Throughout the World Series, as I watched Miguel Cabrera disdainfully regard an Angel Pagan chopper that nicked off of third base and squibbed past him, have trouble coming in on balls, and show roughly the same enthusiasm for playing defense as I had for raking leaves last weekend, I couldn't help but think of this tremendous Mariners commercial from 2006, "The Great Wall of Adrian:"
Seattle Mariners Commercial - The Great Wall of Adrian (via razorbladerebus)
Now, of course, no one can say for sure that Beltre would have made all of those plays, nor is it really fair to say that Cabrera blew them all. However, watching him refuse to chase after Pagan’s “hit” and potentially prevent Pagan from advancing to second left me certain that Beltre would have at least given the appearance of caring more about the defensive half of his job. It underscored how lucky the Dodgers, Mariners, Red Sox, and Rangers have been to have such a tremendous player in their midst. In fact, between his offensive and defensive contributions, it's pretty clear that Beltre is one of the greatest third basemen in history, and a worthy Hall of Famer.
Beltre's 2004 was simultaneously the best and worst thing that could have happened to him. His 48 homers and 1.017 OPS got him the respect -- and contract -- he deserved, but also created unrealistic expectations about what he could be expected to produce on a yearly basis. When he proceeded to have a series of good-but-not-great offensive seasons in Seattle, he was called overpaid and condemned as someone who only turned it on in a contract year. This couldn’t have been less true. No, Beltre was never going to reach the heights of his career year again, particularly not at pitcher-friendly Safeco Field, where he hit .254/.307/.411 versus a more-robust .277/.326/.472 on the road, but he has settled in as an above-average hitter with a low OBP but very good power.
As the mainstream media promoted the idea that Beltre was a disappointment, there was no counter-narrative pleading his case. Indeed, you could argue that sabermetrics, which usually prides itself in identifying underappreciated players, had a lot to do with how undervalued Beltre became. It's a poorly-kept secret that, for a few years at the beginning of the 2000s, the statheads who comprised the Internet's baseball braintrust had almost no idea how to quantify defensive contributions. Because of all the complicating factors and a fairly widespread belief that one defender was pretty much as good as another, elite defenders like Beltre were dismissed in favor of gaudy on-base percentages.
But as we saw for the last three weeks in Detroit, San Francisco, Oakland, and the Bronx, defense at third can prove critical, and not all defenders are created equal. Indeed, since his sad tenure in Seattle, Beltre’s career has undergone a kind of renaissance and the stathead community has come back around on defense. Now, we understand that he has been, by far, the best-fielding third baseman since Brooks Robinson. In fact, according to Ultimate Zone Rating, Beltre has been the best fielder in baseball over the last decade at any position. Even if he didn’t have an All Star-quality bat (which he totally does, by the way), he’d be the Ozzie Smith of the hot corner. But once you factor in his offense, it’s clear that Beltre has been one of the two best third baseman of his generation.
There’s a weird thing that goes on with third base and the Hall of Fame. Not only is the position underrepresented (for many of the same reasons I laid out above), but there’s a huge split between third basemen from the modern era (the triumvirate of Mike Schmidt, George Brett, and Wade Boggs, from the golden age of the position in the late ‘70s through the end of the 1980s, as well as their forerunner, Eddie Mathews) and the third basemen of the early 20th century, (Home Run Baker, Jimmy Collins, and Pie Traynor, et al), who were nowhere near as good. Beltre is never going to reach the top tier of Schmidt/Brett and the rest, but that tier cannot be the standard to which third basemen are held.
Beltre is already north of 60 WAR for his career, and given that he has 2227 hits at 33, he may yet achieve one of the golden ticket big round numbers. Even should he fall short, he figures to finish his career solidly in the second tier of third basemen that includes Brooks Robinson, Ron Santo, and (eventually) Chipper Jones. That’s still comfortably among the all-time top 10 at the position. If that’s not Hall of Fame caliber in your mind, you need to revise your expectations for the Hot Corner going forward.