Appreciating Adrian Beltre's Greatness

Adrian Beltre collected his 3,000th hit this past Sunday, becoming just the 31st player in MLB history to reach that mark. It’s the most impressive milestone to date for the 38 year-old, but it got me thinking: have we underappreciated Beltre?

Beltre has long been a darling of my absolute favorite place on the Internet, Baseball Twitter™, but seemingly more for his fun-loving style and quirky personality than his actual numbers. And admittedly, I far more often associate Beltre with hitting dingers off a knee, losing his mind when his head gets touched, and most recently, getting ejected for trolling the  ̶f̶u̶n̶ ̶p̶o̶l̶i̶c̶e̶ umpires.

Now, this is pure conjecture (the scientific process is overrated), but if you asked a random group of casual or even more passionate baseball fans to name the best position players of the last 15-20 years — the span of Beltre’s career — how often would his name come up in the top 10? The top 15, even? You’d predominantly hear names like Jeter, Pujols, Ortiz, Bonds, Rodriguez, Cabrera, Ichiro... and more recently, guys like Trout, Harper, and Altuve. I’m not sure how many would toss Beltre out, off-hand. In all honesty, he probably would have slipped my mind as well.

But statistically, Beltre more than deserves to be right there with them. Let’s hit the obvious first: 3,002 hits, 454 HRs, and a career .286 average, along with 5 Gold Gloves. That's an all-around resume that should — and better — put Beltre in the Hall of Fame early in his time on the ballot. For comparison, Craig Biggio, who made it into the Hall on his third try, finished with just over 3,000 hits (3,060), a .281 career average, 4 Gold Gloves, and far less impressive power numbers than Beltre.

Diving a layer deeper, Beltre has the second highest career WAR (wins above replacement) among active position players: 92.5, as per Baseball Reference. That trails only Pujols. Regardless of what you think about WAR’s validity in terms of actual wins added, it is, at the very least, an effective proxy for value. Beltre is over 20 wins ahead of the next closest active players, Carlos Beltran and Miggy Cabrera.

Beltre has quietly become a sure-fire Hall of Famer and one of the very best position players of a star-filled era. Beyond his obvious talent on both sides of the ball, how else has he done it?

One of the biggest reasons is Beltre's remarkable ability to stay on the field. He has logged fewer than 130 games just four times in his career, and he has never played in fewer than 111 games if you exclude his rookie year in 1998. A series of leg injuries have hampered Beltre this season and will keep him under the 100-game mark, but his ability to avoid any long-term absences up to this point is exceptionally rare for a player in their late-30s.

But I think an equally compelling question is how Beltre has operated largely under our collective radars for so long. This week I’ve seen multiple tweets and stories posing this same general query: When on earth did Adrian Beltre become a no-doubt Hall of Famer? I have a few of hypotheses — but also valid counterpoints to each.

Hypothesis #1: Beltre has never won a World Series. Counterpoint: Neither have a number of the players I rattled off above — although you’d think Mike Trout has won 6 World Series in 6 years and also solved world hunger the way baseball press fawns over him (all due respect to Trout… but the guy hasn’t even won a playoff series).

Hypothesis 2: For much of his career, Beltre has played in markets with relatively little media attention (Seattle and Texas). Counterpoint: He spent his first seven seasons with the Dodgers, one of the MLB’s marquee franchises. Also, Beltre has been part of arguably the most successful stretch in Texas Rangers franchise history (four postseason appearances since 2011).

Hypothesis 3: Beltre does a lot of things really, really well, but he doesn’t do one thing legendarily well — at least not in the same way as some of his peers; think Bonds/A-Rod/Pujols and their prolific power, or Jeter/Ortiz and their knack for the clutch. Counterpoint: While yes, Beltre isn’t in the statistical stratosphere, he just joined a club that features only 31 others in baseball history. The other most recent members? Suzuki, Rodriguez, and Jeter.

In reality, it’s probably a combination of all three. And now, following his 3000th hit, Beltre seems to be entering the paradoxical phase of attention for his lack of attention. It’s like when hipsters spend so much time telling everyone how underground a band is, and then act surprised when everyone else starts talking about that band. Adrian Beltre is basically Arcade Fire, but good.

Beltre absolutely deserves the attention and praise, too. Besides putting together one of the most consistent and well-rounded careers in recent history, he’s also eminently likable. He is beloved around the league and one of baseball’s most colorful personalities at a time when the game is very much in need of them.

At age 38 and with injuries finally starting to catch up to him, the end of the line may be nearing for Beltre. But for now, we still get to enjoy and appreciate his greatness — and know that, barring something crazy, the line will end for Beltre in Cooperstown.

Let’s just hope his plaque doesn’t have a hat on.

Image: Keith Allison on FlickrAdrián Beltré 2011 (1)CC BY-SA 2.0