The Hank Aaron of Third Base

Third baseman Adrian Beltre turned 37 this past April and is playing his nineteenth season in the big leagues. This puts him in the home stretch of his career, but he has shown no signs of slowing down whatsoever. He’s hitting .292, a few points higher than his career average, and clubbed his 25th home run the other day (his ninth season with at least that many.) He also knocked in his 89th run, so it seems likely he will drive in 100 runs for the first time in four years, and for the fifth time overall in his career.

He’s still getting it done with the glove and arm in the field and remains the key leader on a very good Texas Rangers team that is poised to capture its second straight AL West title. Even at 37, Beltre would be an upgrade at third base for most teams, the exceptions being Toronto (Josh Donaldson), Baltimore (Manny Machado), Colorado (Nolan Arenado), Tampa Bay (Evan Longoria) and the Cubs (Kris Bryant).

In a very real sense, he’s been the Hank Aaron of third base. This is not to say Beltre is the equal of Aaron as a player – he isn’t, not even close. But very few are, a player like Aaron comes along once in a generation, maybe even once in a lifetime. What I mean is that their career trajectories – the longevity, the quiet steadiness, the amassing of career totals which have snuck up on baseball observers gradually – are very similar. Hank Aaron hit 35 to 45 home runs a year like clockwork and nobody noticed because he was so consistent and there was always somebody else doing something more sensational. That all changed around his eighteenth season, when suddenly everyone noticed that Hank had very quietly hit about 680 home runs – “What the….? Holy crap, Aaron has 680 homers!? He’s gonna break Babe Ruth’s record! How in hell did that happen? Quick, somebody call the KKK!”

It’s been quite similar with Beltre and home runs, albeit at a lower level. He’s hit between 20 and 30 home runs a season consistently throughout his career and when he hit his 400th in the middle of last season, I was as shocked as anybody. “Beltre!? 400 homers? You’re kidding me! I knew he was good and had been around a while, I thought he had maybe 290, 300. But 400? – how did that happen so fast? How did it happen at all?”

Slow and steady, that’s how – slow and steady wins the race.

With nineteen seasons under his belt at 37, Beltre obviously came to the big leagues very young – at age 19, with the Dodgers in late June, 1998. He was something of a phenom and the Dodgers signed him as a fifteen-year-old out of the Dominican. In fact, they would later get into trouble over this because Beltre was underage, and the Dodgers had to suspend their Latin American development program for a time as a punishment. By definition and almost without exception, players who start their major-league careers at the age of twenty or younger go on to have very good, or even great, careers. Think Bob Feller, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, and many others. The reasons are obvious – if a kid is ready for the big leagues at such an early age, he’s clearly a special talent with a head start and will be very good for a long time. The only exceptions are young players who are derailed or delayed by serious injury and usually these are pitchers. I’m not saying that all great players start so young, I’m saying that the ones who do start young are almost always great, or close to it. Beltre has been one of the ones close to great.

He became a regular with the Dodgers in 1999, establishing himself as a tremendous defensive third baseman with good power and run production, hitting 15, 20, 13, 21 and 23 home runs between 1999 and 2003. At age 26 in 2004, he had a breakout season which now must be regarded as an anomaly, and which proved fateful and costly to him in some ways. He hit .334 with 48 home runs, 121 RBI and 200 hits, a sensational season which pointed toward him becoming a superstar. In terms of the cash register, his timing was very good as he was eligible for free agency and signed a big multi-year deal with the Seattle Mariners.

Fluke seasons happen in baseball more often than people think and Beltre’s caused expectations to go through the roof, which he would pay a price for. Whether it was adjusting to a new league, a home ballpark not very friendly to power hitters, or the pressure of the big contract, Beltre fell flat on his face in 2005 with the worst season of his career: .255, with just 19 home runs. It wasn’t all bad – he drove in 87 runs and hit 36 doubles, but it fell well short of expectations and the press seized on this, painting Beltre as a bust, an overpaid flop. He rebounded with better numbers the next three years, hitting 25, 26, and 25 homers with better run-production, but his reputation as an underachiever persisted. He suffered through an injury-plagued season in 2009, his last in Seattle, playing just 111 games and hitting .265 with 8 home runs.

Being so out of line with his career norms, his 2004 season caused him to be overrated and ironically, as his production returned to normal, he has mostly been underrated ever since. Beltre is not a 48-home-run-a-year guy and never was, it was a fluke. A typical year for him looks more like this:.285, 27 home runs, 35 doubles, 90 RBI, 85 runs scored, an OPS of .810. Throw in the great defense, decent speed and that’s a hell of a player, year in and year out.

He signed a one-year deal with Boston in 2010 and had a strong comeback season: .321, 28 home runs, 49 doubles and 102 RBI – evidently Fenway Park was to his liking. I was sure the Red Sox would try to sign him long term, but they passed and Beltre went to Texas, where’s he’s been ever since. His stay with the Rangers, now six years and counting, has been the happiest and most productive period of his career.

As his career numbers stand now – .285, 438 home runs, 584 doubles, 2,908 hits, 1,556 RBI, 1,412 runs and an OPS of .816 – Beltre is already a bona fide candidate for The Hall Of Fame. Barring disaster, he will easily surpass 3,000 hits, which alone would push open the doors for him. His home runs are in the same territory as Mike Piazza, Billy Williams, Andre Dawson, Cal Ripken Jr., Carl Yasztremski and other notables, all of whom are Hall-of-Famers.

If he were to retire right now, he’d have to be considered among the top ten or twelve third basemen ever to play the game – his glove puts him there, and so does his bat. That list includes Mike Schmidt, George Brett, Eddie Mathews, Wade Boggs, Home Run Baker, Chipper Jones, Paul Molitor, Brooks Robinson, Alex Rodriguez (I know, but never mind), Ron Santo, and a few others. I’ll set aside A-Rod for now because he has a rather large asterisk looming over his career and he hit many of his home runs as a shortstop or DH. But among the others, only Schmidt (548), Mathews (512), and Jones (468) have hit more home runs than Beltre, and Beltre may well surpass Jones. And only Boggs, Brett, and Molitor, with over 3,000 each, have more hits than Beltre, so it’s pretty clear he belongs near the head of the hot corner class here. And if he’s clearly among the best third basemen ever, then how can he not belong in Cooperstown?

The thing is, he’s still in great shape and playing very well, so he’ll likely push his numbers up by playing for another two to four years, especially with the option of becoming a DH. Along with well over 3,000 hits and say, 650 doubles, he has a chance of reaching the 500-home run club, all of which would make him a lock for the Hall.

I realize this all may seem far-fetched to some, as it does to me. Beltre just doesn’t seem like that good a player, which is I why was surprised when he hit his 400th homer last year. But with a player like Beltre who has played very well for a long time, you can’t just look at his peak or a couple of seasons; he’s had a lot of good seasons with no particular peak. It’s called consistency, slow and steady wins the race. What’s more valuable, 10 great seasons, or the same numbers spread out over 20 very good seasons? I don’t know how to answer that question, but I’m inclined toward the latter – endurance has intrinsic value.

The only thing missing from Beltre’s career at this point is a championship. In 2011, his first year with Texas, the Rangers came within an eyelash of winning the World Series against St. Louis; only a couple of hair-raising and improbable comeback wins by the Cardinals prevented them from doing so. As a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays, I won’t be rooting for the Texas Rangers anytime soon, no sir. But if the Rangers were to win the World Series this fall, the only good part would be seeing Beltre celebrate and finally get a ring. As one of the best players in the game for a long time and also one of baseball’s nice guys – the last despite his weird phobia about having his head touched – he deserves to win one.

 

© 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

One thought on “The Hank Aaron of Third Base

  1. In 1998, I joined a National League fantasy pool as an expansion team. With no chance to win, my partner and I drafted veterans we could trade for the future (maddux, Greg vaughan, Steve trachsel, Ken caminiti) and in the reserve draft did something the other teams didn’t – draft prospects in the first few rounds. Our first pick – Adrian Beltre. We also took Aramis ramirez, Lance berkman, Pat Burrell and the Florida Alex gonzalez. We were ridiculed for this strategy, but after finishing last in 98, we followed with two straight second place finishes. I haven’t had Beltre since, but will always think of him as the guy who changed the pool with.

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