1975 Series in the Reds’ favour?
How about Mariano Rivera surrendering a Series-losing base hit to Luis Gonzalez in 2001 or—after Dave Roberts stole second off a leadoff walk—an RBI single to Bill Mueller to tie the game at four when the Yankees were only three outs from a 2004 ALCS sweep?
None of those fatalities kept Ruth, McCovey, Yastrzemski, or The Mariano out of Cooperstown when their time eventually came. Getting frozen solid by a great pitch shouldn’t keep Beltrán out, either.
But it’s entirely realistic to suggest that, had Beltrán not gotten himself into the thick of the 21st Century’s worst major league cheating scandal, in his final season as a player, he’d probably be looking at unvarnished, uncontroversial first-ballot Hall of Fame election. Right now, we don’t know how many Hall-voting BBWAA writers will hold it against him enough to make him wait a ballot or three. Or more.
The Newcomers: The Saddest of them All
The rest of the newcomers had their moments but didn’t turn them into Cooperstown cases. A lot of them looked like potential Hall of Famers at first, too. Maybe the saddest of them all is . . .
Jacoby Ellsbury (CF)—Was there any 2010s sight sadder than Ellsbury—whose 2007 cup of coffee turned into shining in that Red Sox-winning World Series—taken down piece by piece by injuries? There was, in fact. It was the sight and sound of Yankee fans battering him mercilessly and witlessly over yet another injury doing nothing worse than playing the game.
The injuries compromised him in Boston and made him an unfair pariah in the Bronx. He had Hall of Fame talent: some power, above-average center field defense, and a knack for turning baserunning into guerrila warfare. Especially the day he scored on a wild pitch—from second base. Especially in Game Six of the 2013 World Series.
The first of Navajo descent (his mother) to play major league baseball, Ellsbury was treated unfairly by fans and perhaps a teammate or three on the grounds that his injuries, and his sensible enough need to recover fully before playing again, equaled a character flaw. They derided him unfairly as a fragile goldbrick. They tried to make him feel as though injuries incurred in honest competitioin equaled weakness.
It got bad enough that, when one of Ellsbury’s four children was born on the Fourth of July 2019, and the proud father announced it on Instagram, he was attacked mercilessly by the worst of the Twitter twits and other social media mongrels. The guy who helped the Red Sox win a pair of World Series rings before leaving as a free agent could have been in traction and the worst Yankee fans would have accused him of staging it.
Once upon a time, Ellsbury broke the Red Sox’s consecutive-game errorless streak record. He hit four doubles and stole a base in the ’07 Series and looked on the way to becoming one of the all-time Red Sox greats.
Then, in April 2010, he crashed into a human earth mover named Adrián Beltré (himself a future Hall of Famer) at third base. He suffered four hairline rib fractures on the play, came back too soon, saw a thoracic specialist who recommended more rest and rehab, rejoined the Red Sox that August . . . and re-injured the ribs on another play against the Rangers later the same month.
More injuries followed often enough. Then Ellsbury, fed up with whisperings that he took “too long” to recover from them, elected to walk as a free agent without so much as a quick glance back at the Red Sox. In Year One as a Yankee, he played the way Jacoby Ellsbury at his healthiest could play. (He led the American League with a 22.7 power-speed number.)
From an essay I wrote when the Yankees finally released him in 2019 (for using a rehab facility outside the organisation—without their permission, as if a man injured so often didn’t know himself what might be best for him) . . .
2015—Right knee sprain on 20 May; out two months, rest of the season nothing to brag about, unfortunately.
2016—Uninjured but production falling further, including his lowest total stolen bases to that point during a healthy season.
2017—Smashed his head against the center field wall while making a highlight-reel catch. Concussion. Missed 29 games and lost his center field job to Aaron Hicks, but somehow managed to break Pete Rose’s career record for reaching base on catcher’s interference, doing it for the thirtieth time on 11 September, which also happened to be his 34th birthday.
2018—Strained his right oblique at spring training’s beginning. Turned up in April’s beginning with a torn hip labrum. Missed the entire season (and underwent surgery in August) because of it.
2019—Started the season on the injured list with a foot injury; also turned up with plantar fasciitis in the foot (the same injury plus knee issues that reduced Albert Pujols as an Angel to a barely replacement-level designated hitter) and another shoulder injury. Took until September for the Yankees to admit Ellsbury was lost for the year.
I repeat further what I wrote then: Not one of those injuries was caused by anything other than playing the game or performing other baseball-related activity. Remember that before you continue condemning Ellsbury the man or the Yankees as a team over him.
“Some people give their bodies to science. I gave mine to baseball,” said long-ago Met (and Giant, Expo, and Cardinal) Ron Hunt. Ellsbury did likewise. It cheated him out of a Hall of Fame case, and it made too many fans believe he was no better than a gunsmith running weapons to Russia against Ukraine.
Ellsbury didn’t become a Yankee because he believed his previous injuries really began draining the talent that was once as electric as a generator. He didn’t wear the pinstripes believing he’d become an orthopedic experiment. He isn’t owed a plaque in Cooperstown, either. But he’s certainly owed more than a handful of apologies.
* The sacrifice fly wasn’t made an official statistic until the 1954 season. Several of the Hall of Famers listed in the RBA table played a third or more of their seasons prior to the rule coming on line. How to overcome that hole?
I tinkered with a few ideas until I tripped over a best-case scenario. I took those players’ numbers of recorded sacrifice flies and divided them by the number of seasons they played under the rule. Then, I took that result and multiplied it by the number of Show seasons they actually played.
The formula is sacrifice flies (SF) divided by sacrifice fly-rule seasons (SRS), multiplied by total MLB seasons. It shows an estimate of the sacrifice flies they might have been expected to hit if the rule was in place their entire careers.