September 27, 2016
The Joy of Adrian Beltre
There has never been anyone like Adrián Beltré.
This is where one would normally jump into a dissection of his incredible talent and on-field accomplishments, and then end in a rigorous whacking-over-the-head with his Hall of Fame-worthy accreditations. Maybe we should, anyway, but what really stands out when Adrián Beltré plays baseball is joy.
Beltré is one of the best third basemen to ever play the game, with one of the more unusual careers. He’s an offensive dynamo, a defensive wizard, and his successes on the biggest stage could be an excuse for him to be any average dour and over-serious veteran player--or at least, the kind of personality void that happens from prolonged exposure to the media.
Instead, Beltré approaches games like there’s nothing else he’d rather do. He’s one of the rare people in the game who can treat it with the levity it deserves without inciting the ire of less-forgiving opponents. He approaches every plate appearance with purpose--with dedication to his craft and an honoring of his talent--but imbued in all that is joy.
It’s difficult to talk about this kind of thing without tipping straight over into raw sentiment, something that has its place in this game, but not overmuch. It might even be easy to diminish the accomplishments of the player in over-simplifying him to a set of reactions and meme-able GIFs, instead of taking it all in as a whole and marveling at both the humor and the pride.
Beltré dances, runs away from tags, pulls runners off the bag, walks up to the plate with his helmet on backwards, and messes with umpires. He’s also a deeply respected clubhouse presence, the first off the bench in the case of an altercation, and the captain who doesn’t need a “C” to determine his legacy. In an age when any kind of showboating can lead to full-out brawls, Beltré hits home runs from one knee.
The all-out way in which Beltré plays hasn’t always been for the best, in the same way that one-knee swing is something Beltré himself wishes wasn’t ingrained. He’s played with a colostomy bag strapped to himself, and played through severe ground-ball inflicted injury. Last year, when the Rangers needed their captain to get them to the postseason, he changed his grip and swing to avoid jostling a detached ligament in his thumb, an injury he would later describe as “uncomfortable.” There’s a line between brave and stupid, but woe betide the person who tells Adrián Beltré that he’s playing stupid.
Beltré has played in the big leagues for 19 seasons and since age 19. He was a wünderkind, then a disappointment for the length of an entire contract, then incredible. Since age 31, he’s hit no worse than .287 for a season, and that was in a year when it looked like his body might be about to betray him. He’s also hit no fewer than 18 home runs each year, and has hit 30 or more in four of those seven seasons. Those simplistic numbers, but even they lay out the on-field prowess of Beltré.
Diving into the pool of proprietary statistics, Beltré currently has accumulated 69.3 WARP (a changing number, as he’s still playing), making him 39th all time on Baseball Prospectus’ leaderboard, and the ninth-best third baseman. He’s a can’t-miss Hall of Famer in deed alone, and it’s only the strangeness of his personal timeline that makes him one of the most underappreciated players of our time.
How, with his numbers, is he underappreciated? It’s only recently that Beltré’s been talked about seriously for the Hall of Fame, though Jay Jaffe’s JAWS calculation places him at fifth all time among third basemen. Before these last few seasons, though, you had to be a fan of the team he was on to really understand his greatness. Part of this is due to the fact that, after his breakout 2004, he spent five years with offensively moribund Seattle, long before the fences were moved in.
Even in his breakout year, he was overshadowed by Barry Bonds, who took the MVP trophy over him. Beltré is between generations, somehow. He began his career in the age of the sluggers, and now he’s the old gun in the middle of a third base resurgence, the elder statesman to the likes of Manny Machado, Kris Bryant, and Nolan Arenado.
Of course, Beltré could simply be a generation to himself. In this, his age-37 season, he’s hit 32 home runs, leads the Rangers in slugging percentage, is second in raw batting average, and has so far been a positive defensively--a rare bird at third base. But, again, that’s not the sum of his impact. His impact is in every tag “avoided” by running around the infield, every dance at a pitch low and inside, and every bit of joy brought back to an incredibly long season. It’s in the rookies he mentors, the relationships he fosters, and in the backhanding of scorchers down the line.
Beltré is signed to two more years with Texas, and while it’s impossible to see the future, it’s not difficult to imagine him at 39, bringing the same level of dedication, passion, and joy to the game as he has for the last 19 years. In a time where we need joy now more than ever, Adrián Beltré is one of a kind.