Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Third-Best Third Baseman in History

By Brad Oremland

I'm a perfectionist. Sometimes that's a good thing; sometimes it would be better if I wasn't. Part of what perfectionism means for me, though, is frequent re-evaluation of the past, even of settled matters which cannot be changed.

Last year around this time, I participated in an all-time MLB draft with three of my colleagues, and I drafted a team that, with all due modesty, still knocks my socks off. There's only one pick I have mixed feelings about: Chipper Jones at third base. Chipper was a fantastic player, but I've always felt a little uneasy in that pick and wondered if I couldn't have made a better choice. Jones was my fourth-choice third baseman, behind Mike Schmidt, George Brett, and Alex Rodriguez (who was chosen as a shortstop one round earlier).

Schmidt and Brett are widely regarded as the two greatest third basemen in MLB history, and I am inclined to support that idea. Rodriguez, although he has now played nearly 900 games and 7,500 innings at third, is ranked as a shortstop. So who is number three? In my mind, there are seven players with an argument to be ranked as the third-best third baseman in major league history: Frank Baker, Wade Boggs, Jimmy Collins, Chipper Jones, Eddie Mathews, Brooks Robinson, and Pie Traynor.

Chipper Jones

I've already made the case for Chipper once, so let's start there and we'll work backwards chronologically. I'd hate for anyone to think I've reversed my position that Jones is an all-time great. There is a very reasonable case to be made that he is the greatest offensive player in the history of the position. Jones is the only .300/.400/.500 third baseman in history. Moreover, he is one of only two (Boggs is the other) with an on-base percentage of at least .400, and he is the position's all-time leader in slugging percentage (.536). Lest anyone chalk those numbers up to the era in which he played, Chipper's 150 OPS+ is the best in history, edging out those of Mathews (143) and even Schmidt (147).

So why isn't Chipper a slam dunk? Well, he has the shortest career among the post-WWII players, and he is the weakest defensive player on the list. Let's start with career length and move on to fielding afterwards. Jones was such a phenomenal offensive player that he posted top-notch career numbers despite making under 10,000 plate appearances; he has more Runs Created (about 1,800, depending on your preferred formula) than any third baseman besides George Brett. Among his highlights:

* Third-most extra-base hits, trailing only Brett and Schmidt
* More walks than strikeouts
* 147 SB, 44 CS (77.0%)
* 2,971 combined runs and RBI, ranking among the top 75 (at any position) in both categories

As far as fielding goes, the argument for Chipper is the same reason he played 14,500 innings at third: getting his offensive production out of the third base position compensated for his defensive weaknesses. Fine, he's not the fielder Robinson and Traynor were. Those guys weren't even in his league at the plate, and while he was never a regular on Web Gems, neither was he a defensive liability; he was a legitimate third baseman.

All of Chipper's stats in this piece are through July 19, 2010.

Wade Boggs

Let's just throw out some numbers: 3,000 hits, 1,500 runs, 578 doubles, .328 BA, .415 OBP, twice as many walks (1412) as strikeouts (745). Fine, he didn't have Chipper's power. Chipper doesn't have 3,000 hits, and he wasn't a Gold Glover. And while Boggs didn't exactly play in the deadball era, his best seasons came in the '80s, when runs were more meaningful than during Chipper's prime in the late '90s and early '00s. Boggs showed up on league leaderboards more often than Jones did, leading the majors in OBP six times, and at various times in plate appearances, hits, doubles, bases on balls, runs, and OPS. Boggs is fairly fresh in most memories, and it is widely accepted that he's a top-five 3B, so I won't bore you with further details, but I'd hate to give anyone the impression that Boggs was a slouch at the plate.

Brooks Robinson

The comparisons get complicated here, because Robinson's skill set and value are substantially different than those of Jones and Boggs. Brooks Robinson is generally considered to be the greatest defensive third baseman in history, but even his supporters admit that he was not a great offensive player. He didn't hit for average (.267), he didn't hit for power (.401 slugging), and he couldn't run (28 SB, 22 CS). He has by far the lowest OBP (.322) of the players being considered, and he hit into the most double plays (297). It is true that he played in an era when great offensive stats were hard to come by, but you could put Robinson on the 2000 Rockies, and he's still not going to be Schmidt or Jones or Mathews. He had a career OPS+ of 104, making him barely better than average, so his candidacy effectively rests solely on defense.

Eddie Mathews

Is Mathews the best power hitter in the history of the position? Well, he's clearly on the short list. Really, the only names you consider are Mathews (512 HR, .509 SLG), Schmidt (548, .527), and Chipper Jones (433, .536). I suppose I'd pick Schmidt, but Mathews, who twice led the majors in home runs and eight times placed among the NL's top 10 in slugging, is not far behind. In the context of his era, he's probably a better slugger than Jones, though he didn't share Chipper's base-running ability and didn't quite have his gift for getting on base. They're nearly equal at the plate, but Mathews played longer and was a better fielder.

Pie Traynor

Until about 25 years ago, Traynor was widely regarded as the best third baseman in history. I don't doubt that he was a great player, but earlier claims about his greatness don't hold up under close inspection. At the plate, Traynor was Brooks Robinson with a shorter career. He hit .320, but that was in an era when hitting .300 was almost expected. He never led the NL in batting average, and he never came close, with a career-high of fifth in 1927. Traynor seldom walked (472 BB), and although he was a good base-runner, he didn't have any power (58 HR). He wasn't an offensive liability by any means, but his primary claim to fame (apart from the batting average, and it's an empty .320) was defense.

Ultimately, I don't see how you can rank Traynor ahead of Robinson. Was he a better offensive player? Probably. But he didn't play nearly as long — Robinson had 3,500 more plate appearances — and he probably wasn't as outstanding defensively. I mentioned Traynor because I'd hate for anyone to think I forgot about him, but in 2010, he's just not a realistic contender for the title of third-best third baseman.

Home Run Baker

I have a sympathetic interest in this one, and I'm not sure why. Maybe it's my fondness for history, for contemporaries of Cobb and Ruth and Speaker. Maybe it's the cool nickname. Maybe it's the career arc, or something else entirely. I like Home Run Baker, and I'm rooting for him in this exercise. Well, him and Chipper. I'll be pretty bummed if I decide I drafted the wrong guy last year.

Baker has the shortest career of anyone listed here (1575 G, 6660 PA), so his case basically rests on a fantastic prime, and he certainly had one. He led the AL in homers four years in a row (1911-14), batting .334 during those years and leading the majors in RBI by a wide margin (451, 10 per year ahead of Sam Crawford's 411). But Baker sat out the next year in a salary dispute and was never the same.

We might reasonably compare Baker to Mike Schmidt. Both were exceptional fielders, Schmidt probably a little more so, and both were great sluggers. Schmidt's career was also substantially longer, but that's okay. I believe Schmidt is the best third baseman ever, so falling short of him doesn't mean Baker can't qualify for the third position on the list.

Jimmy Collins

Who? Jimmy Collins played from 1895-1908, mostly for Boston. Babe Ruth called him the greatest third baseman in history, and for nearly half a century, he was often cited as exactly that. Collins had a reputation as a tremendous defensive player, a gifted athlete with an instinct for the game. As an offensive player, he was good but not great, with under 2,000 hits and little power. I'm the last one to denigrate older players, but I think it has become clear with the passage of time that Collins is merely a great player, rather than an all-time great whose name belongs on the short list of elite third basemen.

Five Names, One Spot

Home Run Baker, Wade Boggs, Chipper Jones, Eddie Mathews, Brooks Robinson ... who's the best among that group? Who can we eliminate? The obvious answer to the latter question, I think, is Robinson. He's the best fielder ever at the position, but he was a very average hitter, and I just don't believe he contributed as much to his teams as the players who put runs on the board. I would also drop Baker, simply because his career was so short. His prime very probably was better than those of Boggs, Jones, and Mathews, but they had great seasons, too, and they all played substantially longer.

There are five third basemen with at least 1,500 Runs Created, and all have at least 1,700, putting them well ahead of the pack. Those are Schmidt and Brett, plus Boggs, Jones, and Mathews. Each has advantages and disadvantages.

Boggs leads the three in G, PA, AB, R, H, 2B, BA, OBP, and fewest strikeouts. However, he's way, way behind in XBH, HR, and RBI, so he has 275 fewer total bases than Jones and Mathews despite having many more at-bats.

Jones leads in RBI, XBH, SB, and slugging. He's last in all of the service categories and in triples, and he wasn't much of a defensive player.

Mathews leads in 3B, HR, BB, TB, and fewest GIDP. He's last in everything related to getting on base, except bases on balls, where he has a very small advantage over both Boggs and Jones.

This is very close, but it's my list, and I'm cutting Boggs. He gained 4,064 total bases in 9,180 AB. Jones posted 4,329 TB in 8,074 AB. That's 300 more TB in 1,000 fewer AB. Okay, Boggs was great at getting on base and he was a better defensive player. Chipper's power and versatility make him a better player, in my view. At what point in the batting order would you rather have Boggs than Jones? I don't think there is one, not even as a leadoff man. Boggs was a little better at getting on base, but Chipper was better at getting into scoring position, because he was far better at power-hitting and base-running. He had more extra-base hits, more total bases, and more combined runs and RBI. Boggs hit for a higher average and was better with the glove. Give me Jones.

How do you choose between Jones and Mathews? Statistically, they're very similar. Mathews had about 500 more AB, basically just a season. He hit more triples and homers, while Jones had more singles and doubles. Mathews retired with 938 extra-base hits; Jones has 958 XBH. Jones tallied a combined 2,971 runs and RBI, Mathews 2,962. Down the line, in nearly every category, they balance each other out. To me, that means Mathews is ahead. He had a longer career, played in a less favorable offensive context than Chipper, and was a better defensive player.

I'm not going to beat myself up over choosing Jones instead of Mathews last year. I still love Chipper's versatility as a switch-hitter, and his offensive accomplishments speak for themselves, even in an era with inflated offensive numbers. He received MVP votes in 12 different seasons and finished among the top 10 in NL MVP voting six times, including a win in 1999. He may even be a better fit for my team; I really wanted a switch-hitter, and Chipper's superior OBP and base-running might complement the squad better than Mathews' power. I just think Mathews was a little better overall, and he deserves to rank as the third-best third baseman ever.

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