Carlos Beltran. (USA TODAY Sports)
Jonathan Bernhardt, USA TODAY Sports
Going into Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Carlos Beltran's .889 OPS in the 2013 National League Division Series was the worst single-year postseason OPS the veteran outfielder had posted in his career. That is no longer the case. After going 2-for-3 with a home run and a walk in the Cardinals' 5-3 loss to Pittsburgh (he was responsible for all of St. Louis's run production), the "worst" season in Beltran's postseason career is once again the .978 OPS he posted as a member of the 2006 Mets, at least for the moment.
His career .360/.463/.794 playoff line is easily the best of all time, in any sample of even moderate size -- and as far as playoff sample sizes go, Beltran's is pretty large: 164 plate appearances, or almost two months' worth of games. That's three fewer than Babe Ruth had in his entire career, and it's over 100 more than Willie Aiken, the early '80's Kansas City first baseman who is second on the career leaderboard for postseason OPS. (It doesn't approach Derek Jeter's record total of 734, more than a full regular season's worth, but no other active player has even half that.)
In all likelihood, though, when you think of Carlos Beltran in the playoffs, you don't think about his career hitting line. You remember a certain strikeout looking that ended that 2006 Mets postseason where Beltran only hit .278/.422/.556. If you're a Mets fan, that's your right, especially since Beltran no longer plays in Queens. (He was smart to sign with the Cardinals; they were not only a good team that needed his help, but also the team responsible for sending Beltran's club home, the last two times he'd been to the postseason.)
Numbers occupy an uneasy place in the discussion of postseason play. Bad numbers, of course, speak for themselves. A pitcher who gets lit up in October, or a hitter who can't get in the groove, will get the grumbling that comes with that kind of performance from fans. But good numbers -- even great numbers -- also fall flat for many, without contextual importance. I'm comfortable saying Carlos Beltran is the best postseason hitter of all time, but a lot of people are going to bring up, let's say, Bill Mazeroski, who has not only the most famous and important postseason hit of all time, but also a postseason OPS of .944 for his career (in extremely limited action).
As it stands right now, with the career numbers and the postseason greatness, I think Beltran has a legitimate case for the Hall of Fame, but that's most likely a harder sell than those numbers indicate. Beltran rarely gets the sportswriter etudes written for him that a hitter with his history in October might deserve. Part of the problem with the perception of his postseason play is that Beltran doesn't have a ring, something that may well elude him again this year. Beltran is 36 years old this year; he hasn't seen a significant drop off in his ability to hit the baseball, but he has been slowing down in the field and on the bases, as would be expected of a man with his age and injury history. He is, simply put, running out of time.
And the rest of the problem is that strikeout, which has unfortunately for Beltran become an event outside itself and outside the context of his career. It marks the last moment to date that the New York Mets were a postseason team, a dreary emblem, proudly worn, of the inherent frustration in following New York's second baseball team at the moment. It's not fair that of all the moments in a great player's career, that's the one that most defines him -- but postseason baseball is rarely fair. If he wants to replace that moment with another, well, Carlos Beltran has shown over the years that he's more than up to the task.