A couple of weeks ago I was watching a game between the Astros and the Rangers, and it occurred to me that I might be watching the two most underrated future Hall of Famers in the game today: Texas third baseman Adrian Beltre and Astros designated hitter Carlos Beltran. They spent half a season as teammates last year, and both have amassed what I would call borderline hall of fame offensive numbers while also playing superlative defense at premium positions, which should put them over the top and into the Hall. I thought about which player I’d rather have and I polled my friends on Facebook to help me decide. Just for fun, I threw in another future HoFer who was also at the tail end of his career: Ichiro Suzuki. All three started their careers at about the same time and all are at about the same level: should-be locks for the Hall of Fame, but below the level of all-time greats like Albert Pujols or Miguel Cabrera.
The poll was no contest: Ichiro won in a landslide.
This surprised me. It shouldn’t have; ever since he came over from Japan in 2001 and became just the second player to win the MVP in his rookie year, Ichiro has captivated the nation with his unique batting style, his excellent defense, and his superb baserunning. Amazingly, he is still hanging around as a useful fourth outfielder for the Miami Marlins at age 43. [Fun fact: he recently became the oldest player in history to start a game in center field.] Beltran and Beltre also suffer in the comparison because they moved around so much, making it hard to associate them with a particular team. Beltran will probably go into the Hall of Fame as a Met and Beltre probably will go in as a Ranger, but the fact that we even have to ask the question gives Ichiro a significant advantage.
I always thought Ichiro was somewhat overrated, even when he was in his prime. He usually had a high batting average, mostly due to his speed and his Ty Cobb-like ability to place the ball seemingly wherever he wanted. I don’t mean to diminish those skills; they are very useful ones. But he rarely walked — the only year he had an on-base percentage over .400 was 2004 — and he had little power, hitting double digits in homers only thrice (topping out at 15 in 2005) and never hitting more than 34 doubles in a season. [For a frame of reference, Beltran has hit more than 35 doubles five times and more than 40 twice, and Beltre has hit 35 four times and 40 twice, topping out at 49 in 2010. Pujols has hit 35 doubles ten times, 40 doubles seven times, and 50 doubles three times.]
If you’re a believer in Wins Above Replacement, it’s no contest: Beltre trounces Beltran and Ichiro on both Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs, 90.8 to 70.1 (Beltran) and 59.2 (Ichiro) and 82.0 to 67.7 and 57.6, respectively. WAR gives a lot of weight to Beltre’s historically great defense at third base, though Beltran and Ichiro also rate quite well on defense.
As my friend Scott Novak pointed out on my Facebook poll, it’s a little unfair to compare Ichiro to Beltran and Beltre in total numbers, since he started in Japan and didn’t have his rookie season until age 27 (Beltran was a rookie at 22 and Beltre came up at 19). So going by rate stats is probably the best way to compare them.
I’ve always thought a high on-base percentage was the most important attribute on offense. When a hitter steps to the plate, his job is to get on base, no matter how he does it. If a player doesn’t hit for a high average, but walks a lot, he’s likely to have a good on-base percentage. If a player hits .300, but rarely walks, he’s not getting on base enough. It took a career-high .372 batting average for Ichiro to have his one season with a .400 on-base percentage.
Slugging percentage is nearly as important: it measures total bases per plate appearance, thus combining the attributes of a contact hitter and a power hitter. It’s how we know just how much better a hitter Barry Bonds was than, say, Adam Dunn. Put them together and you have OPS, the most valuable tool for comparing hitters. It’s a much more valuable statistic than RBI or runs scored, since those are so dependent on other players driving you in or getting on base ahead of you.
Here are their lifetime OPS totals:
Advantage Beltran, with Beltre close behind.
Now, Ichiro and Beltran have much better baserunning numbers than Beltre. BSR measures baserunning ability based on stolen bases, caught stealing, and extra bases taken. Ichiro leads here, with 95.3 base-running runs for his career. Beltran comes in second with 66.9. Beltre is way behind them with -4.9.
Advantage Ichiro, with Beltran close behind.
So what do we have here? Among the three, Beltran is the best hitter, Beltre the best defender, and Ichiro the best baserunner. Whom to choose? When it comes to advanced stats, I tend to put more stock in hitting stats than fielding or baserunning stats, since they are more easily quantified. So I might lean towards Beltran, … BUT: over the course of his career, Beltre has been far and away the best third baseman (non-steroids division) in the game. His 82 WAR puts him nearly 18 wins better than Chipper Jones, who comes in second at 64.4. During his career, Beltran (67.7) is just over 11 wins better than Andruw Jones (56.4) and Ichiro (57.6) is only 5 wins better than the criminally underrated Bobby Abreu (52.1).
Third basemen have been notoriously undervalued and/or ignored by the Hall of Fame. Ron Santo and his 71 WAR didn’t make it in until the Veteran’s Committee voted him in after his death. But there have been a lot of good ones recently — Scott Rolen, David Wright, Evan Longoria, Aramis Ramirez — and Beltre blows them all out of the water. Beltran and Ichiro have also been the best at their positions over their careers — which is more than we can say for some people who are already in the Hall (I’m looking at you, Jim Rice and Kirby Puckett) — but the difference between Beltre and the third basemen behind him is enough to make me say it:
I’m going with Adrian Beltre.