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One Of A Kind

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Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

When Adrian Beltre said last season that the media’s constant inquiries were his primary motivation behind his July surge to 3,000 hits, he was only partially kidding.

The 39-year-old Rangers third baseman does not—repeat: does not—like speaking about himself, his accomplishments and what physical tools have allowed him to navigate 21 seasons in the major leagues.

He claims to have no idea where he stands on the all-time hits list (he has entered the top 20) or how many home runs he needs for 500 (fewer than 35). He doesn’t seem remotely interested in catching Brooks Robinson for most games played at third base, even though he could take over the top spot next season.

If not for the media and his son, Adrian Jr., Beltre says he wouldn’t have a clue about any of that stuff.

So imagine how he felt about being the Baseball America cover boy for its annual Best Tools issue. He suggested finding someone else to write about, knowing full well the story was going to be written with or without him.

Alas, as always, Beltre was joking. Maybe half-joking.

Regardless, he made the time to talk about himself and spoke in great detail about what has carried him to the cusp of the Hall of Fame. So did many of his contemporaries.

While he’s a ballplayer through and through, Beltre doesn’t speak about hand-eye coordination, bat speed, athletic ability or foot work.

Range factor has something to do with the oven in his kitchen, not how he measures himself as a defensive player.

Intangibles?

“Whatever you want to call it,” he said.

That’s what it is that Beltre believes makes him great. He just doesn’t use the word.

Intangibles.

Beltre believes the traditional five tools are part of the package. He has showcased hitting for average, hitting for power, fielding and throwing throughout his career—and he even ran a bit as a younger player. But it’s his mental toughness, his work ethic and his humility that have made Beltre, well, Beltre.

“I don’t even think it has to do with offense or defense, but it’s just my mentality of the determination to do what I love to do and to think I could get better every day,” Beltre said. “Some days offensively you don’t feel fine and defensively you don’t feel fine, but your mind is what keeps you going and gets you believing that you’re OK.”

No one should ever question Beltre’s mental toughness. He plays with pain like no one in the sport, and he somehow manages to remain productive.

That isn’t something he has developed over the course of his 21 seasons. He’s always had the ability to block out pain.

For instance, Beltre began the 2001 season on the Dodgers’ disabled list after a botched appendectomy in the Dominican Republic in the offseason and a follow-up surgery during spring training that removed more than a foot of his small intestine.

Despite losing some 30 pounds and having to wear a colostomy bag, he wanted to be playing in games.

Beltre spent 18 days on the Mariners’ DL in 2009 for—try not to wince—a severely bruised right testicle. He wasn’t wearing a cup when a ball struck him were no man wants to be hit.

He still doesn’t wear a cup.

Those are the two most noteworthy instances when Beltre defied medical experts, but he’s done so countless times for a variety of ailments to a variety of body parts—hamstring, groin, quadriceps, calf, shoulder, thumb, abdomen and back.

“It’s good enough” is his go-to answer when asked why on earth he’s playing when others would be calling for a morphine drip.

That toughness stems from the mental edge that makes Beltre: (a) an unparalleled competitor, (b) one of the game’s most respected players, (c) a team leader, (d) a tough out at the plate, and (e) someone hitters don’t want to see on the other end of one of their ground balls or line drives.

Oh, and he loves the game.

“More so than his at-bats, I just think about how much fun he has playing the game,” said Indians righthander Corey Kluber, a two-time Cy Young Award winner. “He’s been playing it forever, it seems, and it still looks like it’s his first day out there.

“Guys like him, you can sense that guys on his team gravitate toward him. Watching from the other dugout, you can see it looks like he has a fun time playing and probably has more experience than you could ever dream of.”

The Arm

The first thing that comes to the minds of Beltre’s peers when asked about his defense at third base is his arm. It’s not only one of the strongest in the game, but he pairs that velocity with the ability to throw accurately from a variety of angles.

Former Rangers first baseman Mitch Moreland, an all-star this year with the Red Sox, was on the receiving end of Beltre’s throws for six seasons. Moreland said that Beltre always knew exactly how hard he had to throw to retire a runner at first, and he never overthrew.

In fact, Moreland believes that he never saw Beltre throw the ball as hard as he can.

“I don’t think anybody’s ever seen him really let it go,” Moreland said. “Half the time he gets his feet set and throws all arm. It’s special. It seems like he knows how much to put on each throw . . .

“He’s got a strong arm. He has to for the way he does it.”

It turns out there’s a reason for all of what Moreland said.

Beltre admits that he wasn’t the most accurate thrower in the minors and in his first few seasons in the majors. He made 29 errors in 1999, his first full season, and 23 the next, and he blamed his arm.

So he did something about it.

His unorthodox throwing style, in which he plants both feet and whips the ball across the diamond, is the direct result of trying to increase his accuracy early in the career. He sacrifices arm strength to keep from throwing the ball into the stands.

“It helps a lot,” Beltre said. “When I first came up I was making a lot of errors, but they were throwing errors. I had a good arm, but I couldn’t control it. I started figuring out what works for me doesn’t work for everybody. If I was going in, or if I dived in the hole and I didn’t have to use my feet, the ball was pretty much in the (first baseman’s) chest. Once I figured out the less I moved my feet, the more accurate I was, I started to do that more and more, and my errors started coming down.

“When I first came up I didn’t know how to throw soft. Over the years, I learned how to use my wrist more and understand that you don’t have to throw hard all the time and still be consistent. I haven’t thrown as hard as a I can for a long time.”

The game’s best third baseman, the Rockies’ Nolan Arenado, grew up in Southern California watching Beltre with the Dodgers, and Beltre became his favorite player. To this day, Arenado picks apart how Beltre plays defense and is trying to incorporate varying arm slots into what he does.

“It’s hard to do that,” Arenado said. “That’s what I try to do now. I try to throw from different angles, just trying to be athletic, and that’s something I’ve seen him do. I admire that about him.”

And Arenado said this about Beltre: “He’s the best one to ever do the barehand play at third.”

Even now, with the big 4-0 on the horizon, Beltre routinely shows players that it’s still a bad idea to try to drop down a bunt against him.

He will charge the ball, grab it with his right hand and throw as he falls to the ground.

“Any time those plays are made, you can’t lob it,” Moreland said. “Every time he’s taking a step charging the ball, the runner’s taking a step toward the base . . . He’s the best I’ve ever seen at it. He’s special over there.”

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At The Plate

A player with 3,000 hits clearly isn’t a pushover at the plate and never has been. Beltre can hit any pitch in any location in any count, and he seems to be even more ornery toward pitchers when they get two strikes on him.

The reason is very simple.

“I always hate striking out,” Beltre said. “Once I get two strikes, for me it’s ‘put the ball in play.’ On pitches that are close to the strike zone, put the bat on the ball. If I foul it off, at least I have another chance. If I take that pitch and leave the bat on my shoulder, then it’s in the hands of the umpire, and they’re not perfect. If I put the ball in play, whatever happens happens, no matter how ugly it is.”

So what skills allow him to do that?

Astros ace righthander Justin Verlander knows what getting two strikes on Beltre usually means. A battle is coming.

“He’s a really tough out,” Verlander said. “He doesn’t expand the zone, against me anyway. He has great bat control. He puts the ball in play and finds a way to get the barrel to it.”

It’s not just Beltre’s two-strike approach, something that seems to have disappeared across the game the past few seasons, but also his ability to adjust within an at-bat. That comes from nearly 12,000 career plate appearances. This season he passed Robinson for the most ever by a third baseman.

There aren’t many pitches he can’t recognize. If there is, he only needs to see it once to be able to recognize it again. That goes for a rookie or a pitcher in the National League he has never faced, but it also includes veterans and the game’s best.

“He’s probably seen more pitches than I’ve seen days alive,” Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel said. “. . . What he can do is he can look so bad on one pitch, and then make you look so bad on the next one. Having a guy like him, he seems like a guy who will wink at you. But he’s fun.”

Another fan of Beltre’s growing up, Rays lefthander Blake Snell, said that while he is given a scouting report each time he faces the Rangers, there’s no good report on how to get Beltre out.

He’s tough with two strikes. He can hit just about any pitch. He has power. He’s a free-swinger but can be patient.

“He’s going to hit everything,” said Snell, a Seattle native and Mariners fan growing up. “He swings at a lot of stuff, but he puts the barrel to it. He’s a powerful guy. It’s weird because I’ve had at-bats where he waits me out and I’ve had at-bats where he’s aggressive. It’s hard to understand what he’s going to do, but I came to the point where I realize if I put the pitch where I want it, that’s the best thing.”

But even then, it might not matter. Sometimes all the tools that have made Beltre an all-time great help him rise above the rest.

“He’s the man,” Snell said. “He’s a great player, great career. He’s probably got five to 10 more years knowing just how crazy athletic and good he is.”

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