The 3,000 hit club has its newest member. On Sunday, Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre collected a double off Wade Miley of the Baltimore Orioles, making him the 31st player to reach that plateau and likely sealing the deal for his eventual induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The 38-year-old Beltre is the third player in as many seasons to reach the milestone, after Alex Rodriguez in 2015 and Ichiro Suzuki last year.
For much of his 20-year major league career, Beltre—whom the Dodgers signed out of the Dominican Republic in 1994, when he was just 15 years old, a transgression that led to the team being fined and banned from the country for a year—was known more for his glove than his bat. In part, that's because he spent his first 12 seasons in pitcher-friendly ballparks with the Dodgers (1998 to 2004) and Mariners (2005 to '09), putting up solid but unexceptional offensive performances. Excluding his 77-game age-19 season at the beginning of that stretch, he averaged 22 homers, 151 hits and a 106 OPS+ during those years. Aside from his massive walk year in Los Angeles—48 homers, 121 RBIs, 200 hits and a .334/.388/.629 batting line—those performances didn't jump off the page. That big season placed him second in the NL MVP voting and helped him net a five-year, $64 million deal from Seattle, but through that whole period, he didn't make a single All-Star team and won "only" two Gold Gloves.
The turning point for Beltre was in 2010. Coming off a dismal season in Seattle (.265/.304/.379 for an 83 OPS+ with just eight homers) during which he was limited to 111 games by left shoulder surgery and (cringe) a fractured testicle, he signed a one-year, $10 million "pillow contract"—agent Scott Boras' term—with the Red Sox. Playing his home games at hitter-friendly Fenway Park, Beltre made his first All-Star team and put up a robust .321/.365/.553 line, with 28 homers and a 141 OPS+. In the off-season he snagged a five-year, $80 million deal with the Rangers, who, as it happens, also play in a hitter-friendly park.
In 2011, Beltre made his second All-Star team and helped Texas reach the World Series for the second straight year. He bopped three homers in the Division Series against the Rays and two more in a losing cause in the World Series against the Cardinals; his seventh-inning homer off Lance Lynn in Game 6 broke a 4–4 tie, kicking off a three-run inning that looked as though it might deliver the Rangers a championship, but it was not to be.
Even after adjusting for his more hitter-friendly surroundings, Beltre has become a far more productive hitter—and a more appreciated presence all around—during the second stage of his career. From 2010 to '16, he averaged 28 homers, 177 hits and a 133 OPS+ with four All-Star appearances and some amount of MVP support in all of those seasons; he finished as high as third in the 2012 balloting. Beyond the numbers, he emerged as one of the game's most beloved elder statesmen and a social media favorite for his home runs hit from one knee and his well-known distaste for teammates rubbing his head.
Beltre’s second-stage surge pushed him past the 2,500 hit mark in 2014 and the 400 home run milestone in '15, fleshing out a résumé that's worthy of Cooperstown (more on which below). He finished last season with 2,942 hits and figured to have number 3,000 in the rearview mirror by this year’s All-Star break, but a strain in his right calf kept him from making his 2017 debut until May 29, in the Rangers' 52nd game.
Fittingly, Beltre got No. 3,000 the same day the Hall of Fame induction ceremony took place in Cooperstown, because the odds are strong that sometime in the next decade, he'll be getting a bronze plaque of his own. He's the 10th player with at least 3,000 hits and 400 homers, joining (in chronological order) Stan Musial, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Carl Yastrzemski, Dave Winfield, Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken, Rafael Palmeiro and Rodriguez. All but the last two from that group are enshrined, with Palmeiro on the outside looking in due to his 2005 failed drug test and suspension and Rodriguez because he's not yet eligible, though his own full-season suspension will likely postpone his enshrinement as well.
The irony is that Beltre's presence in that already-select company almost obscures the value of his glovework at the hot corner. According to Total Zone and Defensive Runs Saved, his 227 fielding runs ranks second at the position behind only Brooks Robinson (292). He's up to five Gold Gloves now, and beyond that has won the Rawlings Platinum Glove as the league’s best defensive player twice (2011 and ‘12, its first two years of being awarded) as well as the Wilson Defensive Player of the Year award in the latter season. He's also won four Fielding Bible awards—given to the best player at each position, regardless of league—in the last seven seasons.
Bolstered by the fielding runs, Beltre has ranked among the top five players in the league in Wins Above Replacement (baseball-reference.com version) four times, with a high of 9.5 (second, in 2004). His career total of 92.0 ranks third among third basemen behind only Mike Schmidt (106.5.) and Eddie Mathews (96.4), while his seven-year peak score of 49.7 is sixth, behind Schmidt (58.5), Wade Boggs (56.2), Mathews (54.4), Ron Santo (53.8) and George Brett (53.2). Both totals are well above those of the average Hall of Fame third baseman; his 71.0 JAWS is more than 15 points better than the standard (55.2) and ranks fourth, trailing only Schmidt, Mathews and Boggs. That's no-doubt territory.
Beltre, who is under contract with Texas through 2018, entered Sunday hitting .310/.387/.538 so he clearly isn't done. If he could maintain this year's pace, he would add another 10 homers and 61 hits this year, and, assuming he plays 150 games next year, another 25 homers and 156 hits next year, pushing his totals to 488 homers and 3,210 hits. Paul Molitor is 10th all-time at 3,319, an attainable number for Beltre if he stays healthy into his age-40 season.
The Cooperstown Casebook
by Jay Jaffe
As I outlined in a chapter called "How the Voters Put Third Base in the Corner" in my just-released book, The Cooperstown Casebook, both the BBWAA voters and the small-committee ones have been particularly stingy when it comes to recognizing the game's greatest third basemen. It took 42 years for the writers to elect the first two, namely Pie Traynor in 1948 and Mathews in '78, the latter on his fifth try despite his 512 career homers; within that span, the Old Timers Committee elected Jimmy Collins in 1945 and Fred Lindstrom (a particularly dubious choice marred by cronyism) in '76. To date there are just 13 major leaguers who are in the Hall as third basemen, including Molitor. Chipper Jones, a first-ballot lock who is eligible this December, will be the 14th, and Edgar Martinez, who played over 500 games at third base before taking up residence as a DH, could be the 15th.
Fortunately, by the time his career is over, Beltre's case should be about as clear-cut as any candidate's. The only question is whether the Hall of Fame will include him in a Rangers cap, or without one at all, so visitors can rub his likeness' head.