In my earlier blogging days, many of my arguments were a little less, shall we say, nuanced. I was a man with opinions and a man with a platform, and I would frequently use my platform to express my opinion that players shouldn’t try to play through injury. The way I figured, while the players’ hearts were in the right place, someone needed to step in, because playing through pain is bad for performance, and playing through pain is bad for health. I identified it as a problem for the team and for the player, and it was something that always drove me nuts.
Speaking of nuts, in 2009 I watched Adrian Beltre remain in an extra-inning game and eventually score the winning run, even though he’d suffered a damaged testicle that he later estimated became the size of a grapefruit.
As the years have passed, my opinion has somewhat matured. Though I still don’t think players should push themselves too hard, since they’d be doing themselves a disservice, I do understand that you can’t always play at 100%. There are injuries you could make worse and there are injuries you might just have to deal with, and as clubhouse dynamics go, teammates respond to players they perceive to be warriors. This is when we get back to Beltre, who might be the ultimate baseball-playing warrior of his generation. He just last season won another battle against his own pain receptors.
None of this is anything new to Rangers fans, who lived the story every day. Here is an almost innocent-looking video I can’t even refer to as a highlight:
That’s from May 31, and what you’re seeing is Adrian Beltre hurting his thumb. It usually takes an extraordinary amount of discomfort for Beltre to come out of a game in the middle. At that point, the Rangers were an even .500, looking up at the Angels and the Astros. Beltre went to the disabled list, and though he came back fairly quickly, one could say he maybe shouldn’t have. Beltre was still in pain, and when he came back he didn’t quite look like himself. The Rangers went into the break at 42-46. I wouldn’t say spirits were high, with only three worse records in the league.
Let’s take a moment to acknowledge the nature of the problem. Beltre declared it was just a matter of pain tolerance. Jon Daniels admitted it was just going to hurt, but the Rangers were going to rely on Beltre anyway. When the All-Star break provided Beltre with some rest, it didn’t help.
Adrian Beltre says he is still searching for a way to deal with sore left thumb…said All-Star break did not help
— TR Sullivan (@Sullivan_Ranger) July 20, 2015
After the year, the Rangers said Beltre spent the whole time playing through a torn ligament.
Colby Lewis had a meniscus cleanup today; Daniels confirmed Beltre played 2nd half of season with torn thumb ligament. No word if surgery
— Evan Grant (@Evan_P_Grant) October 16, 2015
Beltre had surgery. The surgery was a success, as Beltre’s thumb is presently repaired, but when he was playing in the second half, it was un-repaired, the ligament still very much damaged. That, right there, is half of the story. Beltre insisted on playing through a pretty significant hindrance. The other half of the story is that, at least from the outside, it seems it was no hindrance at all. Beltre did scuffle when he first returned, perhaps because he was never sent on a rehab assignment, but after the break, he was exactly himself. That same break that “did not help.” Behold, post-break Beltre as compared to 2012 – 2014 Beltre:
|2012 – 2014||7.3%||12%||139||14%||41%||35%||84%||4.2||5.3|
This is one of those tables where I could’ve run the old trick of “Time Span A” and “Time Span B.” I could’ve asked you to guess which stat line showed Beltre with a torn thumb ligament, the whole idea being it’s impossible to tell. There’s nothing of observable significance in the plate-discipline data. Beltre kept his hard hitting intact, so he posted a pretty familiar wRC+, and for whatever it’s worth, one might argue injured Beltre played defense even better. Of course, there’s no reason to think a thumb injury would cause Beltre to become a better third baseman, but what’s readily obvious is Beltre didn’t become any worse. He had an established record of playing like a 5- or 6-win player. Down the stretch, he played like a 6- or 7-win player, and the Rangers, as you recall, thrived around him. Beltre greatly out-performed his early-season self, the self that had all its thumb ligaments intact.
I only started thinking about Beltre in the first place today because there’s some chatter about him looking for a three-year extension from the Rangers. My assumption is something is going to get done, because I know the Rangers want to keep Beltre through retirement, should that day ever arrive. Based on what we understand about Adrian Beltre, he seems potentially unkillable, and that makes him valuable as both a player and a role model. In some sense he might be a dangerous role model since other players might not share his pain tolerance, but there aren’t many players who share Beltre’s level of determination. For him, it’s not about words. It’s about playing through ailments that send people to hospitals, and it’s about somehow playing effectively. We don’t know how to quantify leadership, but it’s plainly obvious that Beltre’s a leader.
Whenever we examine a player’s numbers getting worse, we look for signs of injury, because we assume the latter leads to the former. Injuries are an excuse that no one can argue, and with pitchers we can point to suspect elbows and shoulders, while with hitters we can point to suspect wrists and hands. When we hear about a wrist or hand injury, we almost anticipate offensive struggles, because it’s hard to see how a swing wouldn’t be affected, and the swing is everything. Adrian Beltre’s swing should’ve been affected, but he stands as clear evidence that sometimes players can overcome that which would cause a lesser peer to unravel.
As we talk about Beltre now, we still commonly talk about projections and about his win value. That’s how it is with analysis of active ballplayers. When the day does come that Beltre calls it a career, however, he won’t be remembered for his win value so much as he’ll be remembered for three things: for being an excellent third baseman, for having an aversion to being touched on the head, and for sometimes playing through inconceivable pain. He did it again for half of 2015, but as has often been the case, there was no telling from the outside. Adrian Beltre is just built from something different. Something you can break, but something still somehow indestructible.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.