MLB: Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees

Write out a list of the best outfielders of the past 30 years. How many names do you scribble down before you get to Carlos Beltran? In all likelihood, most of those players haven’t produced more than Beltran has since the turn of the century. In the expansion era, very few outfielders have put up numbers like Beltran. Among center fielders, the list shrinks even more.

Carlos Beltran is one of the most talented baseball players in recent memory, a true five-tool all star putting the finishing touches on a brilliant career. At 36, Beltran might not be the power/speed wunderkind that from his days in New York and Kansas City, but he’s still hitting.

He keeps hitting as his body changes and his role transitions to one suitable for his current skill set. I spoke with Carlos Beltran about reintegrating himself into the American League and the adjustments of 21st century baseball.

Drew Fairservice – Do you take advantage of all the video available to hitters today?

Carlos Beltran – We have technology that is very useful for us. For me, I’ve been out of the American League for a long time so I use video to keep up on the pitchers we’re facing.

DF – So you mostly focus on the pitchers rather than what you’re doing at the plate?

CB – I watch more pitchers but when I’m not doing well at the plate I watch myself also to try and get my swing back.

DF – When things aren’t feel quite right, you use video to look for issues at the plate?

CB – I have some ideas when I don’t feel good at the plate, I know what to focus on to bring myself back at the plate. If I’m starting late or whatever, I try to compare my good swings against my bad swings and go from there.

DF – Is it possible to get too much information and get in your own way at the plate?

CB – You have to know what you’re looking for. In my case, when I first came up in 1998, we didn’t have that technology. But now I use it to my advantage. I don’t want to focus on everything I just watch the pitcher and what he’s trying to do.

DF – Does all this information and knowledge about pitchers allow you to guess at the plate?

CB – I don’t really like to call myself a guess hitter but if I see the pitcher is tipping…that’s what I look for. If he’s showing the pitches before he throws it I don’t like to call that guessing. I call “knowing what’s coming” even though it’s hard to control the result.

It is interesting to hear Beltran all but admit he guesses at the plate. If not guess then at least sit on certain pitches. 2013 saw a significant downtick in Carlos Beltran’s walk rate, below league average after drawing walks in more than 10% of his plate appearances.

During his peak, Beltran was one of the most patient hitters in baseball, pairing uncommon plate discipline with great contact skills. In 2006, his best season, Beltran drew 95 walks compared to 99 strikeouts in 510 plate appearances (he hit .275/.388/.594 that year, bringing the Mets to the NLCS before famously freezing on an Adam Wainwright curveball to end the series.)

As he started to age, missing significant time due to injury in both 2009 and 2010, Beltran’s strikeout rate rose to a career high of 20% in 2012, his first with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Though his walk rate crashed in 2013, his strikeout rate also dipped back to his career levels. Comparing 2012 to 2013, Beltran simply swung at more pitches in hitters’ counts, putting the ball in play more.

That pitchers threw him considerably more strikes in these situations speaks to Beltran’s overall approach — going after hittable pitches. A fact Beltran could easily pick up in his video work, looking to remain aggressive with pitches he knows he can handle.

DF – As a switch hitter, do you try and keep everything the same for your left-handed and right-handed swings?

CB – I try to do the same thing from both sides to maintain balance. Being a switch hitter, you have to find a way to strike a balance from both sides.

Switch hitting is very hard, as you might imagine. Trying to control and groom two different swings to hit big league pitching? The idea of it is pretty hard to fathom for an outsider such as myself.

Carlos Beltran has two distinct swings for use from each side of the plate, producing similar results through different means. As a right-handed hitter, Beltran’s swing is a little longer. He’s a more pull-heavy against left-handed pitcher but produces more power, out-slugging his LHB self by 30 points for his career.

From the left side, especially as he adds a little bulk and body armor to keep himself on the field, Carlos Beltran reminds me a little of Barry Bonds. The same lighting quick stroke directly to the ball, the short stride, the somewhat laborious shuffle around the bases…

Only four switch-hitters in the history of the game clouted more homers than Carlos Beltran, and he is all but assured to pass Lance Berkman for fourth on that list on that list with one hot week.

Former teammate Jose Reyes lists Carlos Beltran as his best friend in the game and a true mentor. When asked about Beltran, Reyes mentions his off-season training partner “just loves to hit. Carlos can hit all day man, he just loves to hit.”

From the comment about watching for pitchers to tip what’s coming and the similarities between his swing as a member of the Kansas City Royals and now, after more than 2000 career games and his early days speaks to this dedication to the craft of hitting. Hard work and otherwordly talent – that’s a pretty nice combination.

DF – Who has the best approach in the game right now?

CB – You know, Jeter has a great plate approach. Pujols, when he’s on he has a great approach. Yadi Molina, who I played with last year with the St. Louis Cardinals, with two strikes he’s a guy who doesn’t strike out much. The guys who never strike out much have the best two strike approach.

DF – the Cardinals are on to something with two strikes and line drives. What did you see in their guys during your two years there?

CB – They have good approaches at the plate. The concentrate on trying to get the job done with guys in scoring position and with two outs. When I was with them last year, we kind of focused on that and it really worked out good for us.

Whenever Carlos Beltran goes, things tend to work out pretty good for him. As his career winds down, he begins surpassing milestones and climbing lifetime leaderboards. One of the best center fielders of the past 50 years, one of only a handful of players to amass 300 home runs and 300 stolen bases (only one other player in baseball history can claim 300/300 while swiping bags at an 80% success rate.)

In short, he’s a Hall of Famer. With round numbers (400 home runs and 2500 hits) on the horizon and a three year deal in his back pocket, his counting stats might outweigh the incredibly high bar center fielders must pass to gain entry to Cooperstown.

On top of his on-field heroics (without even mentioning his best of all time playoff numbers), Carlos Beltran is known as a Hall of Famer off the field, with quiet acts of kindness and great deeds following him at every stop in his long career.

Some stats via Fangraphs, Baseball Reference, and ESPN Stats & Info