The Rangers’ two-game visit to Chavez Ravine wasn’t just a chance for Dodgers fans to watch a relatively unfamiliar team, it was an opportunity to see a future Hall of Famer (and former Dodger) claim one more slice of history. With two hits on Tuesday night and then three more on Wednesday, Adrian Beltre tied and then surpassed the recently retired (?) Ichiro Suzuki for the most hits by a player born outside the United States. Back on April 5, Beltre surpassed Rod Carew (3.054) for the most hits by a Latin America-born player. With Wednesday’s binge, he’s up to 3,092.
Here’s the go-ahead hit, a fourth-inning double to right-center field off Kenta Maeda:
Admittedly, the hit was somewhat overshadowed by a trio of plays at the plate, first Matt Kemp‘s collision with Robinson Chirinos and the subsequent bench-clearing brawl; then Beltre’s own slide home, which was challenged (unsuccessfully) by the Dodgers; and then Enrique Hernandez’s eventful tag of home for the game-winning run after a bad throw by pitcher Matt Bush.
Here’s the updated career leaderboard for players born outside the U.S. after Beltre’s three-hit night:
|1||Adrian Beltre||Dominican Republic||3092||22|
|4||Albert Pujols||Dominican Republic||3030||27|
|6||Roberto Clemente+||Puerto Rico||3000||32|
|8||Ivan Rodriguez+||Puerto Rico||2844||49|
|10||Carlos Beltran||Puerto Rico||2725||61|
|11||Roberto Alomar+||Puerto Rico||2724||62|
|14||Vladimir Guerrero+||Dominican Republic||2590||86|
|15||Julio Franco||Dominican Republic||2586||87|
(As noted in my celebration of Beltre’s previous milestone, I’ve included Puerto Rico-born players here. Puerto Rico is an unincorporated US territory, and its citizens are US citizens, but the Caribbean island is also considered part of Latin America, and its ballplayers have long been recognized and celebrated within that context, particularly during and after the career of the iconic Clemente.)
Beltre collected the first 949 of those hits, including an RBI double off the Angels’ Chuck Finley in the first plate appearance of his June 24, 1998 major-league debut, as a Dodger. The team had signed him out of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic in July 1994, when he was just 15 years old. It was later discovered that the Dodgers falsified the birthdate on his contract to make it appear that he was 16 (with an April 7, 1978 birthdate, instead of 1979), a transgression for which they were fined $50,000, with year-long bans on signing any Dominican-born amateur free agent and operating the team’s Dominican academy. Both the scout who signed Beltre, Pablo Peguero, and the team’s head of Dominican operations Ralph Avila (father of Tigers general manager Al Avila and grandfather of Diamondbacks catcher Alex Avila) were suspended for a year as well.
Despite that mess, the Dodgers were allowed to retain Beltre. He struggled as a rookie, but showed promise as a hitter from 1999 to 2003, topping 20 homers three times and 100 wRC+ twice, and playing strong enough defense to be worth at least 3.0 WAR four times. Nonetheless, as the Los Angeles Times‘ Andy McCullough recounted on Tuesday, the Dodgers’ management felt he wasn’t fulfilling his potential; according to Scott Boras, Beltre’s agent, they called him “a five o’clock hitter” whose raw power didn’t translate into game power. The criticism — and, according to McCullough’s story, bone spurs in his left ankle that caused him agony when he swung and missed — led Beltre to sharpen his focus as free agency approached, and “[concentrate] on getting a good pitch to hit and not missing it.” The result was a 48-homer, 121 RBI, 161 wRC+ 2004 season. Beltre’s 9.7 WAR from that year is in a virtual tie for the highest single-season mark among third basemen.
As McCullough recounts, the Dodgers lowballed Beltre in negotiations once he became a free agent, and he signed a five-year, $64 million deal with the Mariners. It wasn’t until he left Seattle for the more hitter-friendly environs of Boston (2010) and then Texas (since 2011) that he approached the caliber of offense that he produced in 2004. Thanks both to his early start in L.A. and to a strong showing in his 30s, he’s compiled Hall of Fame offensive numbers (464 homers to go with his 3,090 hits) while winning five Gold Gloves and staking his claim as the best defensive third baseman since Brooks Robinson. His 71.7 JAWS (94.3 career rWAR, 49.3 peak rWAR) ranks fourth at the position behind only Mike Schmidt, Eddie Mathews and Wade Boggs.
Alas, age is catching up to the 39-year-old Beltre, who has been limited to 39 games this year due to two separate stints on the disabled list for a left hamstring strain (plus one for a similar injury last September). He entered Wednesday hitting .311/.366/.417 with two homers and a 107 wRC+, and had played the hot corner only intermittently since returning from the DL on June 2. In fact, the series at Dodger Stadium marked his first games afield on back-to-back days in exactly a month, and, well, don’t go looking too hard for the associated defensive highlights unless you, too, want to feel old. Still, with the Rangers just 27-42 entering Wednesday, he could be on the move to a contender in July if he so desires. And while Pujols may eventually surpass his hit total, today is a day to celebrate Beltre.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.