Do you remember the Dickson Baseball Dictionary? I read it. The thing about reading a dictionary is that you retain a shockingly small amount, even if you’re a Know It All. Perhaps I have an excuse for not remembering that, maybe, the term “the hot corner” was coined in the 1880s by Ren Mulford. He used the phrase after Hick Carpenter, the third baseman for the Reds, fielded seven hard hit balls in a game. If we trust Hy Turkin’s The 1955 Baseball Almanac, that’s where the term came from.
As a lefty, a generally un-athletic one at that, I’ve never played third base. However, I did play a bunch of shortstop for my graduate school softball team. Amazingly, I was the right choice to play the position too. Rhetorical theorists, apparently, aren’t super athletes. But I digress. Having never played third base, I know I don’t get it, but I think “horror” is the word I’d use to describe the feelings going on in my head if I did. Back in 1996 or 1997, I was with a couple of buddies at a Red Sox game. We had seats in the second row down the third base line. For some reason, the seats right in front of us were unoccupied. Carlos Delgado was at the plate. He may have been expecting off-speed when the pitcher was coming with heat, so his lefty swing was late. A screaming liner into the stands hit the seat in front of me. I didn’t stick out my hand. Neither did either of my buddies. All I remember is the ball hitting the unoccupied seat and somehow avoiding death.
All of this is to say that third base is scary, though apparently not for these guys. If you want to read about our lists for 1B or 2B, you can do so here.
Third Base – 1-20
Where do we project the active player(s) to finish in our rankings?
There was a time when I thought Beltre could possibly challenge Wade Boggs for #4 all time. Then I reconfigured my system a little, making him look just a shade less great. On the other hand, he continues to excel. From age 35-38, he’s tenth in history in WAR. Give him 50 more games last year, and he’s probably sixth. Let’s look at the guys within 3 WAR of him after age 38.
- Tris Speaker (4.1 WAR): Decent season, and then he was finished.
- Hank Aaron (7.2): Good one more time, then acceptable, then done.
- Cap Anson (17.5): A beautiful, seemingly never-ending decline phase.
- Ty Cobb (7.9): A blip, a strong year, and then it was over.
- Nap Lajoie (1.5): He played for three more years, just not well.
- Willie Mays (13.4): He remained a star for two more years and then was done.
- Edgar Martinez (5.6): His bat didn’t fail him until he was 41.
- Eddie Collins (6.5): He had Aaron’s path out, basically.
Somewhere between Lajoie and Anson seems very likely. If he’s only as good as Speaker, he’ll jump Chipper and Boyer. No further gain with a decline like Collins or even Aaron. Something like Mays would get him past Home Run Baker. And I don’t even want to imagine what an Anson-like ending would do. I suspect he gains a couple of spots and finishes in seventh, though I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he stopped where he is. —Miller
Assuming that Beltre isn’t toast right this second, even a little positive value will nudge him past Chipper Jones for me. Santo and Baker stand about 5 CHEWS+ away. To reach them, he needs to earn five to seven more WAR. That feels possible to me. He’ll never catch George Brett for fourth in my CHEWS+ rankings. Dude has 10 career WAR and, more importantly, 13 peak WAR on Beltre.—Eric
Where do our rankings diverge the most from the conventional wisdom?
On one hand, it’s so clearly Brooks Robinson, who we both rank 13th. On the other, 13th for me is essentially interchangeable with 7th. For Eric, it’s probably 9th. And what that means is we still differ from conventional wisdom quite a bit. To the uninitiated, Brooks may be the third or fourth best third baseman ever. Maybe second? —Miller
I’ll go with Buddy Bell. All the eligible guys above him on my list are either in the Hall or the Hall of Merit. Ditto the two guys below him. Now Bell ranks 13th at third base. At risk of spoiling you all for future articles, here’s the top-rated players at each position who are not in the Hall or the HOM:
- C: Thurman Munson—15th
- 1B: John Olerud—21st
- 2B: Tony Phillips—19th
- 3B: Buddy Bell—13th
- SS: Art Fletcher—14th
- LF: Bobby Veach—15th
- CF: Andruw Jones—11th
- RF: Sammy Sosa—22nd
Bell ranks second in this unfortunate octet, but Jones has been on just one ballot so far. The world has had far longer to reckon up the pros and cons for Bell and find him wanting. There’s a few things driving this particular situation:
- The Hall has a third-base blind spot: They haven’t elected enough, and they’ve made several poor selections
- Bell’s defense was underrated: Buddy did win six straight Gold Gloves, but did so awfully quietly. He didn’t have a highlight-reel playoff series like Brooks Robinson or Graig Nettles did. He didn’t win as many Gold Gloves as Mike Schmidt did. He wasn’t flashy either. Only in the last decade as various fielding systems have rated him highly has his defensive prowess gained notice.
- His bat was above average but not remarkable: Sal Bando, Darrell Evans, Nettles, Schmidt, Ron Cey, Bill Melton, and others hit bomb after bomb. Bill Madlock and George Brett hit .300 annually and won batting titles. Bell’s calling cards were a steady stream of .290ish seasons with about 55 walks, 30 doubles, and 15 homers. He drove in 100 only once. Figure, maybe ten or so batting runs above average per annum. So he balanced his offensive and defensive contributions more than the big hitters.
- Durability was one of his biggest assets: By itself folks don’t care all that much about players’ endurance. There has to be narrative for it to come into play, like in the case of Omar Vizquel playing for so long and so many games at shortstop. But no one would use that as a point of reference if they didn’t already have a narrative about him to defend. Bell had no narrative.
- He played for really bad, backwater teams: He started in 1972 with Cleveland, who went 520-598 during his tenure, a .465 percentage. Then he went to Texas in 1979, and they went 459-543 (.458). After a July 1985 trade landed him in Cincinnati, things got a little better. The Reds fashioned a 247-218 record (.531). Traded to Houston in 1988, the Astros played .490 baseball after his arrival (47-49). He wrapped it up back in Texas in 1989, and when he played his last game on June 17th, the team’s slate stood at 36-30 (.545). Overall, his clubs went 1309-1438, a .477 percentage. But as appropriate for an excellent player on bad teams, his BBREF WAR usually led them or was damned close. Among the sixteen seasons where he spent the entire year with the same club, he led his team in BBREF WAR nine times, finished second three times, finished third once, and fourth twice.
- The 1970s were a Golden Age for third base (Part I): Here’s every important third basemen born within five years of Buddy Bell:
- 1946: None
- 1947: Darrell Evans, Richie Hebner, Don Money, Aurelio Rodrgiuez
- 1948: Ron Cey, Eric Solderholm, Toby Harrah
- 1949: Mike Schmidt
- 1950: Doug DeCinces
- 1951: Buddy Bell, Butch Hobson, Bill Madlock
- 1952: None
- 1953: George Brett, Larry Parrish
- 1954: None
- 1955: None
- 1956: Pedro Guerrero, Paul Molitor, Ken Oberkfell
That’s an outstanding crop of players, obviously. There’s no shame in coming in behind Schmidt, Brett, and Molitor. Bell, in my rankings, leads the remainder of his generation. He also leads or is even with other important 1970s third basemen such as Graig Nettles and Sal Bando
- The 1970s were a Golden Age for third base (Part II): Now, let me speculate a second. You see how the gushing of third base talent really eases up after 1951? Two greats come along after Bell’s birth year, but the sheer volume decreases considerably. When you get to the 1980s hot corner, it’s a thinner batch: Wade Boggs, Tim Wallach, Carney Lansford, HoJo, Gary Gaetti, Bob Horner, and in a sense Molitor who didn’t play third until he had become an established player. I’m not sure whether we should include Terry Pendleton or Kevin Seitzer, probably not since they seem to be a later generation. But the flood of talent had clearly ended. Why the sudden end to the third base boom? Here’s why: Alan Trammell, Cal Ripken, Robin Yount, Garry Templeton, Dickie Thon, Roy Smalley. That’s where my speculation comes in. I’ve said this before, but it is worth repeating. These guys gave indications that the baseball world had begun to stop typecasting shortstops as Don Kessinger clones. In the 1960s and into the early 1970s, baseball’s very low scoring environment and the adoption of artificial turf in many parks encouraged teams to play offensively challenged glovemen at shortstop. This is the era of Mark Belanger after all. But as the 1970s rolled along and offense opened up, teams could think once again about trading back a little defense for some batting. Here’s the speculation part: I think that several of the well-known third basemen of the 1960s and 1970s would have played shortstop in other eras, including the 1980s. The world made much of the “big shortstop” when tall Cal Ripken made it work. But Mike Schmidt was almost certainly more athletic than Ripken. Wouldn’t shock me at all if Don Money or Aurelio Rodriguez could have played shortstop. I wonder if teams would have tested George Brett’s athleticism at shortstop in the post-1960s mentality. I suspect strongly that the athleticism at third base in the 1970s was far greater than at any other time since the flipping of second and third base on the defensive spectrum.
Buddy Bell was probably the worst manager of the last 80 years, but he’s the best third baseman whose case hasn’t been given an effective vetting. He deserves more support. —Eric
Where do we disagree with one another the most?
Maybe Scott Rolen. Miller ranks him a good bit lower than I do. Rolen didn’t have many bad or even indifferent years. In later years when injuries ate away at his time on the field, when he played, he tended to play well. CHEWS+ gives a little boost to those who maintain a high rate of performance with incremental boosts for increasing career playing time. That explains a lot of the difference.—Eric
Egad! I rank Ken Boyer 7th, and Eric ranks him 14th. Before you go to press with this huge disagreement, please note that we both place him at 17% over the line. There’s no big dispute.—Miller
Are there any players who MAPES+/CHEWS+ might overrate or underrate?
There’s some weird shitakes going on with Ned Williamson. In fact, two specific things that confound me and make me wonder if we should upgrade or downgrade him. First, his defense. Williamson is reputed to be an outstanding defensive third baseman. OK, but he was an abysmal shortstop. There’s something about this that does not compute. He played third base through 1885 then moved to shortstop at age 28. He totaled 96 Rfield in his third base years and -6 in 1890 when he returned there. In his four years at shortstop, he earned -3 runs. Well, that’s the BBREF story. Over in DRA land, it’s 185 runs at third base and -41 at shortstop. I’m a little puzzled by this.
BBREF uses a +5 positional adjustment at third base throughout Williamson’s career. At shortstop it’s +10 throughout his career. The positional adjustment approximates the degree of defensive difficulty at each position in runs based on 150 games or 1350 innings. BBREF tells us that Ned played 6295 innings at third base and 3937 at shortstop. If BBREF is right and Williamson was good for +90 defensive runs at third base in those 6295 innings, then we might flip around the equation and say that in those same innings, he’d be worth one half of those 90 runs at shortstop, or 45 runs. That’s based on the fact that the defensive adjustment at third is half that at short. Or to put it another way, if he’s that good at third base, he should be a decent shortstop. At least that’s the operating theory. Or to put it another way, in those 3937 innings at shortstop, he would be doubly valuable defensively as a third baseman. Well, not so much since he’s in negative figures. At best he’d be a little above average. It’s worse when you look at it with DRA.
Look, positional adjustments are approximations, and every player is unique. The game was different, and the difference between the positions was narrower, but that still doesn’t mean that Williamson should have been a better shortstop than he was. There’s two data points that suggest why he might not have been: 5’ 11” and 210 pounds. Still, this one has always rubbed me the wrong way, and I’m a little skeptical that either he was as good a third baseman or as bad a shortstop as the defensive evaluations suggest.
Second, and requiring even more words is his ballparks. In 1883 and 1884, Williamson and his White Stockings called Lake Front Park (II) home. In Green Cathedrals, Phil Lowrey tells us that it had “the shortest outfield distances ever in a Major League Park.” Here they are in feet, per Lowrey.
- Left field: 186 (1883); 180 (1884)
- Left center: 280
- Center field: 300
- Right center: 252
- Right field: 196
- Fences: From left field to right center 6 feet, from right center to the foul line 20 feet wooden enclosure with a 17.5 foot tarpaulin atop it.
Lowrey adds that in 1883 a ball hit over the left field fence counted as a double, but in 1884 as a homer. Williamson, Cap Anson, and King Kelly anchored the order, all righty mashers. Thing is, Lowrey doesn’t tell us whether Lake Front Park I and II had the same dimensions or not. From the looks of their team stats, they might have. More on that in a sec. In 1885, the squad moved to West Side Park. Lowrey tells us that the foul lines measured 216 feet, the fences 12 feet, and that “this park was long and narrow, bathtub shaped like the Polo Grounds.” In case you don’t quite get the idea, he adds, “A bicycle track surrounded the field.”
So check this table out. It’s the White Stockings’ team performance for every season that Williamson played for them (he debuted in 1878 with Indianapolis and played his last season in the Players League). Bold is a league-leading team total. The line beneath the White Stockings shows how far ahead or behind the league-leading team they finished.
White Stockings Offensive Performance YEAR PARK G H R 2B 3B HR AVG SLG OPS+ ===================================================================== 1879 Lake Front Park 1 83 808 437 167 54 3 .259 .336 94 -195 -175 + 25 - 1 - 17 -.044 -.045 1880 Lake Front Park 1 84 876 538 164 39 4 .279 .360 119 + 83 +119 + 30 -13 - 16 +.026 +.017 1881 Lake Front Park 1 83 918 550 157 36 12 .295 .380 116 +121 +103 + 13 -17 - 5 +.031 +.019 1882 Lake Front Park 1 84 892 604 209 54 15 .277 .389 116 + 34 +104 + 63 - 5 - 5 +.003 +.021 1883 Lake Front Park 2 98 1000 679 277 61 13 .273 .393 102 - 58 + 10 + 68 -27 - 21 -.011 -.015 1884 Lake Front Park 2 113 1176 834 162 50 142 .281 .446 133 +113 +134 – 17 -19 +103 +.019 +.087
OK, pause for a moment before we continue. The White Sox could hit. They had great hitters on hand. But looking just at the doubles, triples, and homers columns, we can see how much the park shaped their offensive profile. Seems like a good bet that in 1882 the ground rules were similar to 1883, producing lots of doubles, a seemingly normal number of triples and homers. In 1880 and 1881, things are a little less clear, but the same basic principle seems to hold. A team with all these powerful hitters belts relatively few homers and leads the lead in doubles.
Now, let’s roll the table forward.
White Stockings Offensive Performance (Continued) YEAR PARK G H R 2B 3B HR AVG SLG OPS+ ==================================================================== 1885 West Side Park 113 1079 834 184 75 54 .264 .385 115 - 6 +143 + 28 - 7 + 29 +.005 +.026 1886 West Side Park 126 1223 900 198 87 53 .279 .401 115 + 37 + 71 + 15 + 6 + 23 -.001 +.011 1887 West Side Park 127 1177 813 178 98 80 .271 .412 115 - 92 -156 - 35 -30 + 27 -.028 -.022 1888 West Side Park 136 1201 734 147 95 77 .260 .383 113 - 74 + 13 - 33 + 6 + 21 -.003 +.022 1889 West Side Park 136 1338 867 184 66 79 .276 .390 103 - 18 - 68 - 44 -11 + 17 -.006 -.003
The team starts to age out in the latter half of the 1880s, but regardless, we still see their offensive profile shifting toward the power figures and away from doubles. This seems like a better depiction of their actual power than all those doubles.
Now, Williamson stayed pretty healthy until the end of his career. So we can compare his career path to that ballpark chart a little.
YEAR TEAM Rbat ================ 1878 IND 0 1879 CHC +16 1880 CHC + 1 1881 CHC + 1 1882 CHC +13 1883 CHC + 6 1884 CHC +33 1885 CHC + 5 1886 CHC - 3 1887 CHC + 7 1888 CHC +14 1889 CHC - 6 1890 CHI -21
Sure would like to see this guy’s home/road splits, wouldn’t you? In the two seasons he didn’t play for the White Stockings, he was not so hot. When he did, he had a slightly above average batting performance. Except in the year when he could take aim at a wall that Phil Mickelson could flop-shot from US Open rough. In 1883, he set an MLB record in doubles with 49 and topping his second best season by 22. Then there’s 1884 when he set the homers record with 27, crushing his next best seasonal total of 9, adding up to nearly half his career dingers (64), and owning the single-season record for 38 years. So 1884 is very problematic, but even bigger than that is this question: Are BBREF’s park factors handling the White Stockings’ performance accurately? Pretty hard to tell without home/road component splits for the team or its individual players. Compounding that in this case is the difference for righty and lefty hitters due to the big right field wall.
This whole thing gives me the shivers about Williamson’s batting value.
If there’s trouble with those park factors, that means there’s trouble with Williamson. But we can’t know now and will maybe never know what it means to his case, and I’m disinclined to put much stock in his offensive value until we do know. So, yeah, maybe CHEWS+ does overrate him.—Eric
Eric and I are equally uneasy about Williamson, and I’m a bit uneasy about Tommy Leach as well. Leach played third and center, mainly for the Pirates, basically for the first decade and a half of last century. There’s no doubt Leach was a strong defender, +67 runs per BBREF. However, DRA thinks the guy was a minor deity, worth over 130 runs at third alone. Add another 100+ in center, and he’s one of the dozen most valuable defenders ever, and the only one asked to put up such numbers at two positions.
Just how rare is it to see a player with Leach’s games at 3B and CF? Well, he’s the only one with 700 games at both positions. Or 500 games. Dropping it to 250, he’s joined by Frank Thomas (no, not that one), Tommy Harper, Freddie Lindstrom, Pepper Martin, and Chone Figgins. Figgins was a weird dude, topping 120 games only five times in his career. Once he was incredible, with 7.7 WAR in 2009. And generally he was useful, but teams shuffled him around from 2B to 3B to CF, among other positions. He was just average at 3B and in CF, while playing a poor 2B. Pepper Martin was an enigma himself. A Gas House Gang star and World Series hero, he played 100 games only five times, and the Cards played him a bunch at RF in addition to 3B and CF. Like Figgins, he was average at 3B and in CF, while kind of stinky in RF. Freddie Lindstrom was a Frisch-era Hall of Fame selection, which tells you much of what you need to know. In case you’re missing it, yes, he was a poor choice. Defensively, he was no great shakes, a bit of a plus at 3B, a bit more of a minus in CF. Speedster Tommy Harper played all over the outfield in addition to 3B. He was a real plus at each of the corners, but a weak defensive CF. To be fair, he only played one full season there. Frank Thomas, mainly a LF, got into 300+ at both of Leach’s positions. He was very bad at both.
So Leach is unusual in that nobody in the game’s history played the positions he played nearly as frequently as he did. And he’s unusual in that he was great and nobody else was even good. But should we trust DRA? On one hand, I wouldn’t use it to the extent I do if I didn’t generally trust it. On the other, these are the top defenders at an individual position by DRA: Germany Smith (SS), Joe Tinker (SS), Bill Holbert (C), Art Fletcher (SS), Buck Ewing (C), Roberto Clemente (RF), Jimmy Sheckard (LF), Bid McPhee (2B), Tris Speaker (CF), Carl Yastrzemski (LF), Bill Dahlen (LF), Mike Griffin (CF), Frankie Frisch (2B), Jack Glasscock (SS), Arlie Latham (3B), and Fred Clarke (LF). If you’re sensing a pattern here, you’re onto something. Aside from Clemente and Yaz, not one of these guys played a game after 1937. Seven of them never played while the American League existed. So perhaps DRA has a bias toward the game’s early years? What makes me happy is that the post-WWII guys to join Yaz and Clemente are the usual suspects: Keith Hernandez, Ivan Rodriguez, Andruw Jones, Mike Schmidt, Richie Ashburn, Mark Belanger, Brooks Robinson, Albert Pujols, and Willie Mays. You get the point. The system is reasonable, even if tilted some.
Let’s imagine if I ignored DRA and only used Rfield. Tommy Leach would then become a player pretty much like Ken Caminiti, or maybe Mike Cameron. Now Caminiti and Cameron were fine players, but there’s nobody championing their Hall causes, nor should there be. Yeah, I like DRA. I like it a lot. And when someone is great at two positions, there’s an internal check on the system. Still, I’m writing here under the category “players who MAPES+/CHEWS+ might overrate”. Leach may be one.—Miller
Please join us next week when we bring you the second half of third base.