Among the dozen newcomers on the Hall of Fame ballot sent out this past week, Adrián Beltré stands out as a near lock for first-ballot election.
Beltré is in the conversation as one of the top half-dozen third basemen in history, and perhaps even that standing understates an incredible body of work. Over 21 big league seasons from 1998-2018, he hit .286/.339/.480 with 477 homers (third most by a third baseman) and 3,166 hits (more than anyone whose primary position was the hot corner) while winning five Gold Gloves. His case for Cooperstown is unimpeachable.
Yet a bronze plaque seemed unlikely for Beltré prior to his memorable — and transformative — 2010 season with the Red Sox.
There are plenty of Hall of Famers for whom a single year in Boston represented a footnote. John Smoltz (2009), Rickey Henderson (2002), Juan Marichal (1974), and Orlando Cepeda (1973) all spent a late-career season with the Red Sox long after their paths to Cooperstown had been defined.
Beltré is a different case. In many ways, it was Beltré's one year in Boston at age 30 that represented the starting point of his Hall of Fame trajectory, and a one-year partnership that has almost no parallels in the nearly half-century history of free agency.
At the end of a five-year deal with the Mariners that spanned the 2005-09 seasons, Beltré was seen as an excellent defender but just a solid hitter whose most spectacular season (a 48-homer campaign with the Dodgers in 2004 as a 25-year-old) seemed like an outlier.
During his time in Seattle, Beltré hit just .266/.317/.442 while averaging 21 homers a season. His last year with the Mariners was marred by injuries and poor performance, as he hit .265/.304/.379 with just eight homers. With Beltré entering free agency in advance of his age-31 season, the Red Sox believed he could be a good player — but hardly forecast a great one.
“We thought he was a really good player,” recounted Red Sox executive vice president of baseball operations Brian O’Halloran. “It became clear as he came off of that last season with Seattle that he was a potentially undervalued player and that there might be an opportunity there. But I don’t think anyone expected what we actually got.”
Beltré was open to either a one-year deal to rebuild his value or a long-term deal that essentially ignored his last year in Seattle. Ultimately, the Sox signed Beltré to a one-year, $10 million deal that included a $5 million player option. Agent Scott Boras giddily described it as a “pillow contract.”
“You lay down, it’s comfortable, it’s soft, it’s there, but the fact of the matter is, it’s not with you all the time,” Boras said. “Your pillow, you leave it, you come back, it’s there. Short term, you use [a contract] for a little bit, then you move on.”
But Beltré's time with the Sox proved more of a trampoline than a pillow. He hit .321/.365/.553 with 28 homers and 79 extra-base hits, played incredible defense at third, made his first All-Star team, and finished ninth in AL MVP voting. He also gained renown as a wildly entertaining player whose remarkable skill was complemented by delightful idiosyncrasies — dropping to one knee while launching homers, shuffling his feet in the box on takes, appealing his own check swings to the first base umpire, and getting into near fights with teammates whenever they touched his head.
“He’s such a unique guy with all the quirks,” said O’Halloran. “How he interacted with his teammates, how much he cared, the energy he showed in his own way, it was incredibly fun to watch. And it was a ridiculous performance. And, to see the defense live, I think you needed to see it to really appreciate it. That was incredible, too.”
In the calculations of Baseball-Reference.com, Beltré forged a 7.8 WAR season with the Sox in 2010 — easily the highest mark ever for a one-and-done Red Sox player, nearly doubling the 4.1 WAR season by pitcher Rip Collins in 1922. And, in fact, no other free agent has ever performed at such a level on a one-year free agent deal. Marcus Semien (7.1 WAR with the Blue Jays in 2021) is the only other free agent ever to post a WAR above 6.0 in a one-and-done free agent tenure.
Of course, the fact that Beltré's Red Sox career did last just the single season represents a source of dismay for the Sox. Though Beltré would have loved to return to Boston, the team instead let him walk, trading for first baseman Adrián González (like Beltré, a first-timer on this year’s Hall ballot) and moved Kevin Youkilis to third.
Beltré joined the Rangers on a six-year, $96 million deal and spent eight spectacular seasons in Texas. His anticipated Hall plaque should feature the Rangers logo on his cap.
“It was one of the best signings that we’ve had, but there’s regret that we didn’t have him for longer. I wish we’d extended him. That’s a very obvious statement,” said O’Halloran. “I was very happy to watch how his career evolved and took off from there and to watch the rest of his career as it played out, just having known him for the one year and having him here for one year. It just gives so much appreciation for what he brought to the table. To see him do that consistently for as many years as he did, it was just incredible and a privilege to watch from afar — and I wish we could have been watching that happen in Fenway Park.”
AHEAD OF HIS TIME
Bendix started on
the ground floor
When Peter Bendix made his well-timed arrival at Tufts in the fall of 2004, the freshman from Cleveland was clear-eyed in his ambitions. As instructor Andy Andres reviewed roughly 70 student submissions for the 20 available spots in Sabermetrics 101, a course he was introducing that semester through the Experimental College at Tufts, Bendix stood out for his precociousness.
“Pete, as a freshman — first semester in college, just from high school — wrote he wanted to be the general manager of the Cleveland Indians,” Andres, a lecturer at Boston University, recalled with a laugh. “We saw that when we looked at his application and said, ‘Oh, we’ve got to take that guy.’ It turned out to be a wise choice.”
Indeed. Earlier this month, Bendix — a 38-year-old who’d spent 15 years with the Rays, including the last two as GM — was named president of baseball operations for the Marlins. He beamed at the preposterousness of his freshman aspiration coming to fruition, albeit with a team other than the one he’d grown up watching.
“I had no idea what [being a GM] meant, what it actually was, or the fact that it might actually happen someday. It’s completely surreal,” said Bendix. “I was so fortunate that that class existed, that they let me into it as a freshman when there were more people that wanted to be in it than spots available. Andy must have been a good scout.”
For Andres, seeing Bendix emerge from that first iteration of his course to become the head of a baseball operations department — the first time one of his former students has assumed such a position of prominence — represents a thrilling milestone after nearly two decades of teaching in an area that has gone from experimental to established.
“It’s a much different landscape in 2003-04, when we were putting [the course] together,” said Andres, noting that now-familiar staples of baseball operations departments such as Statcast and data-driven pitch design were years away. “It was the dark ages of analytics. It was fun. It was fun to put together, for sure.
“We were trying to [help students] get [their] feet wet, know what this is, and start giving advice about what to do if you want to pursue these jobs,” he added. “It was a novel thing 20 years ago. Twenty years ago, there were a handful of people working full-time in analytics for teams. It was brand new back then. And now we’ve got 500-plus, and it’s probably a lot more than that, depending on how the positions are described.”
Andres taught Sabermetrics 101 at Tufts until 2019, and about a decade ago, he reintroduced it as a free online course on Boston University’s EdX platform. Tens of thousands of students have taken the introduction to sabermetrics, baseball analytics, and data science online. Andres also periodically offers an introduction to sports data science in person at BU, which now has a Data Science major.
The field has matured, and there is an established academic and curricular pathway for aspiring front office members. Bendix, however, is a product of the first post-garage days of sabermetrics as an academic discipline, making his path to the head of a baseball operations department all the more remarkable.
“It’s just really cool,” said Andres.
Phillies strike first
in race for arms
Aaron Nola became the first top starting pitcher to come off the board last weekend, re-signing with the Phillies on a seven-year, $172 million deal — a familiar offseason quick strike by president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski. Nola had been open to changing organizations, but the 30-year-old also made little secret of the fact that if the numbers were close between bids, he’d happily continue his career with the Phillies, who took him in the first round of the 2014 draft.
The seven-year deal reflects Nola’s excellent track record with the Phillies and the likely high cost of doing business in a pitching market that features a long list of teams in need of front-of-the-rotation starters. Nola joins Gerrit Cole (2019), Stephen Strasburg (2019), David Price (2015), Max Scherzer (2015), CC Sabathia (2008), Barry Zito (2006), Mike Hampton (2000), and Kevin Brown (1998) as the only free agent pitchers to receive contracts of at least seven years and $100 million.
The market for Nola featured a few aggressive bidders — according to sources, the Phillies and Braves wasted little time in pursuing deals, and the Philadelphia Inquirer reported the Dodgers were also in the mix — but not a wide cross section of teams at a relatively early stage of the offseason.
Though the Red Sox have made no secret across the industry of their desire to significantly upgrade their rotation, according to major league sources, they weren’t meaningfully involved in bidding for the innings-eating righthander.
Red Sox notes:
▪ Rafael Devers’s 2023 season is fairly viewed as a letdown, but it’s intriguing to note how closely it aligned with his career track. He hit .271/.351/.500 line with 33 homers (matching his career average per 162 games) and an .851 OPS that was nearly identical to his career mark (.853). Offensively, there were some markers of growth, particularly a diminished tendency to chase pitches out of the strike zone.
”Remember, he was really young when he reached the big leagues,” said Devers’s agent, Nelson Montes de Oca. “He’s still figuring out some of the learning part of the game and I think the best is yet to come. He’s still young and he’s looking forward to a great year in 2024.”
Of course, the Sox’ hopes of contending in 2024 likely require Devers to take a step forward. The team needs him to reverse his defensive regression — largely seen as an issue of focus — and look more like the player he was down the stretch (.294/.384/.510 after the All-Star break, compared with a .254/.325/.493 line before it).
The 27-year-old’s 10-year, $313.5 million contract takes effect starting next season.
”If you had asked me at this time last year, I probably would have said [his future] was not Boston,” said Montes de Oca. “Now he knows he’s going to be there for at least another 10 years.”
▪ At the end of the season, Chris Sale vowed a more throwing-intensive offseason than he’s had in years, hoping to reverse his injury-riddled pattern with an old-school training regimen of building up by throwing. He’s been working out at JetBlue Park since October and throwing off a mound regularly. “He is ready to roll,” texted Sale’s agent, B.B. Abbott. “First regular offseason in a long time.”
▪ The Sox have posted job listings for several positions in their player development department. A common refrain in the listings: “As the Red Sox continue to build a team capable of being THE standard in player AND staff development, we are looking for candidates who are organized with uncompromising attention to detail, inquisitive, intellectually curious, data-driven, and open minded.” Included among the positions the team is trying to fill: A nutrition coordinator who will offer oversight to dietetics assistants at each affiliate — a sign of the evolving view of the different ways organizations can influence player development.
▪ According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, former Red Sox first baseman Adrián González interviewed for the Padres managerial vacancy that was ultimately filled by Mike Shildt.
▪ Lefthander Zach Penrod was determined to take advantage of the opportunity afforded by an Arizona Fall League assignment. In August, Penrod had been pitching for the Missoula PaddleHeads of the independent Pioneer League before the Red Sox gave him a spot in Greenville. He performed well enough — a 2.18 ERA in four starts — to convince the Sox to send him to the AFL.
Penrod recognized it as a remarkable opportunity. He’d spent part of 2018 in the Rangers farm system but required Tommy John surgery that cost him 2019, then was released in 2020 amid the COVID-19 minor league shutdown. He spent 2021, 2022, and 2023 bouncing around the Pioneer League before the Sox called. Penrod cleared the idea of an AFL stint with his wife — the two had to postpone honeymoon plans for him to take the assignment.
That decision was rewarded with a berth in the AFL Fall Stars game. Penrod finished the season with a 1.29 ERA, lowest among qualifying starters in the prospect league.
“I would have told you you’re crazy if you’d told me at the beginning of the year [how the year would go],” said Penrod. “It’s freaking awesome. I’ve been trying to enjoy every moment of it and just grateful for the opportunity.”
Justin Turner (39), Jonathan Papelbon (43), and Luis Tiant (83) all celebrated their birthdays on Thanksgiving. Tiant’s career continues to grow in stature decades after he last pitched in the big leagues, with marks such as his 187 career complete games seeming almost unfathomable given that there have been 195 complete games combined across baseball over the last five seasons. Tiant, who went 229-172 with a 3.30 ERA over 19 big league seasons and nearly 3,500 innings, posted a career WAR of 65.7, as calculated by Baseball-Reference.com. Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, Brown, and Rick Reuschel are the only modern (post-1901) pitchers with higher career WAR marks who haven’t been given a plaque in Cooperstown.