I turned to the New York tabloids Friday morning for guidance, as I often do. I love the tabs. One of my favorite things to do in New York is walk around the corner (whatever corner) and buy the Post and the Daily News, and walk around the corner (whatever corner) and walk into a diner and notice the celebrities (hey, there's Jerry Seinfeld and Colin Quinn!) and order breakfast and spread out the papers and read until the waiter makes it clear that it's time for me to go.
Unfortunately, I'm not in New York right now, but I still went to the Internet version of the tabloids Friday morning because I was DYING to see the "He's Back!" headline on the front for Carlos Beltran.
You might know a few days ago, Derek Jeter hit two home runs in a game. And those two words made up the headline on the front page of the New York Post: "He's Back." A few people mentioned the headline to me, thought I would be bothered by it, but I felt exactly the opposite. I loved it. That was EXACTLY the headline that the New York Post should have had. I look to the Post front page for overreaction, for gut punches, for the very thing that New York cops, construction workers, store owners and waitresses and anyone else you might run into would say.
"He didn't take steroids and he got old," the waitress at a New York restaurant sadly told our group a couple of days before Jeter's epic two-homer day, a perfectly fine summation of current events. And I have no doubt that when Jeter hit those two home runs, that very waitress said those same two words that were on the cover of the Post: He's back!
Of course, Derek Jeter went zero-for-six two days later, and there was no: "Maybe He's Not Back!" headline in the tabloids. And there shouldn't have been -- a player gradually aging into obsolescence is not news anymore than a plane landing safely is news. Derek Jeter will undoubtedly have good moments, good games, and I hope that after every one there is some version of the "He's Back!" headline in the tabs because that's fun.
But Jeter is also slugging .354 in his last 190 games and at the moment Kansas City's Eric Hosmer* trails him by only one extra base hit, though Hosmer has played all of six games. I hope Jeter finds a way to be a solid offensive player again, and certainly his will and baseball intelligence will give him the best chance of doing that. But back? No. The clock doesn't move in the direction.
*A little while ago, I wrote a piece for SI about the Kansas City Royals amazing minor league system, and I do believe from talking with scouts across baseball that it really is an amazing system. That said, I didn't get to see much of the players. I saw them throw a simulated inning or I saw them take a few swings in the cage or whatever. I mean, I'm not my friend Keith Law, so it wouldn't really have mattered if I did see the prospects for extended periods of time. I wouldn't have been able to tell you much.
The exception was Hosmer. Wow. I saw Eric Hosmer swing the bat three times and I said to Royals Assistant GM J.J. Picollo: "Holy cow, this guy is ready to hit in the big leagues RIGHT NOW. You guys won't even be able to send him down." J.J. said the Royals would send him down, and they did, for 26 games, just long enough for him to hit .439.
The kid hit two home runs at Yankee Stadium this week (no doubt stirring Yankees fans to consider who might replace Mark Teixeira in a while) and while the Royals may have at one point been thinking of just bringing Hosmer up for a few games to give him a taste of the big leagues, I think he might be their best hitter right now, and that includes Billy Butler who is a terrific hitter. I think Hosmer might end up being rookie of the year. And I think that while the Royals would probably prefer a little better timing -- Hosmer coming up just as some of the other top prospects are ready -- I think it's actually the best thing in the world for the Royals to have him up now. The process of the Royals as World Series champions by 2015 has begun.
Back to Beltran. He hit THREE home runs yesterday, not two. He's got a 170 OPS+ through 36 games. He's been maligned enough that #blamebeltran is a popular hashtag on Twitter (though, to be fair, it is mostly used ironically). If anyone has ever deserved a "He's Back!" headline, it is Carlos.
The Post came through with a "Beltran Rocks!" backpage, though it was Tiger's withdrawal from the Players' Championship that got the front page ("Tiger goes Limp! Quits after 9 holes"). The Daily News went with the more subtle and punny "Bat Trick" on the back page, though you couldn't blame them for not getting Beltran on the front when they had a photo of a mob boss in white T-shirt saying, in full quotes, "I'm Going To Hell!"
Look, obviously he will not get the Jeter treatment in the tabs. He should not. It's beyond obvious that Carlos Beltran is not anywhere close to Derek Jeter's league when it comes to connection to New York. Beltran did not grow up as a player in New York, he has not won any championships (much less five) he has not made even a single play in New York that would rank as happily memorable as at least 50 Jeter plays, not unless you count him taking strike three in the playoffs. The comparison from a fame or legacy perspective is silly and pointless.
But there are two other questions that interest me more than fame or legacy:
1. How do Derek Jeter and Carlos Beltran compare as players?
2. Which player is more likely to be good from here on out?
Question 1 is tricky. Jeter has played in 550 more games than Beltran. Jeter is almost three years older than Beltran, and he has unquestionably been more durable -- Beltran only played 145 games in 2009 and 2010.
Still, if we're comparing them ... I think it's a lot closer than most people would think. Jeter has been a better hitter. His batting average is 30 or so points higher. Beltran has hit with more power, which is why his career OPS+ is actually one point higher than Jeter's (119 to 118). But that's misleading, I think. Jeter, as mentioned, is older and is in his decline phase (through age 33, Jeter had a 122 OPS+). I would say offensively Jeter has been better for longer.
Defensively, again, it's tricky. Jeter has played shortstop which is the most demanding non-catcher position on the field. How well he has played shortstop, though, has been one of the more contentious arguments of the era. He has won a bunch of Gold Gloves. He has received a lot of praise. And certain defensive numbers have shown him to be well-below average defensively. Beltran has been a brilliant defensive center fielder, both to the eye and by the numbers.
Base running -- Jeter has been a brilliant base runner. Beltran, though, is one of the best base runners who ever lived. Beltran has been successful on 88% of his stolen base attempts -- that's a record. It does seem like Beltran's speed is mostly gone, though he he has still scored from first on doubles both times he had the opportunity. Watching Beltran run the bases has been one of my great baseball thrills the last 20 years or so.
Finally, Jeter has played for the dominant team of the era while Beltran has spent most of his years languishing with bad teams. This is the part that makes the comparison hardest of all. Beltran has scored 100 and driven in 100 seven different times, which is a pretty remarkable thing. Only nobody cares. Numbers piled up on losing teams dissolve into the ether. Jeter's numbers, meanwhile, ring with the power of history.
Put it all together, well, like I say I think it's a lot closer than many people would think. WAR makes a good comparison: Jeter's WAR is 70.5. Beltran's is 58.3. That's 12 wins above replacement difference, but Jeter also has three more years than Beltran. Can Beltran put up 12 WAR over the next three years? From 2001 to 2009, Beltran averaged 5.4 WAR per season. But Beltran is not that player anymore.
And that leads to the second question: Who is likely to be a better player from here on out? Jeter is older. But Beltran has had severe injuries. Jeter is a walking-talking legend. Beltran is in the last year of a contract that pretty much everyone wants to end. Jeter has played his whole career at shortstop, and shortstops do not age well. Beltran has played center field, which is rough on players too, but he has moved to a corner outfield spot where players do age a little better.
So who would you bet on to have more value from this year on? Well, you know how Jeter has looked so far this year -- his two-homer game aside. Beltran, meanwhile, has looked terrific at the plate in the early part of this season. His strikeout rate is down again, his fly ball percentage is way up (he leads the National League in doubles and extra base hits at the moment), he's catching up to the fastball, at least for the time being.
One of the amazing parts of Beltran's game has been his ability to adapt to his circumstances. I remember after the 2002 season, he decided he needed to cut down his strikeouts. And so, blammo, he cut down his strikeouts. LIke it was easy. Players can spend entire careers trying and failing to cut down on strikeouts -- Beltran did it in one off-season. I remember after his miserable 2005 season in New York, there were people saying he would never be able to handle New York. And so, blammo, in 2006 he had perhaps the greatest every-day player season in Mets history.
It's pretty obvious, I think, that different people are motivated by different things. Tom Watson has told me more than once that he does not like playing golf on clear, windless days. It's boring to him. He needs a challenge. I think Beltran is a little like that too. He has been so absurdly talented that he has needed things to spark his interest. I'm not saying that's right or wrong or that it's even ABOUT right or wrong. People are who they are. Beltran has been so graceful, that people assumed he wasn't trying. He has been so gifted, that what he did was never good enough for some. He has played in so many meaningless games, that people didn't want to give him credit. He has had enough injuries and slumps -- and a massive enough contract -- to bring out the cynics in force.
But I think that he's got something left. He's a switch-hitter with power. He's a one-time Gold Glove center fielder who knows how to run the bases. No, Beltran is no longer that brilliant talent. He can't run like he did, can't play defense like he did. The wind is blowing hard. I think that wind might bring out the best of Carlos Beltran.