September 8, 2017
Third Base and The People Who Play There (Part 2)
I’ve spent most of this season watching third basemen. I’m not entirely sure why. I’ve just found my eye drawn to the position. When I’m at a game, I watch the way they set up, the way they move before and during their pitcher’s windup, the way they communicate with their fellow infielders, and the way they address batted balls of all kinds that come near them. It’s been an informative experience.
To share it in a way that’s not overwhelmingly wonky, I’m going to distill it into a subjective ranking of all 30 starting third basemen defensively (repeat: only defensively). Please don’t take this as a capitulation to convention; I just want to talk about the vastly variable styles and body types and skill sets that can make up a big-league hot cornerman, without losing us all in 2,000 words of unworthy Angell mimicry. This is a fun, perhaps conversation-starting access point to a subject I think can be really complex and fascinating.
Yesterday in this space I started with the worst, so let's rank the best today.
15. Miguel Sano, Minnesota Twins — There’s no way this is true a year from now. I would not be surprised at all if, a year from now, Sano is a designated hitter, and we all remember with a fond chuckle how that guy who weighs roughly what J.J. Watt does actually manned the hot corner for a season or so. Until his recent lower leg injury, though, Sano was surprising me about once a week by making a play he would not have made in the past, and that a man his size had no business making.
Like Mike Moustakas (ranked 21st, in Part 1), he plays fairly deep, and like Moustakas, he sometimes uses his exceptional arm to make up for imperfect footwork or the extra half-second it takes to secure a topspin one-hopper when one stands 6-foot-4. Unlike Moustakas, his athleticism is far better than one would expect, given his size, and so his range is a bit better, and he can make diving or off-balance plays more cleanly. He used to set up in a pretty awkward half-crouch, his feet staggered, really making it hard to move laterally and limiting his range to a step and a dive. He’s amended those habits, and is finding success by playing third base as if he were a smaller guy.
14. Joey Gallo, Texas Rangers — Gallo is another guy who plays third base because he’s athletic enough not to be stuck at first base, but not enough to play the outfield especially well, and certainly not enough to play up the middle. He’s really comfortable at the position, which is a huge asset to him (and to the Rangers, with Adrian Beltre on the disabled list). He charges fearlessly, whether in or to his left, and he’s unafraid to play fairly shallow in the first place, so nubbers hardly ever turn into hits against him. He has a strong arm, and can grab the ball barehanded and make a good throw in one fairly short motion. However, by playing fairly shallow and looking to make plays on the hard-hit balls near him, he gives up a bit of range.
13. Kris Bryant, Chicago Cubs — I wrote about Bryant in more depth earlier this week, including plenty regarding his defense at third base compared to in the outfield. Bryant is, physically, halfway between Dexter Fowler and Giancarlo Stanton: a strong, slender, very tall guy with long extremities but terrific coordination and ease of movement. It’s why (despite his sheer size) he’s one of the fastest third basemen in the game. It’s why he has dazzled when asked to play for prolonged stretches in left or right field, and why I believe he’s viable in center field.
Alas, Bryant’s size is a disadvantage at the hot corner, in a way it wouldn’t be in the open spaces of the outfield. Bryant has such difficulty smoothly bending to scoop a grounder on the run that he’s styled his game to avoid that. He plays shallow, thinks like a goalie, dives when he doesn’t necessarily need to, all to try to put himself in the best position possible to field whatever he can reach. His range should be better than it is, but when he tries to go four or five steps and pick a ball on the move to his left, he tends to miss or bobble the ball. It will even happen on balls hit more or less right at him, as he tries to move into position to receive just the right hop. Even so, his athletic ability and fast reflexes make him a competent fielder at third.
12. Jedd Gyorko, St. Louis Cardinals — Because of his general look, Gyorko gets a bad rap as a defender. He’s quick of feet and hands, such that he can cover ground quickly, make a play off balance if needed, get the ball into his throwing hand, and release an accurate throw in plenty of time. He doesn’t get to everything or throw anyone out from foul ground behind third base, but he’s reliable and rangy enough to be above average.
11. David Freese, Pittsburgh Pirates — Nothing panics Freese. That’s his trademark and his legacy. He lets the ball travel deeper than just about any other hitter in baseball, trusting himself to drive the pitch the other way. He stays cool under pressure, even the play-to-play and pitch-to-pitch anxiety that can speed the game up and make it hard for some players—even players more talented (and so with more margin for error) than Freese. He has good range, a fine arm, and the internal clock to always get the ball over just in time for an out. He also starts the double play quite well, when the situation allows for it.
10. Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay Rays — The best third basemen play the position like a free safety, hawking the ball, stalking it before it even leaves the pitcher’s hand. Although he’s not as explosive as he was five or six years ago, Longoria does that really well. He looks for ways to make plays even before they develop, and attacks balls that try to violate his envisioned timing on a given play. He navigates the surface at Tropicana Field well, too.
9. Justin Turner, Los Angeles Dodgers — No one who plays third base on a regular basis plays shallower than Turner, and few could do it even if they tried. He’s not a long strider or a guy who benefits from getting underway, in terms of speed and momentum. Turner sets up with the intent to take away hits on hard-hit balls, by being lightning quick in his first move and even quicker to get rid of the ball once it finds his mitt. That’s what he does well, and it’s enough to make him a key cog in the league’s best infield defense (even if some of that is due to their shifting, and not the sheer talent they send out to the four infield spots).
8. Jose Ramirez, Cleveland Indians — The exact physical opposite of Bryant, Ramirez is a born third baseman. His first step is quick, but not elite. His arm is good, but not great. What he does very well is to play deep, read swings quickly, get moving in the right direction and trust his play-making instincts (he’s a former middle infielder, after all) to generate an out from there. He really does pick and fire the ball more cleanly and easily than just about any other third baseman in the league, whether because of his height or because he’s simply that sure-handed.
7. Eugenio Suarez, Cincinnati Reds — Recall my optimism from Part 1 about Alex Bregman of the Astros as a long-term third baseman. Suarez is one reason to buy that. The former shortstop had a rough season at third last year, playing deeper than his tools allowed, charging the ball hesitantly, and struggling with that clock. He has them all down now, and while he would have been stretched at short, he’s clearly more than athletic enough for third base. The last step toward star status for him will be to develop greater consistency. He can make bad baserunning mistakes, and sometimes takes them into the field with him.
6. Todd Frazier, New York Yankees — Few guys use their arm better at third base than Frazier does. He’s made a few concessions to his advancing age over the last year or two, playing a bit deeper to give himself more time to get to balls a few steps wide of him, even if it means fewer of the impressive charging, bare-handed plays he’s made in the past. However, he still cheats toward the hole more than almost any other third baseman in the league. He knows he can move to his right, even diving when necessary, and still get himself into position and make a strong throw in time to nab the runner most of the time. That experience and self-knowledge has immense value at a position that demands so many choices about positioning and approach.
5. Kyle Seager, Seattle Mariners — No one plays the true hot corner-style third base better than Seager. He’s the premier practitioner of the sliding stab on a one-hopper just to his left, complete with a spin and throw to first base. His distinct, short-arm, sidearm throwing motion gets the ball out of his hands so quickly that the relative lack of sheer arm strength matters little. Seager never makes it look like tough plays are easy, but that only makes him more fun to watch.
4. Anthony Rendon, Washington Nationals — In baseball, there are always going to be people who are really good despite being boring. That’s the story with Rendon’s glove. He’s always been a better athlete than the average third baseman, with his range limited only by the myriad injuries he’s dealt with over the years. He’s set himself apart, though, by developing the softest hands in the league. No one makes fewer errors, or has fewer hot shots they can only knock down and keep on the infield. Rendon doesn’t excel on the most difficult plays, but he never misses one at which he has a real shot, and that’s remarkably valuable.
3. Manny Machado, Baltimore Orioles — Between ripping up both knees and adding about 20 pounds to his frame over the last few years, Machado has had to overcome some challenges in order to remain an elite defensive third baseman. He’s done it by continuing to deliver insane throws on plays that might otherwise be impossible to convert into outs, and by using that ability (much the way Frazier does) to get an extra step toward the hole when he needs it.
I can’t help remembering, amid all the talk above about internal clocks, that Orioles manager Buck Showalter once had very external clocks—shot clocks, more or less—rigged up on the practice fields where Machado was working during spring training, helping him get a concrete sense of how much time he had to make plays. Watching him now, it’s easy to see how he’s built that experience into his style of play. He knows the strength of his arm, and is unusually willing to field a ball on a dead run, take a step or two to arrest his momentum, and then throw. (Of course, it’s way more fun when he makes that throw while still on the dead run, but it’s rarely necessary, so we don’t see it very often.)
2. Nolan Arenado, Colorado Rockies — I’ve had the privilege of watching Arenado live, from the press box, where I could focus on all the ways he angles his body, the way he’s often moving before the pitch (like an outfielder, or like a defensive back reading the offense’s formation pre-snap), and the exceptionally quick way he goes from loose and ready to move in any direction to throwing his whole body in one particular direction. From above, one can also see just how far Arenado often goes to get a ball.
Everyone can recall him stealing a few routine grounders to the shortstop, or running all the way out to the tarp in San Francisco to grab a pop-up, or crossing well into foul ground to snag a would-be double, but what really catches the eye when you watch Arenado in person is the extra step closer to the point of origin at which he’ll field a routine, slow chopper to his left. By charging so much sooner and more quickly, Arenado cuts the distance of his throw down, and gives himself more time to find the seams and make a throw he knows will be true. He’s not exceptionally fast, but his upright and kinetic pre-pitch approach allows him to have elite range anyway.
1. Matt Chapman, Oakland Athletics — Yes, really. As crazy as it sounds, Chapman might actually be better than Arenado. He plays deeper than any other third baseman in the league. He can do that because he’s the fastest third baseman in the league, so if he has to sprint in on a dribbler, he’s still going to be able to make the play. At six feet, he’s short enough (and agile enough, and polished enough) to consistently pick up balls on hops of all kinds, without breaking stride.
His arm is strong, and it’s accurate, and he gets rid of the ball quickly. Stylistically, he’s not the daredevil that Arenado or Seager are, but he’s very quick to react, and the way he confidently glides even after balls that just trickle past the mound and toward shallow shortstop is unique. Given his body type and the history of players with this skill set, his staying power remains to be seen, but for now Chapman has a very legitimate case to be called the best defensive third baseman in MLB.
The present and future of this position fascinate me. As teams become so deft and so creative with their shifts, middle infielders become (if only very slightly) less valuable as defenders. Third basemen, however, are less impacted by those tactics. The best defenders in the league at that spot can still have a major impact. Moreover, it seems to me that a greater variety of player types and styles can succeed there than in—to compare it to its nearest neighbor on the defensive spectrum—center field. Teams might not be done seeking out players who make an odd fit for the conventional prototype of a third baseman, but who deliver big value by thriving there anyway. At any rate, watching the way third basemen play is an instructive (and perhaps underrated) way to learn a lot about baseball in a hurry.