Adrian Beltre: Appreciation of the best third baseman of a Generation?
In December 2004, Adrian Beltre signed a 5 year, $64M contract with the Seattle Mariners, coming off one of the greatest seasons ever put together by a third baseman. Beltre that season hit .334 while belting 48 HRs and playing is normal stellar defense. Beltre posted a 10 WAR season (the 3rd this century by a 3B), and finished 2nd in the MVP Balloting to Barry Bonds (so some would consider him that season’s MVP, but that is another debate).
The magnitude of Beltre’s 2004 season, combined with the sheer number of dollars involved with the Seattle contract, tainted an otherwise good tenure in the Pacific Northwest. Over the 5 years, Beltre consistently hit 20-25 HRs, batted in the .260s, stole around 10 bases, and was rewarded for his defense efforts with a gold glove following the 2007 and 2008 seasons – all in a pitcher’s paradise. Beltre delivered approximately 17 WAR, which means that the Mariners got what they paid for over the life of the contract – though Beltre’s injury plagued disappointment of a season in 2009 appears to have been overvalued by all but Theo Epstein.
Through the peaks and valleys of Beltre’s performance in LA, Seattle, and now Boston, one fact is largely lost – during the 2010 season, Adrian Beltre is 31 years of age. He broke into the league as a full-time third basemen as a 20 year old, and after 12 seasons is far from the third basemen retirement home.
Rather than focusing on Beltre’s failure to duplicate his 2004 numbers, it is instructive to gaze on Beltre’s career comparing progress through similar ages. Through the wonderful work of the folks at http://www.baseball-reference.com, we can search by season and by production through Beltre’s age 31.
With 25% of this season remaining, Beltre has 22 HRs on the season, giving him 272 HRs in his career to date, placing Beltre 6th on the all-time list of players through the age of 31 who have played 90% of their games at 3B.
Rk Player HR From To 1 Eddie Mathews 422 1952 1963 2 Mike Schmidt 314 1972 1981 3 Troy Glaus 304 1998 2008 4 Ron Santo 300 1960 1971 5 Matt Williams 279 1987 1997 6 Adrian Beltre 272 1998 2010
Through Age 31, the record for hits by a third sacker is Ron Santo, with 1888 – Beltre is 2nd at 1846, and with 50 or so games remaining he stands a decent chance of passing Santo by year’s end.
Rk Player H From To 1 Ron Santo 1888 1960 1971 2 Adrian Beltre 1846 1998 2010 3 Eddie Mathews 1834 1952 1963 4 Brooks Robinson 1791 1955 1968 5 George Brett 1783 1973 1984
Schmidt, of course, continued producing at an elite level for 6 additional seasons, retiring after the 1989 campaign. After his age 31 season, Ron Santo managed only 369 more base hits, 42 more HRs and was out of baseball at 35. Eddie Mathews was done as an impact bat at age 31, and was largely finished at age 33.
What makes Beltre unique is not only the batting statistics he has accumulated by such a young age, but his two way play – Beltre has not spent significant time at DH or anywhere else besides 3B, unlike some of his contemporaries (Chipper Jones, an obvious first ballot hall of famer, comes to mind). Looking again at production through age 31, Beltre’s fielding Runs Above Replacement (101) puts him as largely comparable to Scott Rolen and Mike Schmidt (and clearly behind Brooks Robinson, of course). While producing at the plate at near historic levels, Beltre has played the hot corner as well as nearly anyone not named Robinson, Bell or Boyer has ever played it.
Presuming Beltre signs a four year contract, he will enter the 2014 off season as a 35 year old approaching with 375 HRs, 2500 hits and a defensive resume that probably ranks him somewhere around the lower top 10 in terms of defensive third basemen of all time. At that point, is Beltre a hall of famer? Probably not. But if he can be productive until 37 or 38, he could approach 425 HRs and 3000 hits, and at that point it may be difficult for Cooperstown to keep its doors closed. In 2010, Adrian Beltre made his first all-star team – perhaps all of us are beginning to notice what a great player he has been.
 For the purposes of this analysis, a 3B means a player that played 90% of his games at the position.