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Why Everyone Should Love Adrian Beltre

Adrian Beltre is one of our favorite players here at FiveThirtyEight, and he happens to have just recorded his 3,000th career hit. In my mind, that’s as good an excuse as any to dig into what makes the Texas Rangers’ third baseman so much fun to watch. Let’s run down four reasons that Beltre is so fascinating, in chart and video form:

His fielding is practically GOAT material

Generally speaking, third base is kind of a neutral position in terms of defensive value. It’s neither as demanding as shortstop nor as easy to pick up as first base; the role’s importance depends on the player who takes it on. And just like Baltimore Orioles great Brooks Robinson a half-century before, Beltre has turned the left side of the diamond into an impenetrable stronghold.

According to defensive runs above average,1 Beltre isn’t just the second-best fielding third baseman in modern history (trailing only Robinson), he also ranks among the game’s dozen or so most valuable fielders, period, going back to 1901:

Baseball’s best fielders

Highest-ranking players by defensive runs above average at position, with positional adjustment, 1901-2017

ALL PLAYERS THIRD BASEMEN
PLAYER PRIMARY POS. DRAA PLAYER DRAA
1 Ozzie Smith SS +384 1 Brooks Robinson +357
2 Brooks Robinson 3B +357 2 Adrian Beltre +246
3 Mark Belanger SS +349 3 Buddy Bell +206
4 Cal Ripken SS +320 4 Scott Rolen +196
5 Luis Aparicio SS +302 5 Graig Nettles +182
6 Ivan Rodriguez C +302 6 Robin Ventura +172
7 Joe Tinker SS +293 7 Lee Tannehill +157
8 Rabbit Maranville SS +284 8 Mike Schmidt +157
9 Omar Vizquel SS +272 9 Gary Gaetti +142
10 Andruw Jones CF +264 10 Aurelio Rodriguez +130
11 Adrian Beltre 3B +246 11 Ossie Bluege +127
12 Pee Wee Reese SS +245 12 Brandon Inge +119
13 Art Fletcher SS +238 13 Matt Williams +116
14 Bob Boone C +236 14 Terry Pendleton +114
15 Travis Jackson SS +231 15 Wade Boggs +113

Defensive values are an average of metrics from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.com.

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs.com

His bat caught up to his glove

Starting at an extremely young age, Beltre was already showing all the characteristics of a future star. (In fact, he was so good as a 15-year-old in 1994 that the Los Angeles Dodgers broke MLB rules to sign him out of the Dominican Republic.) A major league regular by age 20, Beltre became one of only 26 hitters since 1901 to record 800 plate appearances before turning 21. And his slick defense was as good as advertised from the very start.

But Beltre’s hitting wasn’t always on a Hall of Fame trajectory. His career adjusted on-base plus slugging (OPS+) through age 30 was only 105, barely better than average. Since then, though, Beltre has been hitting the cover off the ball, with more than 200 home runs and an OPS+ of 134 from 2010 onward. As a result, his lifetime offensive value — the number of runs he produced above replacement with his batting and baserunning2 — has climbed sharply over the back end of his career, to the point where his offensive output has finally chased down the average for Hall of Famers at the same age — and that’s on top of his great defense.

He proved — and then disproved — the walk-year phenomenon

Beltre was once held up as the poster child of players who turn on the afterburners in contract years, then coast until it’s time for another payday. And certainly there did seem to be a pattern to the ups and downs of Beltre’s early-career performances: A mediocre 97 OPS+ from 1998 to 2003 (his final arbitration-eligible season with the Dodgers) was followed by a stunning 163 OPS+ season in 2004. Then he put up a 101 OPS+ with Seattle from 2005 to 2009, before signing a one-year deal with the Boston Red Sox, whereupon he posted a 141 OPS+ in a make-good 2010 campaign.

But while research has shown that the contract-year phenomenon might be real, Beltre has always been a poor example of it. The narrative about Beltre’s contract-year performance tended to conveniently ignore the weak 83 OPS+ he produced at age 30 in 2009, the final season of his massive deal with the Mariners. It also cannot explain why Beltre has been so uniformly good (133 OPS+) with Texas, regardless of his contract status. So overall, yes, Beltre has hit a bit better (128 OPS+3) in his five walk years4 than in his 15 non-contract seasons (112 OPS+). But the difference isn’t anywhere close to statistically significant,5 — and besides, Beltre’s non-walk-year stats are pretty darned good, too. (And that’s if you don’t count Beltre’s arbitration seasons of 2002 and 2003 as “walk years”; if you do, the numbers are practically identical — a 118 OPS+ in contract years vs. 116 otherwise.)

Beltre always plays well, but he’s at his best in walk years

Adrian Beltre’s statistics in an average walk vs. normal year, 1998-2017

TYPE CONTACT % WALK % ISO. POWER BABIP OPS+
Normal year 85.4% 7.1% .189 .295 112
Walk year 87.7 6.6 .211 .310 128

Walk years include 2004, 2009, 2010, 2015 and 2016; normal years include all other seasons.

Source: FanGraphs.com, Baseball-Reference.com

The guy has way too much fun playing baseball

Beltre was in the news the other day after being ejected for moving the on-deck circle, but he’s spent an entire career doing wacky things like that:

That has been especially true since Beltre joined the Rangers and teamed up with shortstop Elvis Andrus. Between pantomiming invisible fly-ball catches, tossing his glove at Andrus in retaliation for the shortstop’s relentless campaign to touch Beltre’s head, and staring Andrus down for prematurely settling into a home run trot, the left side of the Rangers’ infield might be baseball’s best comedy duo since Abbott and Costello.

It’s all part of the game for Beltre, one of the most entertaining — and talented — players of his generation. A few years ago, my colleague Harry Enten and I worried Beltre was too underrated to make the Hall of Fame. But now that he has joined the 3,000-hit club, there can be no doubt about his place in Cooperstown.

Footnotes

  1. Which I calculated by averaging together Baseball-Reference.com’s and FanGraphs.com’s defensive metrics, including their respective position adjustments.

  2. Again, averaging together the Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.com versions of each statistic.

  3. Average weighted by plate appearances.

  4. 2004, 2009, 2010, 2015 and 2016.

  5. I ran a two-tailed t-test between the two sets of seasons, and the p-value was 0.40.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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