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The Horde at the Hot Corner

Well, Billy, Mike Schmidt actually was selling jeans….

Well, Billy, Mike Schmidt actually was selling jeans….

And you thought the 1970s was chock full of catchers. Wait ‘til the third basemen come parading through.

Sal Bando kicked things off in 1987, and I’ve listed the below the debut years for the horde at the hot corner along with my equivalent WAR calculations for them:

  • 1966: Sal Bando (55)
  • 1967: Graig Nettles (69)
  • 1969: Darrell Evans (70)
  • 1971: Ron Cey (54)
  • 1972: Mike Schmidt (116) and Buddy Bell (69)
  • 1973: George Brett (90)

Here’s everyone else above 20 eqWAR who debuted during this stretch:

  • 1967: Doug Rader (27)
  • 1968: Richie Hebner (35) and Don Money (36)
  • 1969: Toby Harrah (51)
  • 1973: Doug Decinces (41) and Bill Madlock (37)

Eight years is a long time. Let’s split this into two epochs, 1966–1969 and 1970–1973, and then compare to other highly product four-year periods for third basemen. All parenthetical totals are my equivalent WAR, adjusted for schedule, to add DRA’s opinion, and for a couple other things I nerd out on. Sorting by the combined career eqWAR of every third baseman who collected 20+ career WAR…:

  • 1970–1973 (407)
    Schmidt, Brett, Bell, Cey, Decinces, Madlock
  • 1966–1969 (343)
    Evans, Nettles, Bando, Harrah, Money, Hebner, Rader
  • 1997–2000 (273)
    Adrian Beltre* (66), Eric Chavez* (39), Troy Glaus (37), Aramis Ramirez* (32), Melvin Mora (30), Mike Lowell (25), Corey Koskie (22), Casey Blake (22)
  • 1993–1996 (228)
    Chipper Jones (78), Scott Rolen (67), Jeff Cirillo (32), Edgardo Alfonzo (27), Bill Mueller (24)
  • 1908–1911 (226)
    Home Run Baker (67), Larry Gardner (50), Red Smith (31), Eddie Foster (31), Jimmy Austin (27), Jimmy Johnston (20)
  • 1986–1989 (221)
    Robin Ventura (52), Matt Williams (48), Ken Caminitti (40), Bobby Bonilla (38), Todd Ziele (23), Dave Magadan (20)
  • 1895–1898 (206)
    Tommy Leach (65), Jimmy Collins (62), Harry Steinfeldt (32), Lee Tannehill (26), Sammy Strang (21)
  • 1980–1983 (189)
    Wade Boggs (86), Tim Wallach (45), Gary Gaetti (34), Howard Johnson (24)
  • 1952–1955 (185)
    Brooks Robinson (72), Ken Boyer (65), Clete Boyer (27), Don Hoak (21)
  • 1871–1874 (159)
    Deacon White (74), Ezra Sutton (50), Bob Ferguson (35)
  • 1878–1881 (158)
    Ned Williamson (55), Arlie Latham (44), Tommy Burns (32), Jerry Denny (27)
  • 1885–1888 (155)
    Lave Cross (53), Billy Nash (40), Denny Lyons (37), Billy Shindle (25)
  • 1960–1963 (145)
    Santo (69), McMullen (29), Jim Ray Hart (26), Ed Charles (21)

*Active player, total is for 2014 through July 28th.

407 eqWAR is a lot of value. The big leagues really pumped out the cornermen in the early 1970s. Ah, you say, but the Majors weren’t always the same size! OK, let’s divide the total WAR for each era by the number of team-seasons in the big leagues during the period. In other words, during 1970–1973, MLB ran a 24-team league all four years. That’s 96 total team-seasons. This time we’ll sort by eqWAR/team-season:

                  TEAM     eqWAR/
YEARS     eqWAR  SEASONS  TEAM-SEASON
=====================================
1878–1881  158     30       5.3
1871–1874  159     37       4.3
1895–1898  206     48       4.3
1970–1973  407     96       4.2
1966–1969  343     84       4.1
1908–1911  226     64       3.5
1952–1955  185     64       2.9
1885–1888  155     64       2.4
1997–2000  273    118       2.3
1986–1989  221    104       2.1
1993–1996  228    112       2.0
1960–1963  145     74       2.0
1980–1983  189    104       1.8

I can hand wave away the 1890s guys. Tommy Leach may not be a true third baseman. He played more games in centerfield but was a starter at third in more seasons. Remove him from the 1890s group, and they go down to 141 WAR, or 2.9 per team-season. [By the same token if Alex Rodriguez returns and plays another 720 innings at third base (80 games) the 1993–1996 group would vault upwards, gaining 116+ WAR and climbing up to 3.0 WAR per team-season.]

But I can’t so easily jettison the other early-game spans. It is likely true that a team’s least athletic player wound up in right field. Pitchers moonlighted there when taking a rest from the mound. Catchers did the same for their breathers. And because double plays remained relatively rare for decades, second basemen didn’t need to be as athletic as they do today. In fact, third basemen of that era needed to be nearly as athletic as shortstops because teams had many more righty hitters. The actual pool that third base drew from might have been a little deeper than in later years. It’s a theory of mine, and I could be wrong. It’s only to say that conditions were different.

If true, or even truthy, rather than pick one best era, I might pick two, one pre-World War II and one post-War. Second base leapfrogged third base sometime between the wars as double plays became much more common and bunts less so. As a result the athletic requirements for hot cornerites morphed from lithe second shortstop who could charge the bunt to quick-reflexed, cannon-armed guys who didn’t need to be rangy, only to have a great first step.

That means that I’d put Williamson’s era and Schmidt’s era something like equal footing. Or perhaps equivalent footing.

Bowa Constriction, or why there were so many great third basemen in the 1970s

Why the 1970s? The answer I keep coming back to stands about 60 feet to the glove side of every third baseman. I don’t think it was something about third base, but rather something about shortstops. Who is the greatest shortstop between Banks and Ripken? Might be Michael Jack Schmidt. Schmidt was incredibly mobile, very athletic. He played third base like a shortstop might. But at 6’2” and 195 pounds, he didn’t look like a shortstop in the 1960s/1970s mode. Think of him next to a squirt like Larry Bowa (5’10”, 155 pounds) or a beanpole like Don Kessinger (6’1”, 170 pounds) or Davey Concepcion (6’2”, 155 pounds), and you’ll see what I’m saying.

Eventually this youth league player grew up to be Robin Yount.

Eventually this youth league player grew up to be Robin Yount.

In the early 1970s, the AL installed the DH to boost scoring because in the 1960s the big leagues came to be dominated by pitching and defense. In that scenario, even terrible-hitting shortstops like Mark Belanger (6’1”, 170 pounds) and Ray Oyler (5’11”, 165 pounds) were passable if their gloves could carry them. In a sub-4.0 runs/game league, you’ll take all the run-prevention you can get. That reality dominated as Schmidt and guys like him came along, and it took talent evaluators a decade to get out of that kind of thinking. Even Robin Yount was a scrawny kid when he debuted, and he’s listed on baseball-reference as 6’0”, 165 pounds.

The Phillies played Schmidt more at shortstop in the minors than at third base. In fact, they also played him more at second base. But they thought they had something special in Larry Bowa, so Schmidt moved to the right and the team traded young incumbent third baseman Don Money for a year of Ken Brett, seven of Jim Lonborg, and someone named Earl Stephenson. Money had been an inconsistent young player to that point, but he immediately became an All-Star type player with Milwaukee. From that moment forward, Bowa gave the Phils 9 years and 17.2 WAR, while Money gave the Crew 11 years and 28 WAR. Think the Phils might have gotten out of the NLCS even once in the 1970s with Schmidt and Money on the left side instead of Bowa and Schmidt? Show me the Money!

Earl Weaver finally put the lie to the little-shortstop movement. Cal Ripken played more at third in the minors than short. The Orioles even dealt away starter Doug Decinces to make room for Ripken. But with Mark Belanger’s time due up in Baltimore after 1982, Weaver saw an opportunity and took it. The O’s failed to plug their hole at third base for decades, but they gained a tremendous advantage by having Ripken at shortstop. Two decades of anemic shortstops with equally anemic bats finally beat Earl Weaver into a state of reasonableness.

Today, we’ve enjoyed much more diversity at shortstop with the Trinity, Tejada, Omar, Tulo, Jose Reyes, Jimmy Rollins, and others. But look back to 1970, and Jeter, A-Rod, and Nomar probably would have played third base from the get go because…that’s just how it was for twenty-some years.

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