Adrian Beltre: Captain Clutch, MVP of the whole darned league
There’s something Greek in being a Rangers fan. Specifically, something Sisyphean. Perhaps it is the punishment for the Cowboys that forces we North Texans into the mantle of the Greek king of Ephyra. Just in case you miss the reference: Sisyphus was punished by Zeus for self-aggrandizing behavior (that part does sound a bit like Cowboys fans, of which I count myself one) by forcing him to push an immense boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down. This was his punishment for all eternity. Someone will see Zeus, think Nolan Ryan, and make a tie to the “Nolan vs. JD” debate. I’ve never bought into that argument, so please take those column inches somewhere else.
This isn’t a Greek tragedy. For every time you think, “One strike away – twice”, think of the man that manned third in that fateful Game Six of the 2011 World Series. Because for every Sisyphus, there is a Hercules. For every fly ball over Nelson Cruz’s head, there is a hard shot down the third base line that a human bundle of reflexes is bound to stop. For every Josh Hamilton homer that is swallowed up by an everyman-turned-Superman David Freese, there is another clutch at bat and gut-wrenching hit by one Ranger or another, but usually one Ranger in particular.
For every Sisyphean leaning, there is a Hercules, ready to toss aside the boulder and lead us to the mountaintop; ready for any challenge.
Our Hercules mans third, bats fourth, and is forever first in our hearts.
Our Hercules is Adrian Beltre.
The Hercules canon lists 12 Labors that he had to complete, this hero who was less than a God but more than a man. If you’ve ever tried to hit Dellin Betances, you’d probably realize it’s something akin to slaying the Nemean Lion. By my count, Adrian Beltre has had enough clutch moments between August 1st and today to have passed his 12 Labors and asked for a Baker’s Dozen more.
In some of them, he’s played the hero on center stage. Such was his second homer of the night on July 25th, to open a Series against Oakland. Stop me if you’d heard this before: Rangers down by one (6-5) facing the other team’s closer. A man on, two out. Our hero belts the first pitch he sees into the left center bullpen. Steve Busby says, “Way back…Goodbye.” Tom Grieve says what we all feel: “WOW!” Grieve doesn’t say another word for more than 30 seconds, as Busby finishes the call and the crowd noise surrounds us. Part of that is his professional timing; he knows when to let the moment live on its own. Part of it is Beltre; he leaves even the best of us speechless at times.
Sometimes, it is not the execution of greatness that means so much, but the weight of its portent. Such was the case Friday night. Fifty-three days after ending a game with a home run, facing this same Oakland team, facing that same Ryan Madson, the shadow of a Herculean moment fell over Madson, and he unraveled. With Delino Deshields pinch-running on second after a Carlos Beltran double and Beltre representing the tying run, Madson threw a 2-1 changeup in the dirt. Deshields scampered to third. The question was now no longer if Beltre would get the run home, but how. Madson never gave him the chance. The next pitch was a four seam fastball that had no chance of being a pitch to hit. Hercules was pinch run for by Joey Gallo, but the damage, and Madson, was done. He struck out Rougned Odor on a full count, but with Madson’s full focus on Rougie, Gallo (and manager Jeff Banister) showed that a seam of smart baseball runs roster-deep through this team. Joey swiped second for what might be the timeliest stolen base of the Rangers season.
Trade deadline acquisition turned Ranger family member Jonathon Lucroy did what he’s done seemingly daily since becoming a Ranger: delivering on the mantra of “Never Ever Quit” with a shot down the third base line. Both Deshields and Gallo scored easily. The Rangers record in one-run games improved to an MLB-best 34-10 (a would-be record, were they to finish with that percentage or higher), and they delivered their league-leading 45th come from behind win. It was the Rangers’ seventh walk-off win this season; they lead the major leagues with a franchise-record eight wins when trailing after 8 innings.
Carlos Beltran’s one-out double got it started, Gallo’s steal sealed the momentum, and Lucroy’s clutch hitting won the game. But make no mistake. The moment and the momentum hinged on Adrian Beltre’s at-bat, and the weight of his heroics was too much for an Oakland team against a Rangers squad that is something north of anything we’ve ever seen here before.
Our eyes tell us we want Beltre up in the clutch. When he’s there, our pupils dilate and our hearts beat a tic faster. Our voices rise and fists clench with a power felt the Metroplex over. But beyond the feeling, there is the black and white of numbers.
Those, too, tell us no one is quite Adrian Beltre. Not on this team, and perhaps not in baseball.
How he does it
With men on (241 at bats) his splits (BA/OBP/SLG) are .311/.376/.519. Put a runner on third, in any situation (59 at bats), he’s hitting .424/.469/.678 with 43 RBIs. In close and late situations (that is, plate appearances in the 7th or later with the batting team tied, ahead by one, or the tying run at least on deck.), he’s hitting .386/.404/.625 with 6 doubles, 5 home runs, and 19 RBIs in 88 at-bats across 75 games. It says a lot about this team that they’ve played 75 of their 140 games with Beltre in the lineup to a close-and-late scenario. Perhaps this is my favorite: in what Baseball-Reference (i.e., the stat geeks Valhalla) defines as High-Leverage situations*, Beltre is hitting .388/.417/.571
Now, a little stat background, from baseball-reference.com: “Within a game, there are plays that are more pivotal that others. We attempt to quantify these plays with a stat called leverage index (LI). LI looks at the possible changes in win probability in a given situation; situations where dramatic swings in win probability are possible (e.g. runner on second late in a tie game) have higher LIs than situations where there can be no large change in win probability (e.g. late innings of a 12-run blowout). The stat is normalized so that on average the leverage is 1.00. In tense situations, the leverage is higher than 1.00 (up to about 10) and in low-tension situations, the leverage is between 0 and 1.0.”
In summary, a high-leverage situation constitutes about 25% of the plays in any game, on average. To be quantified as high leverage by baseball reference, the LI has to be above 1.5. Beltre has the following splits across leverage situations:
In high leverage situations, in 98 at bats, you can be pretty sure he’s going to put the ball in play; he has 8 strikeouts and 6 walks. He’s also driven in 36 runs, accumulated 56 total bases, and had 8 extra-base hits, including 5 home runs. His split OPS+ is 169; that means he’s 69% better than the league average in these situations; even measured against his own OPS+ (what’s called tOPS), he’s 28% better than in all situations, on average.
So black and white bears out what our hearts tell us: Adrian Beltre is clutch. But this had me wondering: where does he rank in all of baseball? Is he better than Boston’s master of clutch, David Ortiz? What about the presumptive MVP leaders in each league (Jose Altuve, Mike Trout, Manny Machado, Mookie Betts, etc.)? Does all this tell us that, perhaps, we need the national media to consider a new name beyond the league leaders in batting average, RBIs, or even the all-holy WAR? We do. His name is Adrian Beltre. He’s your MVP. There, I buried the lead:
First things first, in terms of Clutch Index (that’s his Win Probability Added in situational-dependent high-leverage situations versus his Win Probability Average overall – both of which are hitting-only stats, mind you), he ranks 1st.
(Win Probability definition: Given average teams, this is the change in probability caused by this batter during the game. A change of +/- 1 would indicate one win added or lost.)
That’s right. He leads all of baseball. The top 10:
Basically, Adrian is, statistically, the most likely player to improve his teams Win Probability when he comes to the plate in High Leverage situations than any player in baseball. I’m simplifying that WAY more than I should, and someone will rightfully call me on it, but I’m not a sabermatrician, just a believer in sabermetrics.
But this got me thinking; where do those MVP candidates rank. Well, here are a selection of players oft mentioned in MVP discussions across both leagues, who rank in the top 50: …
That’s right. Nobody. Mike Trout is at 102 with a -0.5 Clutch Index. David Ortiz is 128th, with a Clutch Index of -1.0. Kris Bryant is 148th with a -2.0. The negative means, basically, that measured against their average Win Probability, these players are less likely to create wins for their team in high-leverage situations.
Now, and important thing to understand: players with the highest OVERALL WPA are going to have the hardest time ranking high in this category. Thus you see only a few real superstars on this list (Beltre, Harper, Bruce, Pujols), along with a bunch of “valuable but not nearly MVP material” players. So what if we just take Win Probability Added overall? Well, now you get a list of MVP candidates, for sure. Here’s the MLB top 10 there:
All of those guys are legitimate MVP candidates, year after year. But look at this: of these players, Beltre is the most clutch. Only Harper and Votto rank with him in the Top 10, and they’re both below him and also in the other league. Here are the top 10 AL players, by WPA, with their Clutch Index totals for 2016:
Is clutch hitting everything? No. Not even close. But I’m going to argue you can’t be the most valuable player in your league if you’re not, statistically, even in the top 30 Clutch players. Trout is 51st. Donaldson is 40th. Ortiz – the man of seemingly immeasurable moments – is 61st. Former triple crown winner Miguel Cabrera is 70th, right between Joe Mauer and Jose Abreu. Everybody’s favorite mighty mite from down south of here, Jose Altuve, is 58th.
Would I want to see any of those guys at the plate with the game in a tense situation? No. Logic says so. But the number say, of the Top 10 players who give their team the greatest probability to win based on hitting alone, five of them are less likely to perform in high leverage situations than they are in any situation overall.
But the Rangers win a number of games close and late. Doesn’t that mean Adrian has more chances? Yes. But it also means he DELIVERS in them more often. Look at what we cited earlier: out of 98 at bats, he’s got 8 strikeouts and six walks. That means that he’s put the ball in play 86% of the time. Remember, all of these are situations where pressure is high on the defense to make a play; thus, 86% of the time, he’s at least put pressure on the defense to make a play, whether he’s gotten a hit or not. That’s a clutch performer. Period.
What about when you factor in defense? Well, that’s where WAR (Wins above Replacement) comes into play. Again, at the base level, WAR is how many more wins a player brings his team compared to a AAA/AAAA player – a fringe major leaguer (the noted Replacement Level Player). Here’s the AL top 10:
Now, Adrian has some stiff competition here, and he still cracks the Top 10. But if you accept my argument that he’s the best clutch hitter in baseball, and that this is a crucial factor in choosing an MVP, then let’s take away offensive WAR and just consider defense. Where does he rank there? (and again, I’m going to put up clutch numbers and rankings beside each because, it’s my argument here that Clutch is a crucial factor in making someone Most Valuable to their team, regardless of standings).
Now, does being the best defensive player in baseball, by WAR, mean you’re an MVP? No. Does Mookie Betts deserve consideration because of his offensive numbers as well? Yes. But he’s the 60th best clutch hitter in baseball. Kevin Pillar and Salvador Perez are both great defenders and the only other relatively high-ranked players on this list. The other MVP short-list guys on here, in my book, would be Bradley, Machado, and probably Kyle Seager (unless Seattle fades). They rank, respectively, 72nd, 36th, and 46th in league Clutch Index. Those are not MVP rankings.
But let’s go even further. Unlike WPA, offensive WAR considers base running as well. So where does Adrian rank there? Because while it’s probably the most undervalued area in baseball, it’s ultimately how you score a run, right? Get on base and get over (or have someone get you over, or get yourself over via 4-bagger). So what about Offensive WAR; here’s the AL Top 10 (again, with clutch ranking);
Here’s a hint – Beltre is not Top 10 (he’s 13 at 4.3), and I’ll still argue for him as MVP. Why? Because even if you look at EVERY player ahead of him, exactly ONE ranks in the Top 20 Clutch hitters in the league: Dustin Pedroia. But what rules Pedroia out then, you say? Well, for one, you can’t even argue he’s the best player on his own team; Betts and Ortiz have him cornered there, overall and offensively, respectively.
Let’s look at the high-leverage lines for each of the Top 10 WAR players, again, just to see what we have. Again, high leverage are those 25% of game situations where the game should “turn” – where a win becomes a win, or a loss becomes a loss. Here’s how they stack up, in order of WAR:
So what does this tell me? That Mike Trout and Josh Donaldson are earning their stripes when the chips are down. So is Manny Machado. And so is Adrian Beltre. But a look at one other key item here says a lot. In high-leverage situations, nobody puts the ball in play more often (that is, does not walk or strike out) more often than Beltre (87%), and compared to the other two highest-ranked players on this list by situational OPS (Trout and Donaldson), it’s not even close. Trout puts the ball in play 55% of the time; Donaldson 63%. Again, I’ll argue the importance there: in high-leverage situations, players are under more pressure and more likely to make errors due to it. Putting the ball in play is added value. Nobody does it better than Beltre.
So let’s do one more, final check: Late and Close. This is, again: Plate Appearances in the 7th or later with the batting team tied, ahead by one, or the tying run at least on deck.
Beltre is the best player late and close, and it’s not that close. He slugs 100-150 points better than his closest MVP rivals. He leads by a wide margin in total bases, as well as batting average. His on-base percentage is a strong (but not leading) .404. But again, by contact percentage, he stands out. He puts the ball in play 87.5% of the time. Only 8% of his appearances end in strikeouts; no other leading MVP candidate is under 20%, and Trout is a surprising 31%.
To sum up, here are everyone’s rankings in the categories we’re about to measure, among leading “mentioned MVP candidates” (I’m factoring in the hot names of the day: Trout, Betts, Altuve, Donaldson, Dozier, Seager, Machado, and Cano; arbitrary? Yes, but the stats back it up. Ortiz is out because a DH has simply never won the award, and on his team, with other candidates, this is not his year). When you go by the numbers, and factor in the weight of clutch, you get a unique picture (the parenthetical is ranking against the other listed candidates, unless otherwise noted):
|WAR||oWAR||dWAR||WPA||Clutch Index||High Leverage (by sOPS+)*||Close and Late (by sOPS+)*|
|Adrian Beltre||9||13 (9)||9 (4)||3||1||3||1|
|Mike Trout||1||1||16 (6)||1||52 (5)||1||3|
|Mookie Betts||2||6 (5)||1||17 (8)||60 (8)||7||7|
|Jose Altuve||3||2||29 (9)||7 (4)||59 (7)||4||8|
|Josh Donaldson||4||3||28 (8)||2||45 (3)||2||5|
|Brian Dozier||5||4||21 (7)||19 (9)||72 (9)||8||9|
|Kyle Seager||6||7 (6)||5 (2)||14 (6)||46 (4)||5||4|
|Manny Machado||7||9 (8)||8 (3)||12 (5)||38 (2)||9||2|
|Robinson Cano||8||8 (7)||12 (5)||16 (7)||54 (6)||6||6|
*rankings vs other candidates only
So when you average all candidates based on their rankings in these categories vs the competition, you get the following average ranks:
|Average overall rank (among candidates)|
So across the board, Trout still comes out first, Donaldson 2nd, and Beltre is a close third? Ah, but I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t have a trick up my sleeve. LEVERAGE. Some stats mean more than others, especially when the term “Most Valuable” comes in – what is most valuable to a club? I’ll say clutch index is the 2nd most valuable statistic on here (second only to WAR), followed by WPA, followed by high leverage, then close and late, then the same weight for oWAR and dWAR. If we do a weighted average (giving a descending weighting to each equaling up to 100%, then I’d have the following weighted average by statistical category (and yes, this is where it gets arbitrary, but it’s my column and this is too much fun to stop). Also, in order to get this right, we have to use points, so let’s do the same thing they do in the MVP voting – points per rank (1st is 9 points, 2nd is 8 … down to 1 for 9th place):
|WAR||Clutch||WPA||High Leverage||Close and Late||oWAR||dWAR|
When we use those as weighted average factors and the point total, here’s our list:
|Weighted Average MVP Scores|
So what we see is basically the same list, but a lot closer rankings. Trout leads in enough key categories that he’s probably the leading candidate. Donaldson stands tall coming off last years campaign. But Beltre is a not-distant third, and when you factor in his clutch hitting and how that could be weighted much higher, you could have a considerably different vote. Besides, remember by HOW MUCH Beltre ranks ahead of his fellow candidates relative to all players, not just each other. That’s enough to give him a statistical edge.
In my book, there’s the factor that numbers can’t measure. To me, one slap on the face puts Beltre – the man whose head must not be touched – over the top. First, the setup.
It’s August 30th, and Rougned Odor is being Rougned Odor. He’s playing like his hair is on fire. That sometimes works out well – see tape-measure home runs and baserunners punched rankings, alike. However, it can also backfire. In this case, his second of two bad baserunning plays left him in Adrian’s doghouse. Odor tried to stretch a single into a double needlessly, and ran into a critical second out of the inning; Beltre was on third and, as the potential tying run, gave Odor the same look we tended to get from a teacher when caught in mid-text when caught red-handed. There was disapproval. Most critically, there was disappointment.
When Beltre scored the tying run anyway on a two-out single by Jonathan Lucroy, Adrian came back to the dugout and smacked Odor across the cheek; the slap was lighthearted if meaningful; the meaning wasn’t lighthearted at all. Odor – no stranger to cranial-related bopping, if we all remember our Blue Jays history – took it just as you’d expect the scolded pupil would from the disappointed master. From Evan Grant:
“I was too aggressive on the bases and it was not the right situation,” Odor said. “Adrian talked to me, and he was telling me the situation and stuff like that. I just want to say thank you to him because he’s a great teammate. He helped me a lot with everything. He teaches me the little things. This is a long season. We talk about those little things. He teaches me. And I appreciate that.”
Beltre, in that moment, made a teammate better. As Jeff Banister said after that game (the quote again courtesy Evan Grant and the Dallas Morning News:
“’Adrian is the wealth of experience,’ said Banister. ‘How he communicates with those young guys, how he’s able to translate the information, and for a guy like [Odor] to go ahead and put some of those things in play — it’s invaluable to this club, to these guys. They’re learning from a guy that has done just about all there is to do in the game.’”
Later that game, Odor hit a 2-2 fastball at 97 MPH from Edwin Diaz over the center field fence – with Beltre on via a single – for a 413-foot 2-run shot to center field and a walk-off win, 8-7.
Since that slap, Odor is hitting with 20 RBI in 15 games.
The master is making the pupils better. Most VALUABLE Player. He’s been that for a long time here; it’s high time the rest of baseball notices.
It’s all there in black and white, but the truest of its expression comes in shades of gray that spell out “Never Ever Quit” on the red-blooded hearts of an entirely unique team.
It’s like something out of Greek mythology, really. I’m not sure if the national baseball writers will realize B-E-L-T-R-E spells MVP, but we all know it spells one thing above all else: H.E.R.O.