Friday, May 22, 2015

Beltre vs. Cabrera

Beltre belts the 400th long ball of his career (Fox Sports)
Adrian Beltre launched the 400th home run of his career last Friday night, slamming a 3-0 pitch his first time up against Bruce Chen into Globe Life's grassy knoll. With the solo shot, Beltre became just the fifth third baseman to surpass 400 career homers, joining Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt and Eddie Mathews, future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones, and Hall of Very Good member Darrell Evans.

The Rangers third baseman is off to a slow start this year, batting just .259/.296/.416 with five home runs and 15 RBI. It's too soon to tell whether this is merely an early season slump or the beginnings of decline for the 36 year-old, who is owed $16 million this year and $18 million next year. It's hard to believe he simply lost it overnight after averaging an .899 OPS (139 OPS+) with 29 home runs and 96 RBI over the past five years, but he is at an age where that happens to hitters. Bad luck seems to have played a part (his BABiP is .260), but his hard-hit percentage and HR/FB rate are down for the third straight year, which suggests his bat speed is in decline.

If this is indeed the beginning of the end for Beltre, he's had one helluva run. The 400 homers barely scratch the the surface for the 2004 NL MVP runner-up, who's amassed over 2,600 hits, 500 doubles, and 100 stolen bases. His next RBI will be the 1,400th of his career. The four-time Gold Glove winner has also been one of the best defensive third basemen in recent memory, which combined with his excellent production at the plate has helped him accumulate nearly 80 career bWAR. If he retired today he'd be a deserving Hall of Famer.

The same could be said for Miguel Cabrera, who also joined the 400 home run club last week. Cabrera became the 53rd player in baseball history with at least 400 career big flies the day after Beltre became the 52nd. Like Beltre's, Cabrera's was a first-inning solo shot to dead center that made landfall in a grassy batter's eye (at Comerica Park). Interestingly, neither has homered since.

Unlike Beltre, however, Cabrera has shown no signs of slowing down. Miggy's off to a rip-roaring start with 10 home runs, 31 RBI and a scorching .336/.440/.592 line thus far. To be fair, he is a full four years younger than Cabrera, which can be the difference between a player's prime and twilight when he's on the wrong side of 30. Cabrera has also benefited from spending the bulk of his career at first base, a much less demanding position than third, although he did man the hot corner for awhile in his younger days and again when he and Prince Fielder were briefly teammates.
Cabrera rounds the bases after his rain-soaked milestone blast (SB Nation)
Though their 400th home runs took nearly identical trajectories, the career paths of Beltre and Cabrera could not be more different. Both debuted at young ages (Beltre was 19, Cabrera 20) and put up similar numbers in their age-20 seasons, but after that their careers diverged. Cabrera immediately developed into a star, stringing together 11 straight seasons of 25 or more home runs and at least 100 RBI--numbers which he's on pace to surpass for the 12th consecutive season in 2015. He peaked as a hitter in his late 20s, as most ballplayers do, when he became the first man in 45 years to win the Triple Crown and copped back-to-back MVP awards.

It took Beltre much longer to reach that elite level. His progress stalled in his early 20s, throughout which he was an average hitter outside his fluky monster 2004, when he belted an ML-leading 48 home runs and put up a 1.017 OPS. His numbers were stifled by brutal home parks (Dodger Stadium and Safeco), and through age 30 his career line stood at .270/.325/.453--hardly Cooperstown worthy. In light of his monster contract, most viewed him as a disappointment.

Over the past six years, however, he's benefited from two of the best hitter's parks in baseball (Fenway and Arlington), which have helped him enjoy the sustained stretch of dominance most Hall of Fame voters look for in a career. At ages when most players slip offensively, Beltre became one of the best hitters in the game. We've seen this happen with "late bloomers" like Jose Bautista and Raul Ibanez as well, but the difference is that Beltre accomplished enough during his 20s to compile Cooperstown-caliber statistics.

Although their overall numbers are similar, their playing styles are as different as night and day. Cabrera is the prototypical plodding slugger, a slow first base/DH type with impressive power totals and a patient plate approach. At 6'4 and 240 pounds, he looks the part and has a smooth swing to boot. Cabrera also plays the game with a smile and boyish enthusiasm reminiscent of Ernie Banks.

Beltre, on the other hand, plays the game with a Ty Cobb level of ferocity unrivaled in today's game. He scowls far more often than he smiles, and his swing could best be described as vicious. The slick-fielding third baseman is also much more athletic than Cabrera, probably a byproduct of his compact but powerful 5'11, 220 pound frame.

It's funny, then, that both played third base. Beltre was one of the best to ever play the position, while Cabrera was one of the worst. Cabrera was a much better hitter than Beltre, however, and so they'll likely wind up even in terms of career value. In both cases, though, they will have more than enough to make the Hall of Fame.

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