It was overshadowed by Ian Kinsler's home run in his return to Arlington and Texas' sixth straight loss, but Adrian Beltre's 2,500th career hit shouldn't escape notice. The Rangers' third baseman reached the milestone with the first of his four hits on the night, a single up the middle off Tigers starter Drew Smyly.
When Beltre reached first base, he was congratulated by Miguel Cabrera, who put his arm around his opponent, then tried to pat his head — something that's known to rile Beltre — when he doffed his helmet. Via MLB.com, here's the video, with the head games coming around the 40-second mark:
It’s fitting that the pair shared the moment, because by my estimate, they’re two of the most likely active players to reach 3,000 hits (more on that momentarily). Cabrera has three straight batting titles to his name, so that should be no surprise, but few people realize the credentials — even beyond the hits — that the 35-year-old Beltre is building towards a spot in Cooperstown. He’s in better shape than he was when I checked in two summers ago.
Though he did time on the disabled list back in April due to a quad strain, Beltre is in the midst of another strong season, batting .321/.363/.488 with eight homers, good for a 133 OPS+. The advanced metrics suggest his glovework is slipping (-2 Defensive Runs Saved, −1.4 Ultimate Zone Rating, slightly in the red via both for the second straight year), but his 1.8 WAR thus far still projects to 4.3 for the year.
Beltre is 180 runs above average defensively according to Baseball-Reference.com’s combination of Total Zone (for pre-2003) and DRS, which trails only Brooks Robinson (+293). He could fall to fifth if he loses another half-dozen runs over the remainder of his career, but his value with the leather has been more than enough for him to be in great shape via my JAWS system. Beltre’s 59.7 score ranks eighth among third baseman, as does his 72.6 career WAR. His 46.8 peak WAR is tied for sixth, and all three are well above the average HOF third baseman (67.4/42.7/55.0).
By sometime next year, Beltre is likely to surpass both Ron Santo and Brooks Robinson (62.1 JAWS), leaving only Mike Schmidt, Eddie Mathews, Wade Boggs, George Brett and Chipper Jones above him. Already, he’s one of three third basemen with 2,500 hits and 300 homers, joining Brett and Jones; once he reaches 400 homers (he has 384), only the latter will be in his company. That could sway voters who might otherwise dismiss his candidacy based on a relatively minimal number of All-Star appearances (three) and Gold Gloves (four).
Age and a hitter-friendly environment give Beltre a decent shot at 3,000 hits, too. Since leaving the Mariners following the 2009 season, first for a year in Boston and then for Texas, he has averaged 149 games, 32 homers and 182 hits a year while batting .314/.358/.545. He led the AL with 199 hits last year and had 194 the year before; including this season, his 803 hits are the fourth-most since the start of the 2010 season, behind only Robinson Cano (868), Cabrera (864) and Adrian Gonzalez (820).
In fact, Beltre could be the next hitter to reach 3,000, depending upon whether Alex Rodriguez (2,961) ever plays again. In The Bill James Handbook 2014, James dusted off his old "Favorite Toy" methodology, which uses a player's age and established level of performance via a weighted three-year average. His estimate of Beltre's chances entering 2014 was 81 percent, trailing only Rodriguez (98 percent). Baseball Prospectus' long-term PECOTA forecast projects Beltre to collect 701 hits from 2015 to 2019, his age-40 season — more than enough to reach the milestone even as his batting average declines into the .250-.260 range.
Far less sophisticated than that is my own JABO methodology, which you may recall from a similar look at 300 win candidates. Invented at Baseball Prospectus back in 2009, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, JABO stands for Jaffe Blind Optimism, and it promises nothing more than a quick back-of-the envelope estimate based on age and annual progress towards a given goal. All it's really asking is, "Is that possible?"
In the case of 3,000 hits, it's indeed possible for Beltre and a handful of other players. For this version, I've used a blanket set of assumptions: Every player will retire after his age-40 season, accumulating 70 hits over the remainder of this year and then 140 per year until then (a 3,000-hit pace over a 21 1/2-year career). Here's a look at the top 20 JABO "projections" for players with at least 1,000 hits, which means no Mike Trout. I’ve excluded Derek Jeter, who's 387 hits past the milestone:
I've included the James estimates from the start of the season, which provide a reality check based on the way some of these players' paces have slowed in recent years. No one who has a zero-percent chance in that column is listed in James’ book, which on the other hand does bother to tell us that Daniel Murphy and Ian Desmond have less than a one-percent chance. It's endlessly amusing to see Delmon Young show up, the equivalent of telling a particularly slow mover, "If you leave now, you might make it, buddy!" On the other hand, it's sad to see Carl Crawford so high up but dismissed as having zero shot, but amid yet another DL stint and with just 325 hits since the start of the 2011 season, it’s the hard truth.
My "methodology" sees Cabrera, Pujols, Beltre, Rodriguez, Cano and Jimmy Rollins reaching the 3,000 milestone, all of which seem plausible except perhaps the last, even if they don't wind up clearing the bar by as much as suggested. I'm dismissive of Rollins' chances given his .253/.319/.396 line since the start of 2009, paired with a defensive decline (-5 DRS per year) that has limited him to 1.7 WAR per year; if he falls much further, he won't be a regular.
I wouldn’t expect any of the half-dozen other players "projected" to top 2,900 to stop at age-40 without pushing onward, since only eight players besides Rodriguez have actually accumulated between 2,900 and 3,000 hits in their careers. Frank Robinson (2,943) retired to focus on being the game's first black manager, Barry Bonds (2,935) was blackballed due to PEDs, and the rest retired before 3,000 hits was a notable accomplishment. Anybody else who’s that close presses onward.
The 15 players on the table below Cano have an average shot of 11 percent according to James, which seems reasonable; we can expect a couple from that pack to actually make it but most to fall further off the pace due to age or injury. Along with Crawford, it's difficult to see the notoriously injury-prone Reyes, Markakis, Ramirez, Mauer and Pedrioa lasting long enough without something slowing their pace even further, and given what we know about Zimmerman's shoulder and Fielder's neck, the same is probably true for both as well.
Given that 18 of the 28 members of the 3,000 hit club finished with batting averages of at least .300 with another two in the .290s, it's probably best to focus on those with the highest batting averages. From among the group above, that would solidify the chances for Cabrera (.321) and Cano (.310) while telling us not to sleep on Mauer and Ichiro (both .319), Cano (.310), Pedroia, Ramirez and Wright (all .300) or even Butler (.297). Of course, batting averages are on the wane right now; the current MLB average of .251 is the lowest since 1972 (.244), and all of the aforementioned players are likely to see theirs drop due to age as well. But if you're a betting man, you might want to elevate their odds with respect to others.
In the end, I do think Beltre gets to 3,000 hits and to Cooperstown. His 2,500th hit should put both of those possibilities into clearer focus, because he’s got a few years to put the finishing touches on a great career.