We’re a little more than a month away from the MLB playoffs, when fans of eliminated teams will have to hop on a contending team’s bandwagon and take shelter from the onslaught of October ED ads. The Cubs and Indians, who haven’t won titles since 1908 and 1948, respectively, are the leaders in the lovable losers department, but they aren’t the only presumptive playoff teams whose legacies elicit sympathy points. The Rangers, who came into existence in 1961 as the Washington Senators before moving to Texas for the 1972 season, are the longest-lived franchise without a World Series title. And if they win one this year, it will be in part because of two veteran players whose Cooperstown-quality résumés are also conspicuously lacking in rings.
Third baseman Adrián Beltré and DH Carlos Beltrán, who debuted in 1998 and were united in Texas last month after Beltrán’s deadline trade to the team, are the most accomplished active players who haven’t won a World Series. Now they’re batting back to back for a team that’s jockeying with Cleveland for the best record in the American League. And thanks to their similar surnames, they have a readymade, tag-team-quality nickname, which made it onto a T-shirt not long into their time as teammates.
Beltré, who debuted with the Dodgers at age 19, took a low-profile route to having the highest career WAR of any active, non-Pujols player. Between ballparks that hurt his surface stats, undervalued defense, and some genuinely lackluster offensive seasons in his early to mid-20s, including a big drop-off from his 2004 career year after he signed with Seattle, Beltré made it through the typical player’s prime years without generating much serious consideration as a future Hall of Famer.
That changed after he signed the “pillow contract” that brought him to Boston in 2010, his first All-Star season. Finally free of Safeco Field, which suppressed the stats of right-handed hitters, the 31-year-old Beltré led the majors with 49 doubles and began to transform into one of baseball’s best contact hitters, even as the game’s average strikeout rate rose, and even as he often swung from one knee.
Beltré’s refusal to get worse with age has yielded an unlikely career arc. He ranks 72nd on the list of highest career WAR totals through age 29; by the end of this season, he’ll probably place 14th on the list of highest WAR totals from ages 30 through 37. Not only is he still a better hitter than he was for most of the first half of his career, but his defense hasn’t slipped: Only Brooks Robinson and Roberto Clemente accrued more combined fielding runs from ages 36–37, and if Beltré keeps coming in on bunts and going back on pop-ups as easily as ever, he could blow by them both.
Beltrán, meanwhile, began his big league life as a tooled-up star toiling in Kansas City obscurity; in his first full season, he went 20–20–20 (home runs, stolen bases, fielding runs). As his speed ebbed, he became a better home run hitter, but he remained one of the best percentage base stealers until injuries and a thickening frame turned him into a station-to-station (albeit still productive) DH. At 39, he’s having his best power season in several years, although he’s scuffled since the trade to Texas.
Both of the Belt Bros. have already cleared or come close to clearing the historical Hall of Fame standard at their positions, as measured by JAWS, a statistical system that compares candidates to baselines established by blending the peak and career Wins Above Replacement totals posted by previously inducted players. Beltré is way over the threshold at third base, a position that’s long been neglected by the Cooperstown gatekeepers. To say the same in center field, Beltrán needs to tack on only 1.3 WAR before he retires.
Beltré’s ability to play through perpetual pain has been more durable, which partially explains why Beltrán’s regular-season record looks lighter; according to Baseball Injury Consultants, Beltrán has lost 180 more days to injury over the course of his career, roughly a full season’s worth of work. Beltré, who’s two years younger, has more major league life ahead of him, and a better shot at some sexy milestones; if healthy, he’ll record his 3,000th hit next season, with an outside shot at 500 homers if he plays into his 40s. Beltrán compensates for that missing production with a crazy postseason record; after compiling a .332/.441/.674 playoff slash line over 52 games, he ranks seventh on the all-time leaderboard for postseason Series Win Probability Added, behind a bunch of names that are also synonymous with playoff success (including Rivera, Smoltz, Schilling, and Freese).
Beltré, at least, may have moved beyond the point at which his Hall of Fame qualifications are still subject to dispute. But both players’ cases could benefit from a late-career title. As Bill James noted in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, it’s easier for a player’s talent to be overlooked when it’s “harder to form a whole image of what he has done.” And both Beltré and Beltrán have skill sets that resist easy encapsulation.
“Anything which ‘breaks up’ a player’s career tends to cause him to be underrated,” James wrote. “A player who has a good career will be thought of more highly than a player who does the same things, but with three different teams.” Neither Beltré nor Beltrán has spent more than seven seasons with one team, although Beltré will reach eight if he remains with the Rangers for the rest of his contract, which expires after 2018. Beltrán, who’ll be a free agent this winter, might suit up for his eighth team in 2017.
Nor does it help that neither player has stood out in any one area that’s easily quantified or summed up with traditional back-of-the-baseball-card stats. “Specialists and players who do two or three things well are overrated; players who do several things well are underrated,” James wrote. Beltrán’s Baseball-Reference page has shockingly little black ink; apart from playing all 162 games in 2002, he never led his league in any notable category. Beltré’s black ink is only a little bit better; he led the majors with 48 homers in 2004, an outlier year for a hitter who’s averaged only 26 per 162 games, and in later campaigns finished first in hits and doubles. Compare that to the page of occasional Beltré antagonist Miguel Cabrera, who’s amassed almost as many WAR as Beltrán in a more compressed period, leading the majors in all three slash stats, winning a Triple Crown, and picking up a pair of MVP awards. Cabrera has never failed to earn MVP votes in any full season, and regardless of how his decline phase unfolds, his Hall case will be easy to make: He’s been the best hitter in baseball, both in individual seasons and for a full decade.
Beltré and Beltrán should beat Cabrera to induction, even though they flunk the Black Ink and Gray Ink tests for Hall of Famers. But their supporters will have to make more nuanced cases, calling on park factors, postseason performance, and defensive stats that may have fallen out of favor by the time they’re eligible for induction. Today, the two players get points for leadership, but such soft factors, James asserts, “tend to be forgotten over time. Everything else deteriorates faster than the numbers.”
In other words, winning the World Series wouldn’t hurt. As James added: “Players who play for championship teams are often overrated; players who get stuck with bad teams are often underrated.” Both of the Belt Bros. have been underrated for long enough that being overrated for once would be a refreshing correction; maybe that’s all it would take for a second English speaker to join Jon Miller in stressing their names’ accented syllables. Beltré’s teams haven’t been bad — they’ve gone 1,400–1,285 with him on the field — but Beltrán’s have been about 30 games under .500. And despite Beltrán’s playoff heroics, he plays the victim in what might be the most memorable moment of his career, a looking, Game 7 strikeout that sent an inferior team to a World Series it wound up winning. A 2016 title would overwrite that image, replacing the close calls with a career-crowning pat on the head that even Beltré might not mind.