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Adrian Beltre and The Unsexiness of Defense

SURPRISE, AZ - FEBRUARY 28:  Adrian Beltre #29 of the Texas Rangers forgets his keys at work, tries to remember garage door code, ponders "life". (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
SURPRISE, AZ - FEBRUARY 28: Adrian Beltre #29 of the Texas Rangers forgets his keys at work, tries to remember garage door code, ponders "life". (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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With another excellent performance in his age-33 season, Texas third basemen Adrian Beltre has raised his career WAR total to very impressive 58.3 and counting in 2012. This brings Beltre closer to the benchmark 60 WAR that is typically where the Hall of Fame discussions begin, and it brings Baseball closer to the inevitably controversial discussion of whether or not Beltre is deserving of such an honor. I'm not typically one to get involved in Hall of Fame discussions-- it always feels like playing a game in which the rules are hidden from you-- but I do think the conversation tells us a lot about how Baseball values its participants.

There is a definite pro-Beltre movement underway, and it has even hit mainstream outlets like ESPN recently. It's always difficult to quantify an impression, but I get the feeling that fans generally do not regard Beltre as a Hall of Fame talent. This is obviously because a large fraction of Beltre's value is derived from his defense, an area of the game where talent has always been difficult to measure.

But Beltre's success in this regard is rather unique. In fact, he is only one of just 20 players to have posted at least 20 defensive Wins (dWAR) and 40 offensive Wins (oWAR) in his career:

Name Debut dWAR oWAR WAR HoF
Honus Wagner 1897 21.4 118.4 126.2 Y
Cal Ripken 1981 34.3 72.8 90.9 Y
George Davis 1890 24.1 65.8 80.2 Y
Ozzie Smith 1978 43.5 44.5 73 Y
Brooks Robinson 1955 38.8 42.3 72.7 Y
Bill Dahlen 1891 28.4 57.5 70.9 N
Frankie Frisch 1919 21.4 54.4 68 Y
Alan Trammell 1977 21.9 59.3 67.1 N
Gary Carter 1974 25.6 52.4 66.4 Y
Bobby Wallace 1894 28.7 52.1 66 Y
Scott Rolen 1996 20.3 48.6 65.8 N*
Ivan Rodriguez 1991 28.7 49.3 63.7 N*
Pee Wee Reese 1940 25.7 52.2 63.1 Y
Graig Nettles 1967 21 47.6 62.8 N
Buddy Bell 1972 22.9 43.4 61.6 N
Jack Glasscock 1879 22.5 47.4 59.2 N
Lou Boudreau 1938 23.3 46.5 59.1 Y
Adrian Beltre 1998 21.3 40.1 57.5 N*
Joe Gordon 1938 22.5 38.2 54 Y
Bert Campaneris 1964 20.7 43.6 49.2 N

*not eligible

There are a lot of Hall of Famers on this list, but as you make your way down toward the low-60's, the BBWAA becomes significantly less welcoming. Of course, Beltre is sandwiched here by two Hall of Famers in Lou Boudreau and Flash Gordon, but keep in mind both players debuted as far back as 1938. Boudreau had to wait 18 years after retirement for his induction, and Gordon was only elected by the Veterans Committee just a few years ago in 2009.

Of course, a few of these players like Ozzie Smith, for instance, were notorious for their defensive prowess, but provided little more than pedestrian offensive value over their long careers. The Wizard still managed to rack up 44 oWAR over the course of his long 19-year career, but was never much better than average at the plate with a mere 13.7 oWAA . This is something saberists have begun to refer to as "compiling" and in order to combat the compiling effect, of course, we use Wins Above Average.

Beltre, then, is one of 17 players that match both his 15 oWAA and 20 dWAA:

Name Debut dWAA oWAA WAA HoF
Honus Wagner 1897 21.3 83.8 91.7 Y
Cal Ripken 1981 34.5 35.7 53.4 Y
George Davis 1890 24.1 33.9 48.3 Y
Scott Rolen 1996 20.3 26.3 43.5 N*
Lou Boudreau 1938 23.3 29.6 42.2 Y
Alan Trammell 1977 22 32.8 40.4 N
Gary Carter 1974 25.4 26.1 40.1 Y
Bill Dahlen 1891 28.5 26.3 39.4 N
Frankie Frisch 1919 21.6 25.5 39.1 Y
Joe Gordon 1938 22.4 21.5 37.2 Y
Jack Glasscock 1879 22.3 24.3 36 N
Bobby Wallace 1894 28.7 21.2 35.1 Y
Adrian Beltre 1998 21.2 15.9 33.5 N*
Ivan Rodriguez 1991 28.7 19.1 33.2 N*
Graig Nettles 1967 20.8 17.5 32.8 N
Pee Wee Reese 1940 25.5 20.9 31.6 Y
Bert Campaneris 1964 20.8 15.8 21.4 N

*not eligible

Though Beltre is not necessarily a compiler (at least not yet), the switch to WAA doesn't really seem to help him very much. He is still hanging out with non-inductees like Greg Nettles, whose numbers bare a very close resemblance to his own. Gary Carter was inducted after six years of eligibility, but as a catcher, Carter may have had the advantage of a thinner field of competition. Pee Wee Reese is in, but he waited through nearly two decades of eligibility before finally getting the stamp of approval from the V.C. in 1984. Alan Trammel's 40.4 WAA is probably a reasonable expectation for where Beltre should finish by career's end, and the lifelong Tiger has had a daisy of a time trying to get to Cooperstown so far.

(Tangent: It just occurred to me that if Trammel had played his career in the present day, he would have certainly been dubbed "A-Tram" by the unimaginative talking heads of our time. That this nickname was never once uttered aloud on the planet Earth is most definitely evidence of a merciful god. Let's all promise to keep it that way and not read this out loud.)

Scott Rolen is often seen as a fair comp for Beltre-- both have handled the hot corner with excellent defense over the same era. But the difference there is that Rolen has still shown markedly superior offense to Beltre over his career. Rolen is till probably a bellwether for Beltre's chances, but I'm not totally in love with the comparison.

The problem for Beltre may be that any defense shy of inhumanly spectacular, even really good defense, is still unsexy. If we look at players that have had similar offensive/defensive profiles over their career, we see that the public, and the BBWAA for that matter, just isn't wild about good hitters with really good defense. They love elite defense a la Ozzie Smith and Brooks Robinson, but maybe not the slightly uglier sister (or uglier brother, ladies).

Here are players that have profiled similarly in that regard to Beltre using oWAA to dWAA ratio:

Name Debut dWAA oWAA WAA o/d WAA HoF
Bill Dahlen 1891 28.5 26.3 39.4 1.1 N
Andruw Jones 1996 24.5 13.4 36.8 1.8 N*
Bobby Wallace 1894 28.7 21.2 35.1 1.4 Y
Adrian Beltre 1998 21.2 15.9 33.5 1.3 N*
Ivan Rodriguez 1991 28.7 19.1 33.2 1.5 N*
Graig Nettles 1967 20.8 17.5 32.8 1.2 N
Buddy Bell 1972 23 14.3 32.6 1.6 N
Pee Wee Reese 1940 25.5 20.9 31.6 1.2 Y
Robin Ventura 1989 17.3 13.7 28.4 1.3 N
Jimmy Collins 1895 16.8 15.2 26.3 1.1 N

*not eligible

Andruw Jones is likely to face the same sort of problems on judgement day, and his offensive numbers are significantly lower due to a precipitous drop in production over the second half of his career. Ivan Rodriguez and his unholy abilities at keeping baserunners at bay seems a fair comparison as well, though he is likely to face a whole separate set of criticisms that are infinitely more complicated than those of Beltre, Rolen and Jones. Graig Nettles shows up again, along with Buddy Bell, Pee Wee Reese, and even a Robin Ventura who in many ways profiled as a diet Beltre. Ventura received just 7 of the required 405 votes in 2010.

Our perception of Baseball is ever-changing and recently this has proven to be especially true in regards to our efforts to estimate defensive contribution. Perhaps by the time he is eligible for the Hall our opinions towards Beltre and players of his ilk may have evolved. But as it stands today, I just don't see him getting the nod to Cooperstown.

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