The Rise and Fall of Third Basemen

Offense is down around baseball, but the hot corner is suffering more than most. Consider this factoid, discovered in the process of deciding whether or not the Cubs should pick up the $16 million option on Aramis Ramirez: Shortstops are hitting .259/.312/.369 so far this year — and third basemen aren’t much better (.257/.317/.382). What gives?

It’s complicated: Since 2007, offense — as measured by wOBA — is down 5%, and that’s part of the reason why the average OPS at third has gone from more than .800 in 2006 to less than .700 in 2011. But even that simple statement seems to suggest that the drop has been worse than average at third. Is that true? Let’s take a look at the average wOBA of qualified third basemen since 2001, compared to the league wOBA.

Two things emerge from this chart. One is that the decline might have something to do with the league-wide decline, but that phenomenon doesn’t completely explain the situation. Third basemen peaked higher than the league did, for one. The other thing that emerges is that third basemen are actually better this year — compared to last — when looked at as a percentage of leaguewide wOBA. Qualified batters at the position have been good for a wOBA about 6.5% better than league average this year. That was 4.5% last year and 7.9% in 2008 — which is this decade’s peak year for them, as a group.

The graph seems to suggest that this is a cyclical thing. Just as third basemen had a tough time in 2002 and 2003, they’re currently in the middle of a mini-valley. And when seen in comparison with the rest of the majors, they’re doing about the same this year as they did in 2006, when they were 6.2% better than the league average.

But there is something going on here, nonetheless. Using qualified batters made the position look better in this graph by taking out all the injury replacements that contributed to the shortstop-like batting line with which we began. This year will see the fewest qualified batters at the position in the decade. Only 15 third basemen will accrue 3.1 plate appearances per team game this year. That’ll be only the second time in the decade that fewer than 20 have accomplished the feat (18 in 2008). Injuries to Kevin Youkilis and Adrian Beltre could further decimate that number in coming weeks.

Is the position aging? Injuries will keep Pablo Sandoval, Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Zimmerman, David Freese, Chipper Jones, Scott Rolen, David Wright and Casey Blake from qualifying this year. Although not all of these names are geriatric, none is a young up-and-comer. The average age at the position (minimum 50 games with third base as the primary position) is currently the highest it’s been all decade. At 30.12 years old this year, only 2009 (30.01) found the average third baseman more than 30 years old (although 2010 was close at 29.93). The youngest (28.79) of the decade was in 2004, but most years the position would have been rounded to 29 years old. These aren’t the biggest leaps in age, but the trend is there — especially when seen in opposition to first basemen, who went from 31.22 to 29.47 years old during the same time.

So where are the prospects at the hot corner? The recent crop hasn’t quite worked out: Ian Stewart and Pedro Alvarez have contact problems that threaten to derail their careers. Mike Moustakas hasn’t had the same problems, but that isn’t to say that he hasn’t had any problems. Josh Bell looks like a bust. Mat Gamel and Chris Davis don’t have the fielding skills to stay at the position, and it’s unclear whether they’d be much of an offensive help. Lonnie Chisenhall is more serviceable than elite with the bat. Brett Lawrie should help, but he’s one player.

Not so long ago, third base had a nice collection of veterans to mix in with yesteryear’s exciting young prospects in Zimmerman, Evan Longoria and David Wright. That led to a mid-decade boom at the position. Now, after a few injuries, retirements and prospect flame outs, the position is in a bust cycle. But that means a boom has to come sometime. Maybe all that third base needs is a few adjustments from Moustakas, a little development from Lawrie, and a rennaissance from the mid-career veterans in order to find its former glory.

Thanks to Jeff Zimmermann for help crunching some of the numbers in this piece.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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11 years ago

Could it be that teams are realizing that 3B is not just “1B on the left side of the infield,” and you can’t put a masher who can’t field over there without costing the team a ton of runs defensively? As such, teams are sacrificing some offense for better defensive players. Perhaps gone are the days of Russell Branyan-types playing lots of third base.

Or it could just be that some of the best 3Bs in baseball have missed time with injuries, and the guys replacing them aren’t so good at hitting.

11 years ago
Reply to  JD

Exactly what I was thinking.

3B is too demanding of a defensive position for a “right-handed 1B to play”.

It’s demanding in terms of skills required, but also (and perhaps more importantly) it’s higher risk of injury.

Really good hitting 3Bs often end up as 1B. Guys don’t often get moved TO 3B.

I think as defensive metrics become more accurate and defense is valued more that shortstops with quickness that lack the range to play MLB shortstop will be moved to 3B (not 2B as they traditionally are).

Look at how few guys start at 3B and stick at 3B. They either get moved to 1B or a corner OF spot.

11 years ago
Reply to  CircleChange11

Or to DH – Edgar Martinez, Jim Thome, Paul Molitor, Aubrey Huff (for some time).

11 years ago
Reply to  CircleChange11

Honest question: Why is 3b a higher injury risk than first? Is it merely because of the additional throws, you’re saying?

11 years ago
Reply to  CircleChange11

And what’s the weather like in colorado Mr. Kouzmanoff?

11 years ago
Reply to  CircleChange11

3B is presumed to be a higher injury risk because there are more RH than LH hitters, and when RH hitters pull line drives they tend to go through the space occupied by the third baseman. This means more quick-reaction plays, and that means more chance to pull or twist something (not to mention the risk of getting hit by the ball — just ask Adrian Beltre about this.)

The first-baseman may be involved in almost every play, but most of those are throws to him by his own team, and thus pose relatively little injury risk. In contrast, the 3B sees more hit balls he has to field, and those pose greater risk. See the breakdown here.

11 years ago
Reply to  CircleChange11

Great link joser, thank you. I hadn’t read any John Walsh stuff in a long time and that was awesome. Lots for me to chew on.