July 5, 2000
Doctoring the Numbers
Hot Times at the Hot Corner
You hear a lot of talk today about how we are possibly entering the Era of the Third Basemen. Whereas at the beginning of the 1990s there were only a few truly great third basemen (Matt Williams, Robin Ventura, Jim Thome before he switched corners, Wade Boggs before he faded), today it seems that half the teams in baseball have a great player at third base.
In particular, the NL has Williams, Adrian Beltre, Jeff Cirillo, Fernando Tatis, Ken Caminiti, Scott Rolen, Chipper Jones and Ventura; an amazing collection of talent at one position. The AL is not nearly as deep, but with the emergence of Troy Glaus and the continued improvement of Eric Chavez, to go along with guys like Tony Batista, Dean Palmer and even Joe Randa, there is considerably more depth in the Junior Circuit than there was just two years ago.
In the early years of the 20th century, third base was considered a defensive position, similar in importance to second base or catcher. Very few teams put much weight on getting a big offensive contribution from the position. Only twice during the 1920s did a player play at least two-thirds of his team's games at third base and put up an OPS at least 15% better than a league-average position player. Les Bell in 1926, and Freddie Lindstrom in 1928 were the culprits, both in the NL. It is not an exaggeration to say that not once did an AL third baseman have a great season during the 1920s.
That perception began to change, slowly but irresistibly, as the decades passed:
Decade Good Seasons (3B) % of Teams
As you can see, the trend toward good-hitting third baseman actually plateaued in the 1960s, and when you consider that the number of teams in baseball has increased from 20 (from 1962-68) to 30 today, the actual percentage of teams with good third basemen over the last ten years was at its lowest level since World War II. As recently as 1997, the only two quality third basemen in baseball by this measure were Ken Caminiti and the park-assisted Vinny Castilla.
How significant is the recent upswing? The 1999 NL had three quality third basemen: Chipper Jones, Fernando Tatis and Robin Ventura. Only four times has that total been exceeded:
Year Lg Players
Along with George Brett and Graig Nettles in the AL, there were six quality third baseman in 1976, the highest total ever. But when you consider that there were only ten teams in the league at the time, the 1964-65 NL was probably the deepest league in history at third base. Ron Santo should be in the Hall of Fame, and Dick Allen isn't there only because he was such a jerk. Jim Ray Hart was one of the most feared sluggers of the mid-1960s; Ken Boyer was the 1964 MVP, a seven-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glover; and Deron Johnson played in 1765 games in his 16-year career. That doesn't even include Eddie Mathews, who was putting the finishing touches on his own Hall of Fame career.
While the 1999 NL had three quality third baseman, the AL had none. In fact, the AL hasn't had one since Jim Thome in 1996, though Troy Glaus and possibly Travis Fryman will reach those heights this season. No league had gone three years without a quality third baseman since the 1960-62 AL.
Another way to look at the issue is to compare the combined statistics for all the third basemen with the league as a whole. In 1923, AL third baseman combined for just a .665 OPS, compared to a league average of .760, the worst ratio ever. The five best ratios:
Year Lg OPS (3B) OPS (League) Ratio
Once again, it appears that the NL in the mid-1960s was deeper at third base than any other league, before or since. And it appears that any talk about the wealth of talent at third base in today's game is premature.
And if you don't believe me, just ask Vinny Castilla.
Rany Jazayerli, M.D., can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.