This article is part of Adrián Beltré Day at BP. For more celebration of his career, click here.
We often talk about player development as if it’s linear. Some players do develop in a fairly linear fashion, like you might see in a video game. More often, the paths are long and winding, and sometimes nonsensical. Few great players had a stranger career path than Adrián Beltré, who did rare things as a teenager, was merely good in his twenties except for one season of extreme brilliance, and was so great in his thirties that he became a lock for Cooperstown.
The oddball arc of Beltré’s career begins, as it did for many Dominican players who signed with MLB teams in the 1990s, with forged paperwork concealing his real birthdate. The Dodgers signed Beltré at 15 years old, and you probably already know that baseball teams—at least on paper—can’t sign international free agents until after their 16th birthday. In the days before the Department of Homeland Security, age fraud in Latin-American signings was so common that it got a “gate” suffix as a scandal. Most players aged themselves down a year or two (or four or five), since you’re usually better at baseball in your later teen years. Beltré aged himself up a year, so he could get his $23,000 signing bonus at 15 instead of 16.
Beltré quickly became a top prospect and hired Scott Boras as his agent. In the late 1990s, Boras was at the absolute height of his efforts to raise the money paid to elite young players. Just a few years earlier he’d used a draft loophole to get four of the top prospects in the 1996 draft declared free agents. Baseball closed that loophole, but the next year he nearly pulled off a similar rules manipulation gambit with J.D. Drew, ultimately fighting MLB to something of a draw when Drew got the money he was looking for in a deal with the Cardinals the following year. So when Boras discovered that Beltré was a year younger and had thus signed illegally, he started fishing around, and tried to get his young star declared a free agent.
Instead, Boras merely got the Dodgers a cornucopia of fines and suspensions, because the league office wasn’t in the business of making Boras clients free agents if they could stop it. But that’s how good the teenage Beltré was—good enough that the Dodgers wanted to get him playing in their system at 15, and good enough to make his MLB debut just a couple months after turning 19.
As player development stories go, this would never repeat just two decades later. You can’t use Wite-Out to change the year on a birth certificate to sign a player early anymore, because baseball has a substantial registration system and background check in place now. Nobody sends 17-year-olds to High-A no matter how well they’ve done, not even the Padres. The Dodgers these days never would’ve called Beltré up at 19 as a non-competitive team and eased him into the majors, because they’d manipulate his service time to gain an extra year or two of team control instead. And Beltré as a 25-year-old free agent coming off one of the best seasons by a third baseman in MLB history never would’ve settled for a five-year contract that tied him to the worst ballpark in the majors for a hitter of his type.
Would Beltré have ranked as the greatest third baseman of all time with a more normalized peak? It’s complicated. Beltré is, by any reasonable estimation, one of the best third basemen in MLB history as his career already stands. He’s the fourth-best of all time according to JAWS, Jay Jaffe’s career HOF worthiness metric, just behind Wade Boggs and just ahead of George Brett. He’s sixth in career WARP for players who were primarily third basemen, sandwiched between Chipper Jones and Brooks Robinson. He’s a member of the 3,000-hit club and came tantalizingly close to being a 3,000/500 player. With the exception of his rookie half-season, he was always good, frequently great, and he played for 21 seasons with fairly high durability.
In 2004, his last year with the Dodgers, he hit .334/.388/.629 with great defense in his age-25 season, finishing second in the MVP voting to literally the best offensive campaign in baseball history—and Beltré did get six first-place votes over Barry Bonds. That season rates under current calculations for 8.7 WARP and 9.6 bWAR. In 2010, he signed a pillow contract with the Red Sox for his age-31 season and hit .321/.365/.553, still playing a superlative third base, good for 6.8 WARP and 7.8 bWAR.
Between those two seasons, Beltré spent five years playing for the Seattle Mariners. These should have been the absolute prime of his career under a linear, “normal” aging curve that we’ve expected to see as baseball analysts since the early days of Bill James. Yet over those five seasons, he hit .266/.317/.442, which was close to league average for the time and place. Because of his defense, he was still a good player, the same sort of good player he was in his early twenties before breaking out. But he wasn’t a great player, wasn’t anywhere close to the dominant player he was in 2004. He wasn’t even that close to the player he’d become in his thirties. Safeco Field decimated his hitting style in particular; he hit just .254/.307/.410 at home as a Mariner.
Both JAWS and WARP rate Mike Schmidt as the best third baseman of all time, but they disagree on how far back Beltré’s career is from Schmidt’s. The difference here is the valuation of their defense—FRAA sees Schmidt as one of the greatest defenders of all time and Beltré as merely great, whereas bWAR sees Beltré as one of the greatest defenders of all time and Schmidt as merely great. So if you grant Beltré the peak that his career looks like it’s missing—play from 2005-2009 that looks something like the average of his 2004 and 2010 seasons—JAWS will tell you he’d have been the greatest third baseman of all time, but WARP will tell you he’d have been second behind Schmidt.
What Beltré did accomplish was a rare greatness in his thirties. After the first half of his career was marked by defensive brilliance but rollercoaster offense, Beltré became an unusually consistent hitting force when by all rights he should’ve been aging into a graceful decline. From 2010 to 2016, his age-31 through age-37 seasons, he put up 35.5 WARP. Beltré was more than a five-win-a-year player by WARP when he should have been trending down, after previously only eclipsing four wins in that magical 2004 campaign.
Over the past two seasons, his legs started giving out, because time never stands still forever. Beltré was in and out of the lineup, even sometimes limited to DH duties, but he was still a fine player when available right up until the end. He had hits in his last four MLB games—the last three in his great nemesis, Safeco Field, where he received a standing ovation in his final game. Cooperstown awaits.
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