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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

1900-09 13 8.6% 1910-19 12 6.8% 1920-29 2 1.3% 1930-39 8 5.0% 1940-49 16 10.0% 1950-59 17 10.6% 1960-69 29 14.6% 1970-79 35 14.2% 1980-89 39 15.0% 1990-99 28 10.1%

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

1964 NL Dick Allen, Ken Boyer, Jim Ray Hart, Ron Santo 1965 NL Dick Allen, Jim Ray Hart, Deron Johnson, Ron Santo 1975 NL Ron Cey, Bill Madlock, Pete Rose, Mike Schmidt 1976 NL Ron Cey, Bill Madlock, Pete Rose, Mike Schmidt

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

1967 NL .760 .701 1.084 1964 NL .767 .714 1.074 1954 AL .782 .732 1.069 1981 NL .753 .707 1.066 1965 NL .752 .714 1.054

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 ranyj@baseballprospectus.com.

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