|Beltran, pictured with the Rangers last season, is a worthy Hall of Famer (Sporting News)|
I answered in the affirmative, with the caveat that he won't get in on the first ballot and may need a few rounds of voting before receiving his plaque in Cooperstown. While Beltran is a clear Hall of Famer from a statistical standpoint, I can see why the support for his candidacy won't be overwhelming. His case has been built quietly over time, as he was never a player who could claim to be the best in baseball during any of his 20 seasons. He never dominated discussions or statistical leaderboards, and was never even a serious candidate for MVP. The fact that my friend posed this question in the first place reflects the doubt that exists among knowledgeable baseball fans who witnessed his entire career.
There shouldn't be much of a debate, however, as Beltran is one of the 10 greatest center fielders in baseball history by several measurements (Hall of Stats has him seventh, JAWs puts him eighth, and he's ninth in FanGraphs career WAR). He's a near-perfect match for the average Hall of Famer at his position in terms of peak and career bWAR, with his career value almost evenly divided between peak (52%) and longevity (48%) per Hall of Stats. He's well above the Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor threshold as well, grading out a score of 126 when 100 gives a player a strong chance at induction.
All of that aligns with what Beltran produced on the field. For over a decade he was one of the best all-around players in baseball, routinely clearing 25 homers/steals and 100 runs/RBIs with a bat that was about 20 percent better than average after adjusting for league and park. His speed and smarts on the bases made him one of the 20 best baserunners of all time, helping him steal over 300 bases at a mind-bending 86.4 percent success rate (the highest ever for a player who spent at least a decade in the Major Leagues). He was also one of baseball's best defensive outfielders before knee surgery forced him to shift to right field in 2011, earning three consecutive Gold Gloves for his efforts. He might have won more had he not been so graceful, making difficult plays look easy.
Even after his defense and speed deteriorated in his mid-30s, he retained value until his 40th birthday as a slugging corner outfielder. That's what separates him from many borderline Hall of Famers who fell off in their early 30s, as lots of players have worthy peaks but lack the longevity needed to stand out. Beltran has both. There was a brief period at the start of the decade when his career appeared to be in decline, but he remained mostly healthy throughout the remainder of his 30s and had the kind of 20-homer, 2-3 WAR seasons that round out a Cooperstown resume. After appearing in just 145 games combined in his age-32 and 33 seasons, he averaged 138 games per year from ages 34-39 without suffering a drop-off in production:
Beltran 1999-2010: 134 G 23 HR 88 RBI .282/.359/.494 (119 OPS+)
Beltran 2011-2016: 138 G 24 HR 79 RBI .280/.343/.487 (126 OPS+)
Staying productive for so long enabled him to compiled some impressive career totals. By season's end, he'll have close to 1,600 runs and RBIs and more than 2,700 hits, which will include upwards of 550 doubles and 430 homers. Depending on which website you use, he'll either be just over or just under 70 career WAR -- squarely in the middle of the 60-80 range of most Hall of Famers. He's also one of only five players with at least 400 homers and 300 steals - a testament to his rare combination of elite speed and power.
While Beltran was never named MVP or led the league in any significant offensive category, he was consistently one of the baseball's top players for nearly two full decades, as evidenced by his nine All-Star selections. Since his Rookie of the Year campaign in 1999, Beltran has been the fifth-most valuable position player in terms of fWAR, trailing only Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Adrian Beltre, and Miguel Cabrera -- all of whom are surefire Hall of Famers. He was worth roughly eight more wins than Ichiro Suzuki -- another first-ballot Hall of Famer -- during that same span despite playing fewer games. While that works out to be only half a win per season, over time it adds up to be an additional MVP-caliber season that Beltran provided for his teams. And again, we're talking about a slam-dunk Hall of Famer in Ichiro.
So why won't Beltran get in right away? There's a couple reasons, I think. He bounced around a lot, suiting up for seven different teams and spending roughly half of his career in each league (when he gets in, he'll have a difficult choice to make about which hat to put on his plaque). As a result, he had several seasons that were split between two teams, including his near 40/40 season in 2004, when he switched leagues for the first time. '04 was the second-best season of his career after '06, but he only has a 12th place NL MVP vote to show for it because he spent the first half of the year in the Junior Circuit.
He was also doomed to be underrated for being great at everything rather than shining at one or two things, which is why his Baseball-Reference page is conspicuously devoid of black ink. He never had a signature season that stood out above the rest, as his career was defined more by sustained excellence than a brilliant peak (only one top-five MVP finish). Some of his brightest seasons occurred in relative obscurity with Kansas City in the early 2000s, when they were the laughingstock of baseball. Even though he won Rookie of the Year in '99, it took people a while to catch on, as he didn't draw MVP votes until 2003, wasn't named to an All-Star team until 2004, and didn't win his first Gold Glove until 2006. His Mets career is viewed as a mild disappointment, as his best years there were marred by late season collapses and playoff failure (the signature highlight of his career is not a game-winning homer or a spectacular catch, but the called strike three he took to end the 2006 NLCS). He also dealt with injuries and was traded away during the final year of his contract, after which he became a journeyman bat for hire.
He was a beast in October (David Ortiz-esque), but his team never won it all. That could change this year, as Beltran's Astros are looking like the Cubs from last year, albeit without much help from Beltran, who's suddenly showing his age at 40. That would be a nice way for Beltran to end his career, as his contract's up at the end of the season and he's unlikely to find work unless his hitting picks up in the second half. There would be nothing left for him to accomplish, anyways. He's already done enough -- more than enough -- to earn a plaque in baseball's Hall of Fame.