We have a new group of Baseball Hall of Famers: Adrian Beltre, Joe Mauer and Todd Helton all exceeded the 75% threshold required from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America to gain entry to Cooperstown.
While Beltre was the only slam-dunk selection of the class, it’s still a fun group, with Mauer and Helton both spending their entire career with one team and becoming franchise icons for the Minnesota Twins and Colorado Rockies. Beltre, meanwhile, aged so wonderfully that he became one of the most popular players in the game during his time with the Texas Rangers, his fourth MLB team.
How and why did they get elected? Let’s take a look at each player.
Why Adrian Beltre is a Hall of Famer
When Beltre became a free agent after the 2009 season, following five seasons with the Seattle Mariners after starting his career with the Los Angeles Dodgers, he hardly looked like a future Hall of Famer. He had just finished his age-30 season, hitting .265/.304/.379 and missing six weeks after surgery to remove bone spurs in a shoulder and another two weeks after a bad hop left him with a swollen testicle. He had been a good player in Seattle, and he had enjoyed a monster 2004 season when he finished second in MVP voting in L.A., but he wasn’t exactly in high demand coming off that rough walk year and settled for a one-year contract with the Boston Red Sox.
His career turned around in Boston, however. He hit .321 with 28 home runs and 49 doubles and signed a big deal with Texas, where he would spend his final eight seasons and build his Hall of Fame résumé through a remarkable run of production in his 30s. Through age 30, Beltre ranks 91st in WAR among position players (still impressive, although he did reach the majors at age 19); from age 31 onward, he ranks 14th. He finished with 3,166 hits, 477 home runs, 1,707 RBIs and five Gold Gloves. He ranks 26th among position players in WAR (93.5), between Roberto Clemente and Al Kaline, and third among third basemen, behind Mike Schmidt and Eddie Mathews.
What happened in his 30s? Here are three reasons Beltre turned into a Hall of Famer:
1. He left Seattle.
In his five seasons with the Mariners, he hit just .254/.307/.410 at home, while hitting .277/.326/.472 on the road with 40 more doubles. “It’s a beautiful ballpark,” Beltre said when he returned to Seattle’s Safeco Field for a series in 2010. “But it’s no secret that offensively when you try and hit in this ballpark, it’s a little tough on you.”
It wasn’t just leaving Seattle. Beltre did become a better hitter, with help from then-Red Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan in 2010. Beltre’s strikeout rate with the Mariners was a low 16.2%; over the rest of his career, even as strikeouts rose across the majors, it was just 12.3%. He also became a little less pull-centric. Through age 30, his OPS+ was 105; after age 30, it was 130.
But he also went to home parks where he thrived. In his final nine seasons with Boston and Texas, he hit .330/.385/.555 at home; on the road, he hit .284/.332/.476 (not much different than his road numbers when he was with the Mariners).
2. He remained a strong defensive player.
Beltre already had an elite defensive reputation when he left Seattle, although he had somehow won just two Gold Gloves. “He’s the best I’ve ever seen,” his former Mariners teammate Raul Ibanez told the Boston Glove in 2010. “He’s blessed with some great instincts at third,” then-Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. “But he takes more ground balls than anybody I’ve ever seen.”
While many third basemen eventually move to first base — assuming their bat is good enough — or even DH, Beltre remained at third and added three more Gold Gloves. Baseball-Reference credits Beltre with 216 fielding runs above average in his career, the fifth-highest total at any position (and second behind Brooks Robinson among third baseman). That continued defensive excellence helped fuel Beltre’s high career WAR total.
Beltre averaged 148 games per season from age 31 through age 37, with only a leg injury that limited him to 124 games his first year in Texas cutting into that average. Since he reached the majors at such a young age, he ranks 15th all time in games played, second in games at third base and 18th in plate appearances. WAR is a cumulative stat, so the simple act of showing up and playing well creates value. Maybe Beltre isn’t quite an inner circle guy — certainly, at their best, I’d take Schmidt, Mathews, George Brett and probably Chipper Jones above Beltre among third basemen — but he is a slam-dunk Hall of Famer, and the vote totals reflect that.
Why Todd Helton is a Hall of Famer
Helton was a two-way baseball star at Tennessee and once started at quarterback on the football team ahead of a freshman named Peyton Manning. The eighth pick in the 1995 draft, Helton reached the majors in 1997, and over his first seven full seasons, he hit .340/.434/.620 while averaging 35 home runs and 118 RBIs. Along the way, he joined Hall of Famers Lou Gehrig and Chuck Klein as the only players with two seasons with 100 extra-base hits.
Of course, those seasons came at Coors Field in the peak of the steroid era, when many hitters were putting up absurd numbers. At the time, it was difficult to make sense of it all, even from those first-generation statistical analysts. Comparing Helton to Sandy Koufax, Baseball Prospectus once wrote, “Both players are very good, among the best in the game, but it’s easy to overestimate how good, because their stats are wildly distorted. There are people who have an emotional attachment to the idea that Sandy Koufax was one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history, rather than a good one with a high peak and some fortuitous timing. It would be interesting to ask those people how they rank Todd Helton, because Helton 2000-03 is going to have a lot in common with Koufax 1963-66.”
While Helton would play 17 seasons and finish with a .316 lifetime batting average, back problems slowed him considerably in the second half of his career, leaving him short of 3,000 hits (2,519) or even 400 home runs (369). His Hall of Fame case was a difficult one to analyze on several fronts, and he received just 16.5% of the vote his first year on the ballot, in 2019. In his sixth year, however, he made it. Here’s why:
1. The crowded ballot cleared up room for Helton.
Timing can be everything for a candidate; it can sometimes come down to who else is on the ballot, especially at your position.
The Hall of Fame ballot logjam that existed throughout most of the 2010s had cleared up some by 2019, but it still featured a lot of strong and borderline candidates. In 2019, four players got in: Mariano Rivera, Roy Halladay, Edgar Martinez and Mike Mussina. Helton’s former Rockies teammate Larry Walker was still there. Fred McGriff was there in his final season. Curt Schilling, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were on their seventh ballots. Helton finished just 15th in votes.
When Walker made it into the Hall the following season, it clearly helped: Walker had overcome the Coors Field stigma, so maybe Helton could, as well. Then the ballot thinned out. In 2021, the BBWAA threw a shutout, but Helton’s vote total climbed to 44.9.%. There was a lack of strong new candidates entering the ballot (David Ortiz made it in 2022), and when Schilling, Bonds and Clemens left the ballot after 2022, it was the weakest it had been in decades. Helton’s numbers or value didn’t change, but the perception of him did in comparison to the other candidates.
2. An appreciation of his peak.
Coors Field or not, Helton’s five-year run from 2000 to 2004 was remarkable: .372, .336, .329, .358, .347. Those are Tony Gwynn-like averages, with way more power and walks. With WAR, we can make the appropriate Coors Field adjustments and Helton still shines. Among first basemen, Helton’s best five seasons total 37.6 WAR, ranking fourth all time behind only Gehrig, Albert Pujols and Jimmie Foxx, and accounts for much of his career 61.8 total.
Over his career, Helton hit .345 at Coors Field. But he still hit an excellent .287/.386/.469 on the road. And during his dominant five-year stretch from 2000 to 2004, he hit .314/.418/.556 away from altitude, the ninth highest OPS over those years. Only Bonds, Jason Giambi and Manny Ramirez had a higher road OBP during that stretch, and nobody hit more doubles. Factor in the Coors Field penalty that Rockies players have to deal with — the brain has to readjust to pitches that move more on the road — and Helton still comes out as one of the best hitters of his era.
3. A .316 lifetime batting average looks awesome in 2024.
Yes, voters pay more attention to analytics than ever. But the BBWAA bloc still features old-school stats voters who don’t care about a player’s WAR — and a .316 career average looks more impressive with each passing season. The only player since 1900 with at least 6,000 plate appearances and a higher lifetime average than Helton who is not in the Hall of Fame is Babe Herman. In essence, the young, analytical voters appreciated Helton’s high peak value, and the older, less-analytical voters couldn’t ignore that .316 average.
Why Joe Mauer is a Hall of Famer
When the Twins selected Mauer with the first pick in the 2001 MLB draft, it was viewed as a bit of a compromise choice: They were selecting the local high school hero over USC right-hander Mark Prior, who was considered the greatest college pitcher ever after a dominant junior season, just to save money. The Twins, after all, had failed to sign first-round picks Jason Varitek in 1993 and Travis Lee in 1996.
“Twins did not draft best player,” read the headline in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “The Twins passed on the best player in the amateur baseball draft,” columnist Dan Barreiro wrote. “They blinked, they surrendered, they choked, they conceded. … Understand that money is the one and only reason the Twins went the direction they did.” And this was Mauer’s hometown newspaper criticizing the selection.
Indeed, while Mauer signed for a hefty $5.15 million signing bonus, the Chicago Cubs took Prior with the second pick and signed him to a five-year, $10.5 million major league contract. The Twins insisted Mauer was a worthy No. 1 overall choice, while Prior’s father blasted the franchise after a team official claimed the Prior camp had asked for $20 million.
While we’ll never know if Prior would have become a Hall of Famer had he stayed healthy, Mauer is now heading to Cooperstown. Here are three key reasons:
1. Tremendous peak value as a catcher.
While Mauer played just nine full seasons behind the plate before concussions necessitated a move to first base, it was a tremendous run. His seven-year peak WAR of 39.0 ranks fifth all time among catchers, behind Gary Carter, Johnny Bench, Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez. Mauer won three batting titles along the way, including posting a .365 mark in 2009 that no hitter has reached since. One under-the-radar factor that helps a player get elected is the idea of being the best in his league at his position. While the National League had Buster Posey and Yadier Molina, Mauer was clearly the best catcher in the American League during his time. Even the voters who might not pay attention to WAR can appreciate that distinction.
2. His MVP season in 2009 was one of the best ever for a catcher.
Given that Mauer’s career counting stats don’t stand out — 143 home runs, 923 RBIs, 2,123 hits — it helped that he had that astronomical MVP season in his bio (and three other top-10 MVP finishes). He hit .365/.444/.587 with 28 home runs and 96 RBIs while winning a Gold Glove. He led the AL in all three triple-slash categories, and his adjusted OPS trails only two Piazza seasons among catchers, while Mauer’s 7.8 WAR ranks as the fifth highest ever for a catcher. Best in the game — even if for only one season — is a nice argument for your Hall of Fame consideration.
3. His career WAR is high enough.
With 55.2 WAR, Mauer ranks ninth among players who were primarily catchers — meaning the top 11 catchers in WAR are now all Hall of Famers. Yes, some of Mauer’s value was earned after his move to first base, but in combination with his peak value, it was enough to get in. Consider his ranking among those 11 catchers:
Batting average (.306, fourth)
OBP (.388, second)
OPS+ (124, seventh)
Hits (2,123, sixth)
Doubles (428, third)
Batting runs above average (239, fifth)
He wasn’t a power hitter, and he didn’t last long, but the voters got it right: Mauer compares favorably to the other Hall of Fame catchers.