Monday, April 7, 2014
In praise of Adrian Beltre
By Bill Baer
Last Tuesday night, Texas Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre knocked in both the game-tying and game-winning runs. His teammates spilled out of the dugout, mobbing him at home plate. It wasn't the first time Beltre was responsible for a Rangers victory, nor will it be the last. That isn't surprising. What is surprising, however, is the Hall of Fame case he has quietly built since leaving the Seattle Mariners after the 2009 season.
Everyone remembers Beltre's 2004 season with the Dodgers. Then 25 years old, Beltre led the National League with 48 home runs and 121 RBIs, finishing second in the National League MVP race to Barry Bonds. Baseball-Reference lists Beltre's 2004 season at a whopping 9.5 Wins Above Replacement, which has been exceeded by only three position players since: Mike Trout (10.8) in 2012, Bonds (10.6) in 2004 and Albert Pujols (9.7) in 2009.
In his first three seasons with the Rangers (2011-13), Adrian Beltre has hit 98 home runs.
After the season, Beltre signed with the Mariners on a five-year, $64 million deal. Back then, $64 million was a sizable wad of cash. In those five seasons, the Mariners were mostly irrelevant, peaking at 88 wins and a second-place finish and averaging 76 wins. Beltre also vanished, posting an aggregate .759 OPS from 2005 to 2009. Adjusting OPS for league and park factors, Baseball-Reference puts him at 101, exactly one point above the average. He never came close to repeating his '04 level, peaking at 5.6 WAR in 2009. Not that 5.6 WAR is anything to sneeze at, but a sizable portion of it was due to his defense. That's problematic for two reasons: Defensive value isn't as easily apparent to the casual observer, and defensive metrics are far from perfect, as they can be unreliable in single-season samples.
Beltre became a free agent again following the conclusion of the '09 season, but he drew only tepid interest. He had undergone shoulder surgery in June and suffered a rather unfortunate injury to his "groin" in September, and was entering his age-31 season. Beltre ended up signing with the Boston Red Sox for a "pillow contract" -- a one-year deal with the intent to prove himself again with the hopes of drawing more serious interest the following offseason. It was a one-year, $10 million deal with a $5 million player option for 2011.
Beltre certainly earned his $10 million, coming as close to his 2004 value as he'll likely ever get. He finished the season with a .321/.365/.553 slash line along with his usual elite defense, resulting in 7.8 WAR and a ninth-place finish in AL MVP voting. The Red Sox finished in third place. With no postseason fun, Beltre went back into business mode a few weeks earlier than he would have liked. He declined his player option, becoming a free agent yet again.
Beltre parlayed that outburst with the Red Sox into a five-year, $80 million contract with the Texas Rangers. He was an instant hit with the team and nearly an instant hit at the plate. Beltre helped bring the Rangers back to the World Series, where they ultimately lost in seven games to the Cardinals.
Beltre has gotten older, but his numbers haven't begun tapering off. In his first three seasons with the Rangers, he has hit at least 30 home runs, posted an adjusted OPS of at least 130, and finished with an average of 6.1 WAR per season. Even last year, at the age of 34, Beltre hit .315 and led the league with 199 hits.
Beltre's high level of production went nearly unheralded but for a third-place finish in the AL MVP race in 2012. The Rangers had other players taking a bigger share of the spotlight, like Josh Hamilton and his contract status; Michael Young and the position-changing drama; Nelson Cruz's World Series blunder, PED suspension and pending free agency; the end of C.J. Wilson's tenure in Texas; and the Yu Darvish signing. Beltre was never the lead story, always the blurb.
Since the end of his time in Seattle, Beltre has posted 26.3 WAR in four seasons, according to Baseball-Reference. That in itself is impressive -- Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard, for instance, has only 19 career WAR as he enters his 11th season. Beltre has 70.8 career WAR over 16 seasons.
There are 11 in the Hall of Fame who played a majority of their careers at third base. Only five ended their careers with more WAR than Beltre's 70.8: Mike Schmidt (106.5), Eddie Mathews (96.4), Wade Boggs (91.1), George Brett (88.4) and Brooks Robinson (78.3). Some time last season, Beltre passed Ron Santo (70.4).
As for the traditional stats, Beltre's 2,428 career hits would rank fourth; his 496 doubles third; and his 376 home runs third. When you adjust for league and park factors, Beltre loses a few points -- his 114 career adjusted OPS would rank eighth of the 12 players -- but is impressive nonetheless.
By advanced metrics -- which justly give Beltre credit for his elite defense, even if they are a bit unreliable and aren't backed by consistent Gold Glove awards (he's won four) -- he is clearly destined for Cooperstown. But it isn't that cut-and-dried. Beltre will be scrutinized by BBWAA voters, who have a preference for old-school methods of evaluation, for having finished in the top three of MVP voting only twice and never winning, and never having won a World Series.
Let's not forget, however, that Beltre isn't even close to finishing his career. At 35, he's coming off of a season in which he hit 30 home runs, posted a .315 batting average and was worth 5.4 WAR. He should still have plenty left in the tank. Anything he does between now and the end of his career will only solidify an already strong Hall of Fame résumé.
Bill Baer writes for Crashburn Alley and contributes to the SweetSpot blog.