Friday, August 05, 2005

Missing In Action
By Ben Valentine

It’s a search that has dominated the summer. A hunt for a missing person, someone whose face has been plastered all over the news. Just when it seems like there’s been a breakthrough, hopes are dashed. The people are restless, awaiting something… anything, that can tell them where their lost star could be. Sadly it has been months now.

And there is STILL no sign of Carlos Beltran, in Aruba, or New York.

Nobody quite knows what’s wrong with the Mets’ 119 million dollar centerfielder. The man who set the world on fire last October, seemingly going deep every night in the NLCS against St. Louis has gone MIA. I’m not sure who’s patrolling center for the Mets right now, but he looks a lot like Jay Payton. But that’s not possible. Cause Payton is in Oakland right now.

Okay all joking aside, (and you can just post your hate mail, rather than sending it to me) everyone in New York is trying to figure out what’s happened to Beltran. If anyone had a good answer, I’m sure they could make some decent money off it. I bet the guy who “solved” Jason Giambi’s problems is rolling in it right now… (another cheap shot. But I doubt I’ll catch as much fire for that one) I’m going to cut to the chase here; in this column I’m going to speculate on why Beltran has been crap. Then I’m going to analyze in my own mind the likelihood of the scenario. By the end, I’ll offer a conclusion as to why the guy’s been so bad.

But first, my complaints.

As of today Beltran was batting .265 with 13 hrs, 7 sb and a .315 obp. People have been on Jose Reyes’ case for not walking but Beltran has done so a mere 30 times. (Reyes has walked 16 times but he’s not feared and thus pitched around like Beltran should be) He was playing a mediocre to bad centerfield. The guy plays the deepest centerfield in the majors. That’s not a compliment. Way too may balls fall in front of him. Today, that defense arguably cost the Mets the ball game. He has been swinging at the first pitch too much, and at times not hustling. This from a guy who last year batted .267 yes, but also posted a .361 on base, 38 hrs, 42 sb, 92 walks and supposedly played great defense.
So what’s wrong?

Case 1: He’s hurt.

We know Beltran was nursing a quad injury earlier this year. So this excuse might have some merit. It certainly explains the lack of speed and perhaps even the lack of power. One never knows how much a player has to adjust to deal with an injury. Those adjustments could have messed up his swing. Problem is, now he’s healthy. Since the break, he’s been terrible. In a week where the Mets struggled at Coors Field and in Houston, Beltran was the worst of the worst. He’s healthy now by all accounts. So what’s his excuse now? And why has he, from day one, played better when Pedro Martinez makes a start?

Case 2: Shea is killing his numbers

Before this season I predicted Beltran would hit .270-.290 with 20-25 hrs. I figured Shea would cut into his totals quite a bit being that he was moving from two great hitters parks in Kansas City and Houston to a notorious pitcher’s park here. This park has killed some power hitters before… just ask Jeromy Burnitz. But few have seen their homerun totals halved… and Beltran looks poised to hit about 18 or 19 homeruns this year. But even if Shea has killed the power, where are the walks? He’s shown no discipline, swinging at the first pitch frequently. Where is the speed now that he’s healthy? And this doesn’t explain the poor defense or the Pedro factor.

Case 3: He’s off the juice.

Surprisingly, I haven’t heard this one bandied about. I guess because he didn’t lose a lot of body mass from last season to this one. However, it has come out that the steroid Rafael Palmerio used is one that doesn’t increase muscle mass, but muscle strength. So… perhaps stopping wouldn’t necessarily show on a guy like Beltran. It would account for the sudden loss of power and the sudden outburst of nagging injuries. It would also account for the loss of speed on offense AND defense (if it was a steroid similar to the one Palmerio and sprinter Ben Johnson used). But there’s no proof of this and it’s unfair to jump to conclusions. Plus there's the Pedro issue again.

Case 4: He never was that good in the first place

This is a decent argument. Before last year Beltran never hit more than 29 homers in a season. And that was playing at arguably the second best hitter’s park in the AL. His power numbers last year spiked in Houston. So if you take last season as a career year enhanced by a homerun ballpark, then this decline isn’t so surprising. But this argument still doesn’t answer why Carlos has been awful in center. It doesn’t explain the drop in walks, since he still walked some 70 + times in the two years before last. It doesn’t explain the drop in steals. And it doesn’t explain how a player who should technically should be improving at his age of 28, has actually drastically declined. Oh yeah, and Pedro, take 4.

Case 5: New York is getting to him.

It gotten to many before him. Even Roger Clemens and Mike Piazza struggled for a while before reverting to their pre NY forms. So maybe that’s Beltran’s problem. Plus he just got a huge contract, which is just added pressure. Could he be pressing? Sure. Problem here is we’ll never know if that was the reason, since he’ll deny it. Though this might explain the Pedro factor some. (More on that below)

And now for the analysis:

No one reason is the answer. I tend to think almost all except the steroid one have validity. (I just won’t call Beltran a roid user yet). The quad slowed him down and hurt his already Shea-depressed numbers. So, trying to justify the contract to himself he presses. However when Pedro pitches, there is less pressure on him and the team, because Martinez is going to shut down the opposition. Plus the focus is on Pedro. So Beltran plays more relaxed does better. But when other pitchers go, he presses and struggles. And he’ll continue to press until he has that moment; that one moment where Shea erupts because he just did something big for the Mets in a big game.

Unfortunately the Mets probably are not going to be playing meaningful games in September so Beltran just won’t get that chance to find himself. I just hope he does next year.

Because seven lost seasons will seem even longer in New York than they would anywhere else.

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