When I first heard that Luis Castillo had been cut last week, my first reaction was to scream joyously for several minutes as if the Mets had just won something. (I wasn’t quite as excited when Oliver Perez was cut, since it was inevitable at that point.) Once the euphoria passed, I started to think about all the places the conversation could go from here. Like what the decision means for the Mets’ current second base situation, or how Castillo represented everything wrong with the organization, or who were the most hated Mets of all-time (ready for payday, Bobby Bo?). But before the announcement was even made, Andy Martino of the Daily News had already decided what to talk about: race. Martino asserted that race must have played a part in Mets fans’ hatred of Louie.
At first, I wanted to disregard Martino’s article as nothing more than an attempt to stir the pot, especially given its limited evidence to support such a bold assertion. But then I started to think about his point some more and confirm that, yes, it was an attempt to stir the pot (and no, the article doesn’t prove anything).
Still, I found one part of the piece to be really interesting, and that was a quote from a player described as a friend of Castillo’s and “a fellow Hispanic in baseball”:
“But it’s harder to say that [race is] the main issue with Castillo, because he hasn’t performed. If you had that same mistreatment of a guy that was performing really well, then it would be more obvious.”
Martino then mentions Jose Reyes and Angel Pagan as Hispanic Mets who have played well and therefore have not been hated. What he does not mention is, to me, the most obvious example: Carlos Beltran. Beltran is a Hispanic Met who has played well and yet has been the object of many Mets fans’ contempt.
Honestly, I have neither the desire nor the authority to determine whether the negative feelings toward Beltran are race-related. Maybe for some people they are. However, that quote made me wonder why certain players—including very good ones—are disliked and even hated.
As Matt Kauffman wrote in a recent post, there’s a lot more to baseball decisions than just on-field performance. The same can be said of player popularity. There are several factors aside from overall performance that play a role in determining how the fans feel about a player. Here are the three big ones—all of which are more significant than race—that have hurt Beltran:
1) The image a player puts forth
To some fans, Carlos Beltran is (was?) one of the most talented, graceful outfielders in the game, a five-tool player and an easygoing guy. But to others, he comes across as lazy and apathetic, someone who lacks passion and “fire.” (There was also the controversy last January, when Beltran had surgery on his right knee without team permission.) And yet, from 2005-2009, Beltran made four All-Star Games and won three Gold Gloves and two Silver Sluggers. In those five years he was worth 26.6 Wins Above Replacement. In 2006 he hit 41 HRs (tied with Todd Hundley for the Mets single-season record) and had a .982 OPS while leading the Mets to their first division title since 1988. He may not have the Paul Lo Duca fire or the Lenny Dykstra fearlessness, but he’s been a better Met than the two of them combined. But he’s not as popular as Reyes, David Wright or even Ike Davis.
Sometimes, a player is doomed to be disliked the moment he signs his contract. Aside from the obvious overpayments of Ollie and Louie, Beltran is once again a good example. When the Mets gave Beltran a 7-year, $119 million contract, he had just completed a monster 2004 postseason with the Astros, hitting eight homers and driving in 14 runs in 12 games. In 2005, Mets fans were rightfully disappointed to see him have just 16 HRs and 78 RBI, not to mention only 17 SBs (after four straight years of 30+) and a 2.1 WAR, though the down year was due in part to a quad injury and an August collision with Mike Cameron. However, in 2006 he had career highs in home runs, RBI and OPS, tying Todd Hundley’s franchise single season home-run record with 41 and leading the team to its first division title since 1988, and in 2007 and ’08 he put up numbers similar to those earlier in his career in Kansas City. Injuries can be included in the “expectations” category, and certainly they have contributed to Beltran’s recent unpopularity (145 total games played in 2009-10). But Jose Reyes has also been injury-plagued, not to mention the fact that Reyes underperformed last year (2.2 WAR in 2010 after three years of at least a 5.3 WAR from 2006-08). The bottom line is that Beltran, after a huge postseason and a huge contract, could never quite live up to unrealistic expectations.
3) “The Closer Effect”
Can you think of a popular Mets closer in the last 10 years? Benitez, Looper, Wagner, K-Rod–every one has been the scapegoat of a failing Mets team. And yet Benitez had an incredible 1999 (14.77 K/9), Looper a rock-solid 2004 (2.70 ERA, 1.22 WHIP), Wagner a decent three years from 2006-08 despite blowing 17 saves (three WHIPs of 1.13 or better), and K-Rod a strong 2010 despite only 25 saves (2.20 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, granted he has an oversized contract/temper). Nonetheless, Mets fans don’t seem to have a kind word for any of them. When you’re constantly in a position to blow it for your team, you’re going to fail in some big moments. Fans remember these moments. Benitez, for one, had a penchant for failing in late-season games against the Braves. But it’s not just closers who fall victim to the Closer Effect. There’s Aaron Heilman’s 2006 NLCS Game 7 failure, Louie’s dropped pop-up, and of course (to return to our focus) Beltran’s Game 7 caught looking. Sometimes, one bad moment can outweigh a whole lot of good in the minds of fans, and Beltran came up short in the biggest of spots.
When you’re as awful as Oliver Perez, it’s an uphill battle from the start. But for a star player like Beltran, it takes a lot more to fall out of favor.