Veteran St. Louis Cardinal slugger Carlos Beltran is, by almost any measure, one of the greatest post-season hitters in baseball history. In 168 plate appearances he has an OPS of 1.247. In more conventional terms, he has hit .355 with 16 home runs in post-season play. These numbers are particularly relevant for Beltran who is likely to be a borderline Hall of Fame candidate. He has been an excellent player, but suffers from having played for several teams in mostly medium and small markets. The exception to this is Beltran's six and a half seasons with the New York Mets. However, most Mets fans remember Beltran not for his strong play during those years, but for looking at strike three for the last out of the 2006 NLCS. Beltran also is a player who is very good at many things, but not among the very best at any. Those types of players also tend to underperform in Hall of Fame voting.
Supporters of Beltran will argue that his post-season performance should inform his candidacy. That notion is also relevant for players like Andy Pettitte who started more than a full season's worth of games in the post-season. Beltran's post-season record probably should be taken into account, but so should everybody else's from this era. However, this record should not only be taken into account, but should be viewed in its proper context. One striking line from Beltran's post-season resume is that he has played in 38 post-season games, but none in the World Series. The great post-season performers from previous generations either played all their post-season games in the World Series like Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle, or, like Reggie Jackson and Steve Garvey, played a good proportion of their post-season games in the World Series.
Beltran cannot be held responsible for playing in an era with a multi-tiered playoff system, but his post-season performance should be seen in that context. He has hit in almost every post-season series in which he has appeared, but it is not clear that Beltran did this against the best competition, as is usually assumed about post-season performance. Beltran played during a time when between 26-33 percent, roughly the top quarter and now third, of all teams make the playoffs. Jackson, Ruth, Mantle and Garvey played at a time when between 10-16 percent of all teams made the post-season. That is a substantial difference suggesting that the relative quality of teams in the post-seasons in earlier eras was significantly better. Post-season teams today are clearly above average, but not as much above average as they were in the past.
Beltran's post-season credentials are a product of his strong play, but also of the era in which he played. When baseball moved to the expanded playoff system following the 1993 season, it pro-actively sought to change how its past is viewed. Despite the sepia-toned footage which baseball fans are inundated this time of year, baseball has a complex relationship with its history. MLB likes to celebrate its history but also recognizes that the present is easier to sell. By expanding the playoffs, and lumping all post-season baseball together, baseball all but guaranteed that most post-season records would be set by contemporary or recent players.
Within a few years, all of the records for most hits, runs, RBIs, home runs, wins, strikeouts, stolen bases and other counting statistics will be held by people who played in the expanded playoff era. This may lead Hall of Fame voters and others to pay more attention to post-season play because it will be an important part of many players candidacies, such as pitchers like Pettitte and Curt Schilling as well as Beltran. It will also highlight how post-season play simply does not mean what it used to. The days of players like Ernie Banks playing 19 years without ever appearing in the post-season or even of players like Ted Simmons who appeared in more than 2,400 regular season games and less than 20 in the post-season are gone, but so is the time when the post-season always meant the World Series against the best team in the other league.
Expanding the playoffs may have been unavoidable given expansion and growth in the population, but treating all post-season games as the same, and ensuring that decades of records would be forgotten or overwhelmed was not. A more nuanced approach to Beltran's record, for example, would be to point out that in roughly one fourth of a season against anywhere from moderately above average to top notch competition, he has been excellent. That spin is less likely to tip him into the Hall of Fame, but is probably closer to reality.