Third base. What’s the make-up of a great third baseman? I dare you to try and come up with a consistent answer to that question! With the exception of Mike Schmidt, historically, third basemen were relied upon more for their defense. You didn’t expect a power hitter to play third base – exemplified by the fact that the all-time home run leader at 3B in the AL is Craig Nettles, with his 319 home runs as a third baseman (though A-Rod will likely surpass that this season). Most guys that can generate the kind of power to hit home runs aren’t the same guys that have the quickness needed to play the “hot corner.” And, since it hasn’t usually been an offensive-minded position, and doesn’t have the defensive flash of the guys that play up the middle (SS, 2B, CF), it’s often overlooked. Ron Santo will be just the 11th HOF third baseman when he’s inducted later this year – the fewest of any position. But, in recent years, there have been some guys producing more offense from third base – however, their defensive production often leaves something to be desired. Going into the 2012 season, we have two top-tier batters that are being moved to third base for the first time – another common theme for the often overlooked position: if you have a surplus at one position, just stick one of them at third. This might be the most difficult position to analyze. We’ll see. For now, let’s look at MLB Network’s top 10:
1. Miguel Cabrera (.344, 30 HR, 105 RBI, 1.033 OPS)
2. Evan Longoria (.244, 31 HR, 99 RBI, .850 OPS)
3. Kevin Youkilis (.258, 17 HR, 80 RBI, .833 OPS)
4. Adrian Beltre (.296, 32 HR, 105 RBI, .892 OPS)
5. Ryan Zimmerman (.298, 12 HR, 49 RBI, .798 OPS – 101 games)
6. Brett Lawrie (.293, 9 HR, 25 RBI, .953 OPS – 43 games in rookie season)
7. Pablo Sandoval (.315, 23 HR, 70 RBI, .909 OPS)
8. Alex Rodriguez (.276, 16 HR, 62 RBI, .823 OPS – 99 games)
9. Hanley Ramirez (.243, 10 HR, 45 RBI, .712 OPS – 92 games)
10. David Wright (.254, 14 HR, 61 RBI, .771 OPS – 102 games)
Let me start my rankings by saying that, once again, I think it’s crazy for MLBN to include a rookie on this list. Brett Lawrie has essentially played 1/4 of a season. Granted, unlike Ackley (see post on second basemen), his numbers for that quarter-season were astounding. But, you can’t possibly project a guy to be one of the best in the game when he hasn’t even played a full season yet. That’s just absurd. Since third basemen don’t tend to be base-stealers, I removed stolen bases from consideration, and added rbi’s back into the mix. I’ve also changed one of the defensive categories. The more I read, the more I thought it would be better to use TZL (total zone rating with location) rather than RZR (revised zone rating). TZL seems to give you a better idea of what they’re capable of, because it takes into account every hit that was made that got by them. So, the categories for 3B will be Avg., HR, RBI, OPS, ISO, wRC+, TZL, DRS, and WAR:
1. Evan Longoria – sorry, but I think the move to 3B is going to be worse for Cabrera than some think (see below). Longoria ranks among the top-3 in 8 categories (including the highest WAR at 13.7 – better even than Cabrera), and ranks 13th in batting average over the last two seasons. He’s a fantastic hitter, and a 2-time Gold Glove winner. The best part: he doesn’t turn 27 until October!
2. Miguel Cabrera – remember when A-Rod went to the Yankees and first moved to 3B? Just go look up his stats – 10+ fewer home runs than the season before or after; over 100-point difference in his OPS the season before or after. And that was for a younger, and much more nimble guy that was moving from SS to 3B. Cabrera is one of the worst fielding first-basemen in the league. His TZL ranks him right between “below average” and “poor” – at a much easier position the last two years. Granted, had he been playing 3B, he would have ranked in the top 3 in all 7 offensive categories, and would have been #1 in 5 of them. But, I fully expect this move to impact his play. He’s just turning 29 in April, which means he’ll have time to recover. But certainly going into the 2012 season, I see him taking a step back.
3. Adrian Beltre – the only reason I put Beltre this low is age. He’ll be 33 next month, putting him on the downward slope of his career. But, over the last two seasons, he has ranked in the top-2 in 8 categories, and ranks 6th in the other (TZL). If it wasn’t for those ugly years in Seattle, we might be talking about Beltre as one of the greatest third-basemen of all-time! (And, we may still, when it’s all said and done.)
4. Ryan Zimmerman – doesn’t turn 28 until September, ranks in the top-10 in 6 categories over the last two seasons – including top-5 in WAR, Avg., OPS and wRC+ – and he’s an above-average fielding third-baseman (won a Gold Glove in ’09).
5. Kevin Youkilis – turned 33 yesterday, so he’s not exactly a spring chicken. But, there isn’t really much competition for him at this point on the list. Top-10 in six categories, including top-5 in four (WAR, OPS, ISO, and the highest wRC+ in the game). He’s also an average fielder, which is more than you can say for the rest of the guys on the list!
6. Alex Rodriguez – I understand that he’s going to be 37 in July, and there’s definitely been a downward trend in his production the last 3-4 years. But, the guy still ranks in the top 5 in 6 categories over the last two years. In addition to age, the reason I put him a step behind Youk, is because his defense is below average.
7. Pablo Sandoval – the guy doesn’t turn 26 until August. Let that sink in for a minute. Around 27-31 is considered the peak of a guy’s career, depending on who you ask. But, Sandoval, at the ages of 23-24 has ranked in the top 10 in 7 categories at his position. Not a fantastic fielder, but did rank 3rd in DRS over that time. I think we have a lot to look forward to from Kung Fu Panda.
8. David Wright – if he’s injury-free, he can be one of the best. He’s a good fielder (won Gold Gloves in ’07 & ’08), and over the last two seasons has ranked in the top 10 in 5 offensive categories. He won’t turn 30 until after the season’s over, so he could still recover from his injuries and play well.
9. Aramis Ramirez – not at all a good defensive third-baseman, but he has ranked in the top-10 in 6 offensive categories the last two years. I place him a notch behind Wright, because he’ll be 34 in June.
10. Hanley Ramirez – another guy who’s making the move to 3B for the first time. I think it will effect his offensive production, which has only been slightly better than Aramis’ the last couple years. He doesn’t turn 29 until the season’s over, so I do expect him to bounce back.
Honorable mention goes to Chase Headley and Mark Reynolds. Both came very close to making the cut, but what ultimately hurt them is their one-dimensional game. Headley is a fantastic fielder, but only a slightly above-average batter. Reynolds has monster power numbers (most HR’s and best ISO in the game the last two seasons), but is a horrible fielder and doesn’t create as many runs for his team with that power as you’d think. Well, that’s my list, and I’m sticking to it. What about you?