2023 HOF BBWAA ballot: Two problematic newcomers . . .

Carlos Beltrán

Beltrán got to retire a World Series winner, returning to the Astros for 2017 . . . but he turned out a co-mastermind of Astrogate. Will that damage his Hall of Fame chances?

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:

Mickey Mantle 9907 4511 1733 148 47 13 .651
Willie Mays 12496 6066 1464 214 91 44 .631
Ken Griffey, Jr. 11304 5271 1312 246 102 81 .620
Duke Snider 8237 3865 971 154 54* 21 .615
Larry Doby 6299 2621 871 60 39* 38 .576
Carlos Beltrán 11031 4751 1084 104 110 51 .553
Andre Dawson 10769 4787 589 143 118 111 .534
Kirby Puckett 7831 3453 450 85 58 56 .524
Richie Ashburn 9736 3196 1198 40 30* 43 .463
HOF AVG .574

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.

Jacoby Ellsbury

Jacoby Ellsbury toying with the Cardinals as he thwarts a rundown in Game Six of the 2013 World Series. He made them resemble a quartet of wolves outsmarted by a flea.

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.

The Mets take a hearty Beltran

2019-11-02 CarlosBeltran

From crossing home as a Mets player to coming home as their new manager.

Leave it to a few too many Met fans. The organisation hires one of the best respected former players in the game to manage the team, and all they can remember is that he was frozen solid to end the 2006 National League Championship Series.

So let’s get it out of the way once and for all. No, I wasn’t any more thrilled than you when the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright nailed Carlos Beltran with strike three to end that NLCS. Especially after Beltran to that point had thirty at-bats in that NCLS before that one, with three bombs, four steaks, and a .307 batting average.

But Wainwright had baseball’s nastiest curve ball that season. It would have frozen Willie Mays himself. The heartbreak when your team gets beaten isn’t always mitigated when your arguable best gets beaten by their arguable best. But unless you’d rather Beltran frozen by Braden Looper it’s long past time to forgive what needs no forgiveness.

Certainly it didn’t freeze Beltran for the rest of his baseball life. He didn’t look for the nearest mouse hole into which to spend it. He merely played 548 more games as a Met with ninety home runs, three All-Star teams, two Gold Gloves, and a few MVP votes, before he was traded to the Giants for a kid named Zack Wheeler.

And he even put up with the indignity when he defied the Mets’ powers that were at the time to undergo surgery on a bothersome knee, thanks to the past sane thought that just maybe his chosen doctors knew a little bit better than the Mets’ designated quacks what his knee needed. (Indeed, the day would come when the Mets would finally overhaul their medical brain trust.)

He knew enough to play seven more useful seasons including a farewell with the Astros’ 2017 World Series winner. It’s not that he put on a show in that Series (he batted three times, struck out once, and had nothing else to show for it), but there wasn’t an Astro to be found who didn’t benefit from his counsel, either.

As a Met Beltran was invaluable not just because he was a Hall of Fame-level player but because, in the middle of any maelstrom buffeting the team in the city that rarely forgives and rarely forgets, he was a stand-up man no matter the scandal or the struggle amidst the team.

He mentored and shepherded players, he faced the press no matter how hard the loss or how ridiculous the externals, he answered any and every question without evasion, and he was maybe the only baseball man in New York this side of Joe Girardi who couldn’t be T-boned by an unsuspected disaster running the figurative red light.

Now the Met who couldn’t be caught off guard even in testy New York gets to manage them. And they’re in slightly better shape than people think. Their rather stupefying second-half run in 2019 wasn’t enough to save the head of the hapless, often clueless Mickey Callaway, but it might be enough for Beltran to lead them to next year’s postseason after all. Might.

They have the National League’s likely Rookie of the Year. They have arguably the league’s best pitcher still, with arguably several more seasons of comparable performance yet to come. They have a youthful core who showed mettle, flair, and adaptability in 2019. If the Mets give Beltran the thing he needs most—a bullpen overhaul that leaves him more than just bull—he’ll have an advantage even before spring training begins.

Beltran also has a unique ability to connect with even the most disparate players and coaches, something he was known for as a player and a skill he refined even further in two years working in the Yankee front office. Show Beltran two players about whom fire and gasoline would be understatements, and Beltran will show you two players he kept from further combustion.

SNY’s Andy Martino has a classic example. Carlos Gomez and Brian McCann once clashed on the field after Gomez, the punk, had fun hitting one out against the Braves and McCann blocked him up the third base line from scoring to finish the homer over, you know, the Sacred Unwritten Rules. It was hard to know who looked more foolish, Gomez for having his fun or McCann for deciding he had no right to touch the plate.

Mirabile dictu, Gomez and McCann ended up teammates on the same 2017 Astros World Series winner. While they were there, both the Fun Boy and the Fun Fuzz accepted Beltran as a mentor. Beltran could and did counsel Gomez how to have fun without bruising egos; he could and did counsel McCann, we presume, that nobody likes a self-appointed gendarme putting on the cuffs before the not-so-bad guy finishes his job.

Beltran’s reputation, Martino observes, includes that he was the de facto hitting coach for every team who employed him as a player, and that he has a genius for picking up on the tiniest missteps by the other guys and exploiting them, from off-kilter field positioning to pitch tipping. It’s not impossible that Beltran was one of the Astros who caught Yu Darvish tipping pitches early in 2017 World Series Game Seven, enabling the Astros to run him off the mound while securing the Promised Land lease before his departure.

A baseball mind married to a people person gives a brand new manager a leg up already. Right away Beltran isn’t a candidate to blow up his clubhouse before he has a chance to secure it. He also has the advantage of distance on his side. He’s not being handed the Mets’ bridge immediately after his days of playing for them ended.

That was the mistake the Yankees made with Yogi Berra when handing him their bridge for 1964. Berra was too freshly removed as a player to establish a clubhouse rhythm or to avoid a few too many of his veterans from using manager-turned-general manager Ralph Houk as a behind-Yogi’s-back sounding board. Especially when it took Berra awhile to stop lifting his starters too soon and stop looking for bullpen saviours he didn’t yet have.

The ’64 Yankees had other problems, of course, most notably the subterfuges involved in the team’s sale to CBS and the lack of a viable bullpen between April and September. They rehorsed in time to win the pennant and lose a thriller of a seven-game World Series.

Yogi never saw it coming when he was beheaded the following day in favour of the man who’d just beaten him in the Series, Johnny Keane. And Keane himself dodged more than a few similar backstairs betrayals on the season and was actually offered the Yankee job-to-come behind the channels, well before both teams came back to win their pennants after all.

The Mets these days aren’t exactly a model baseball administration, either. Beltran could find himself only too soon wondering what on earth he got himself into when he finds his front office hands him or can’t diffuse a logjam or a bomb.

But it isn’t as though first-timers on the bridge can only fail—-see Alex Cora (a World Series ring his first time out), Aaron Boone (only the second Yankee manager ever to pilot back-to-back 100+ win seasons his first time out), and Rocco Baldelli. (He managed the thumping Twins to this year’s American League Central title.)

And, so far as we can predict, Beltran won’t be managing (yet) the way Boone had to manage the Yankees in 2019—unable to determine whether he was trying to win a division and a pennant or the Nobel Prize for Medicine.

Beltran also becomes the ninth Mets manager who ever played for the team in an earlier life. The roll includes, in ascending order, Gil Hodges (an Original Met before his knees betrayed him for keeps), Yogi Berra (a few pinch-hit appearances for the 1965 Mets before returning to the coaching line for keeps), Joe Torre, Bud Harrelson, Dallas Green (briefly a pitcher on the 1966 Mets), Willie Randolph (he ended his distinguished playing career on the sorry 1992 Mets), and Bobby Valentine (he split 1977 between the Mets and the Padres).

You may care to note that three of those men—Hodges, Berra, and Valentine—won pennants managing the Mets; Hodges, of course, won a World Series managing the 1969 Miracle Mets, and Berra got to within a game of winning the 1973 World Series. Hodges apprenticed as a manager with the second Washington Senators; Yogi spent seven years on the Mets’ first base coaching line; and, Valentine spent eight prior seasons commanding the Rangers before he took the Mets’ bridge.

Beltran’s going to have to show he can develop in-game tactical and strategic smarts fast enough to match his skills at picking up field nuances and missteps and at fostering relationships. But you won’t expect him to be caught flatfoot if questioned over as questionable a move as the now-deposed Callaway was in Chicago in June.

When Callaway left a gassed Seth Lugo in for a second inning only to get him and the Mets clobbered despite a fresh option or two for whom to reach. And, when Callaway accepted the inevitable post-game questions by demanding his questioner be removed from the room and doing nothing when one of his other pitchers threatened to knock the questioner the [fornicate] out.

But when you decide Beltran is the man you want over such candidates as Nationals first base coach Tim Bogar (whose playing career began as a Met), Brewers bench coach Pat Murphy, or Eduardo Perez (former Astros and Marlins coach whose tenures were short lived but who ended up a finalist with Beltran for the Mets job), you’d better know something we don’t know yet.

Which is what Mets observers said when Callaway was handed the Mets’ bridge for 2018, after several years as the respected Indians pitching coach. Callaway proved to be in so far over his head managing the Mets that he needed a periscope just to see a mile below the surface. He’s since moved on to the Angels in the gig for which he’s suited best, pitching coach for their new manager Joe Maddon.

If Beltran proves a capable manager, never mind the kind who can lead the Mets to consistent excellence, he could also accomplish something only Yogi Berra has ever done as a Met—stand at the 2023 podium in Cooperstown, as Yogi did in 1972, accepting his Hall of Fame plaque for his playing achievements while he’s managing the Mets. Never underrate the power of that kind of symbolism.

Beltran goes in with one very key endorsement, from a man with whom he grew up friends in their native Puerto Rico and to whom he reached out after his playing days, as a Yankee advisor, and as he went through the Mets’ hiring process. A man who thinks there’s more than just a marquee name involved in Beltran’s hiring.

“This is something he earned. He has made adjustments throughout from a guy who was quiet to all of a sudden is eager to share information and to talk to players, coaches and front office people,” said Alex Cora, the Astros’ bench coach during the 2017 World Series run he shared with Beltran and who went from there to nail a World Series managing the Red Sox in 2018.

Cora told the New York Post that Beltran did his homework and prepared himself fully after showing he could stay on top of the game by evolving.

“I had him as a player in 2017 and we had long conversations,” Cora continued. “We had some radical ideas of how to do things to kind of prepare myself for what was coming. He would tell me things and I would share stuff with him on how to run a big league team. He helped me out a lot.”

Never underrate the power of a World Series-winning manager’s endorsement, either.