Perhaps no one in baseball history had a Hall of Fame career sneak up on us like Adrian Beltre.
After 2004, when then-Los Angeles Dodger Beltre finished second in MVP voting, signed a lucrative deal with the Seattle Mariners and then went on to generally flounder in the Pacific Northwest, he certainly didn’t look like a guy punching a ticket to Cooperstown. In fact, that ’04 campaign notwithstanding, Beltre looked like an academic flash in the pan until an injury-limited 2009: a career .270 hitter with 250 home runs and one trip to the postseason in 11 seasons — which isn’t a bad career, per se, but marginally memorable outside of La-La Land.
Even after that punctuated 2004 and through the Mariners contract, Beltre hadn’t been in an All-Star Game, boasted a 2.5:1 K/BB ratio and didn’t hit more than 26 HR. His body of work to that point wasn’t considered particularly noteworthy. He was a perfectly serviceable one-hit wonder, but nothing spectacular. Not Michael Jackson, but not Natalie Imbruglia, either.
Here we are at the coda of Beltre’s career, and he is a lock–er, he should be a lock, nothing is for certain with the mysterious and capricious ways of the BBWAA–for the Class of 2023.
From 1998 to 2009: 44.6 bWAR, 17.3 dWAR, 1700 H, 906 RBI, 2850 TB, .270 /.325/.453 traditional slash
From 2010 to 2018: 51.1 bWAR, 12 dWAR, 1466 H, 801 RBI, 2459 TB, .307/.358/.514 slash
How can we explain this? How does a guy go from merely being respectable with a classic contract season to finding another gear at 31 and producing a remarkable back-half run toward immortality?
On the whole, it looks like the career of a guy who realized too late that playing full-time baseball was a privilege rather than a right.
After that underwhelming run with mostly-brutal Mariners clubs, he took a discount and latched on with the Boston Red Sox for a one-year, $9M deal with a player option. It would appear that Beltre took this as a challenge to be better, and he delivered the goods by taking advantage of Boston’s comfortable left field dimensions and the Green Monster with 49 doubles, 28 HR, 102 RBI on his way to being named team MVP and earning his first All-Star nomination, a Silver Slugger and a top-ten spot in the MVP results.
That 2010 team didn’t make the postseason, of course, but the gamble paid off: he took the $1M buyout and latched on with the Rangers, where the rest is history: eight seasons with a .304 average, three more All-Stars, three Gold Gloves, two more Silver Sluggers and showing up on the MVP radar in six of those campaigns.
Looking at his career again, it also could look like the catalog of a man who discovered the joys of offensive production in hitters’ parks: Fenway and [highest bidder this week] Ballpark. This is not a slight against Beltre; as a free agent, he’s welcome wherever a team will have him at an agreed-upon price. Then again, it warrants mentioning that Beltre hit to a .286 tune both at home and away, and actually hit more home runs and doubles on the road. Beltre didn’t just feast at home, he was a beast irrespective of dugout. Even those lean years in Seattle weren’t bad, and that situation wasn’t necessarily his fault.
A few years ago, I looked at Beltre’s numbers and noticed he was on a 3000-hit trajectory. It caught me off guard, but not in the way that a Craig Biggio might have surprised others. Biggio was regularly involved later in his career with some serious Astros clubs and was famous as a member of the Killer Bees along with Jeff Bagwell and Lance Berkman. Beltre, too, was on postseason teams and won a pennant in his first season as a Ranger (and acquitted himself well in his chances at October baseball), but doesn’t it seem that he did so more quietly? Or am I biased in that I saw Biggio a lot more when Houston was in the NL Central and faced off many times against my beloved Brewers?
His baseball-reference.com contemporaries place him in great company, aging like Ron Santo for most of his career, then Al Kaline, then Eddie Murray. His most similar all-time comparison is Dave Winfield, and the list from is from a who’s who of latter day greats. Amongst them is Carlos Beltran, whose case is elevated by virtue of Beltre’s surefire Hall of Fame resume but remains himself a borderline-to-possible Hall of Fame candidate.
What do we learn most from evaluating Adrian Beltre? That great careers, even Hall of Fame ones, can be obscured by our own biases and presuppositions. Everything I thought I knew about Beltre was wrong and is proven wrong, absent something we don’t yet know–innuendo doesn’t count, by a plain look into what the man did not only in Texas, but over a productive, effective 21 seasons.
It was indeed a tale of two careers: the second better than the first; the first, not half bad.
Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.