In late July of 2011, a desperate Brian Sabean, general manager of the San Francisco Giants, orchestrated a trade to acquire the best outfielder on the market, Carlos Beltran. The Giants, coming off a World Series victory in 2010, experienced devastating injuries (including losing Buster Posey for the entire season thanks to a brutal plate collision with Scott Cousins) and stiff competition from a very good Arizona Diamondbacks team. Their offense, especially with the loss of Posey, was abysmal, and if they wanted to remain in contention, they needed to obtain an offensive juggernaut to bolster their lineup. So, a year after making several minor moves that led his team to a World Series run, Sabean decided to go with one colossal one instead. Many Giants fans, including myself, questioned the move. Trading for Beltran not only meant San Francisco had given up their best pitching prospect in Zach Wheeler, but it also meant the team was gambling on a player who was a free agent in the upcoming offseason. If the Giants failed to make the playoffs, which was very possible given the way they had performed up to that point, would they even be able to re-sign him? Was it worth it? As it turns out, the Giants would fail to reach the postseason, and fail to resign him; he ended inking a two year deal with the Cardinals instead. How did Beltran perform as a Giant? He was briefly injured, which has always been a concern with him, but when he was in the lineup, he was a pretty darn good player.
Until watching him play on the team I rooted for, I didn’t realize why Carlos Beltran was given such heavy praise from television analysts and sports columnists across the country. Call it West Coast bias if you’d like. In my eyes, Beltran had always been a very good defender, decent hitter, but someone who was frequently on the disabled list. His career batting average’s around .285 and he’s got around 300 home runs, which is good, but what was the big deal? I blame my age for the ignorance I displayed back in 2011. I was still in elementary school when Carlos Beltran began writing his postseason legend. It began in 2004, with the Houston Astros, when Beltran slugged 8 home runs in a single postseason. I’ll repeat that if your jaw dropped. He hit EIGHT home runs in one postseason, and his team didn’t even reach the World Series. Incredible. After that, he signed a long-term contract with the New York Mets, and had a mediocre first season with them due to, you guessed it, injury. The season after that, however, Beltran went off, with 41 regular season home runs, an All-Star MVP under his belt, and a gold glove award. He had another excellent postseason, although not nearly as amazing as his 2004 performance.
It’s the Carlos Beltran from 2007-2011 that I personally remember, and maybe that’s the reason I was so unimpressed with the trade. In 2007 and 2008, he was still a tremendous player, earning a 5.2 and 6.7 WAR thanks to both great offense and defense. After that is where we see decline. In 2009 he only managed to hit 10 home runs, and injury caused him to only play 81 games. In 2010, he only played 64, with a slash line of .255/.341/.427. And this is probably the reason many Giants fans were skeptical. This was a player on the decline, who had tremendous talent, but a history of injury problems. I dismissed experts raving about Beltran as nostalgia. In the end, I was wrong, and they were spot on. In the 2012 postseason with the Cardinals, Beltran had a slash line of .357/.440/.714. This year? He already has 2 home runs and 6 RBI’s, and there’s still a game to go in the NLDS tomorrow evening. Did I mention Beltran currently holds the highest OPS in postseason history at a ridiculous 1.247? And forget postseason for a second. He has 300 stolen bases to go along with those 350+ home runs, 2000 hits, 1,000 RBI’s, and 1,000 runs. Carlos Beltran is a remarkable player, and someone who will get hall of fame consideration, thanks in large part to his remarkable playoff performances. He’s a player who’s still doing well heading into his age 37 season, and someone who gets better when the lights are brighter Looking back, do I still regret the Giants trading for Beltran in 2011? No, I regret not resigning him. All hail the postseason king.
Fans who don’t follow the game of baseball frequently ask “Why are so many new players in the lineup at the end of the season?” That’s the beauty of roster expansion. Veterans who have endured the grueling schedule for so long can get days off and clubs get a chance to see what some of their youngsters can do on the big league stage. For losing teams, these young players are auditioning for jobs on the opening day roster for the succeeding season. Someone may perform well enough to compete for a starting spot at their position next spring training. Someone else may perform so badly, management decides that player is a weak link and is expandable, and just like that, he’s traded off for a different prospect. Now after learning this, that same curious fan might say “So how does roster expansion benefit teams that are actually winning?” Well, it can help them a lot more than you’d think, depending on what kind of pitching a team has in their farm system. To put it bluntly, rookie pitchers can kick major ass in the playoffs. We just saw Sonny Gray throw 8 dominating innings of shutout baseball, striking out 9 and giving up a mere 4 hits. Oh by the way, his start occurred during the divisional series and prevented the A’s from falling down 2-0 in a best of 5 series against the Tigers, with the next game being in Detroit.
It’s becoming more and more common for rookies to have a huge impact in playoff games. In 2010, Madison Bumgarner, a late September call-up, pitched gem after gem throughout the postseason to help the Giants win their first World Series in more than half a decade. In 2008, future Cy Young award winner David Price (another player who came up during roster expansion) would pitch in the Rays’ bullpen throughout the postseason and his electric arm boosted Tampa in their own quest to win a World Series (they would reach the fall classic and eventually fall to the Phillies). And it’s not just the September call-ups who have been making their mark. Gerrit Cole was called up back in June and also had a tremendous postseason debut, limiting the powerful Cardinals offense to a single run over six innings and making sure the Pirates got the split on the road that they needed before the series headed to Pittsburgh. Professional hitters who read this blog might be wondering why I’m giving starting pitchers all the credit. Well first of all, no one reads this blog, so those hitters don’t exist. Second of all, impact rookie hitters in the postseason barely exist either. Pitchers have a distinct advantage when facing a team for the first time. They can get away with things because they have such good stuff and they usually have veteran signal callers who tell them where to locate their pitches and what to pitch to who in a given situation.
Hitters just have a harder time making adjustments in their first year, and once teams find their weakness, they’ll keep exploiting it until the player can fix the problem. Excellent players like Bryce Harper, Jason Heyward, and Troy Tulowitzki all struggled during their first taste of postseason play. So what should we expect as we continue forward in the 2013 playoffs? Expect the pitchers that make it to the next round to continue being weapons. Expect future stars like Yasiel Puig and Wil Myers to struggle, but don’t be shocked if they hit an absolute bomb in a key situation if they get the right pitch. Hopefully this prediction goes down better than my last prediction. One game playoffs are hard to anticipate! Until next time, I leave you with Justin Verlander being Justin Verlander: