While praising third baseman Manny Machado for his highlight-reel sequence in the seventh inning Wednesday night, Orioles manager Buck Showalter mentioned Texas Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre in the same group when it comes to defensive mastery.
The two are at separate stages of their careers — Beltre in his 18th season, Machado in his fourth — but the similarities between the two aren't lost on those who have been around both, or on Machado himself.
For Machado, Beltre's potential Hall of Fame career is something to aspire to.
"You see his track record. He's going to go down as the best third baseman to ever play the game," Machado said. "He's one of the best hitters, one of the best defensive players, one of the best players in the game right now. He's a great mentor. He's somebody I would look up to, and hopefully, I have half the career he's had."
Beltre's career, while somewhat under the radar, has been arguably worthy of the Hall of Fame. A career .284/.336/.476 hitter who has averaged 27 home runs and 92 RBIs per 162 games in his career. He has been selected to four All-Star Games and played elite defense at third base for the entirety of his time in the majors.
Machado is already a touch ahead of Beltre at this stage in his career. Both debuted mid-season at age 19, Beltre in 1998 with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Machado in 2012 with the Orioles.
Baseball Reference says the closest comparable age-20 and age-21 seasons to Beltre on record are Machado's. As a 20-year-old for the Dodgers in 1999, Beltre hit .275/.352/.478 with 15 home runs and 27 doubles. Machado hit .283/.314/.432 with 14 home runs and 51 doubles in his 2013 All-Star campaign at age 20.
A year later, Machado hit .278/.324/.431 with 12 home runs and 14 doubles in 82 games, with his season shortened at the beginning and end by a pair of knee injuries. Beltre hit .290/.360/.475 with 20 home runs and 30 doubles in 2000 at age 21, a very similar pace to Machado.
By many wins above replacement (WAR) measurements, Machado's first three seasons in the majors were better than Beltre's. Machado's 10.7 WAR through his age-21 season is over three wins higher than Beltre's 7.4, according to Baseball Reference. Using ESPN's measure, Beltre had a 6.8 WAR in his first three years, with Machado posting a 10.4 WAR by age 21.
And when you take into account the current season, Machado's age-22 season (.303/.358/.526 with 16 home runs and 44 RBIs) is already on pace to be better than Beltre had at that age, too.
By that measure, Machado could still fall short of Beltre's career — a difficult conundrum for teammate Tommy Hunter to grasp. Hunter played with Beltre in Texas, and was careful not to diminish Beltre's 401 home runs, his 2,666 hits, his four Gold Gloves or his pair of Platinum Glove honors, given to the best fielder in baseball. He recognizes just how good Beltre has been for nearly two decades.
Still, the idea of the precocious Machado not surpassing the career of Beltre was something Hunter struggled with before Thursday's game.
"Manny's got a long way to go to be better than Adrian Beltre, but if anyone can do it, you'd pick him to be the one to do it," Hunter said.
Showalter said the two both have "great imagination" defensively, in that "it's not something they think through, it's just something they react to." He admitted there are "a lot of similarities" between the two, but said "there's a lot of roads to cross" for Machado to have a career like Beltre's.
"Everybody sees these guys at such an age and they think with the numbers, they're going to [go up] every year and they're going to end up hitting 74 home runs when they're 30," Showalter said. "It doesn't always work that way. … I just want to feel confident Manny will be as good as he's capable of being. It's ours and his responsibility. We try to keep in a real world. You can get out of that if you don't want it. He's got a chance to have a very good career. We'll see where it takes him."