The Hottest Corner
Finding the best third baseman in the league is tough when there is an unprecedented level of depth at the position.
Third base is one of the most difficult defensive positions in baseball. The third baseman stands approximately 90 feet from home plate when a bat, traveling upwards of 100 miles per hour, collides with a baseball traveling in the opposite direction but at a similar speed. The collision, which takes 6–7 milliseconds, applies 8000–9000 pounds of force to the baseball, sending it careening into the field of play at scorching speeds that can approach 120 miles per hour. At even one hundred miles an hour, a ball will travel from home to third base in 0.61 seconds, giving the third baseman scant time to react, position himself, and field the ball. If he does so cleanly, he still has to send the ball — with accuracy, quickness, and power — 127 feet across the diamond to first base, where he can force an out. It’s rare to find a player who can play the position with prowess, and even more rare to find one who can match his defensive play to his offensive abilities.
There have been dozens of great third baseman in baseball history, but only seven have been elected to the hall of fame in the expansion era (since 1961), a list that includes Mike Schmidt, Ron Santo, George Brett, Brooks Robinson, and the newly elected Chipper Jones. Third basemen have one of the slimmest margins for error in the game, so one might expect those who excel at the position to garner more attention, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Since 1961, less third basemen have been elected to the Hall of Fame than pitchers (31), first baseman (11), left fielders (11), right fielders (10), shortstops (8), and second baseman (8) — a fact that is especially surprising given the historic depth at the position in the league today.
Based on Fangraphs’ Wins Above Replacement (WAR) calculations, three of the top ten and five of the top fifteen performers in last season’s WAR were third basemen — Anthony Rendon (3rd) of the Nationals, Kris Bryant (6th) of the Cubs, Cleveland’s Jose Ramirez (8th), the Rockies’ Nolan Arenado (13th) and the Dodgers’ Justin Turner (14th). Of the top twenty major leaguers in walk rate, eight of them play the hot corner — Matt Carpenter, Edwin Encarnacion, Todd Frazier, Bryant, Joey Gallo, Rendon, Jake Lamb, and Eugenio Suarez. The first six of those are in the top ten. Justin Turner and Jose Ramirez strike out the second- and fourth-least, respectively, of anyone in the league. Joey Gallo, Nolan Arenado, Ryan Zimmerman, and Ramirez are all in the top twenty in isolated power (ISO). Turner, Bryant, and Rendon are in the top ten in on base percentage (OBP).
So in this talented field, who actually reigns supreme? Who will turn in the strongest 2018 campaign? Let’s first eliminate a few good, but not great candidates: Miguel Sano, Mike Moustakas, and Joey Gallo, who combined for 107 home runs and had absurd slugging averages of .507/.521/.537 respectively, are defensive liabilities. Sano and Gallo strike out more than anyone else at the position, and Moustakas has abysmally low walk rates. Tommy La Stella posted impressive numbers last year, but had less than a quarter of the at bats that each of the other players on this list had. Alex Bregman is a talented and young newcomer, but so far hasn’t shown the offensive firepower or defensive prowess as some of the more established names. Bryant gets on base more than anybody and walks the most frequently, Ramirez has the highest batting average and strikes out the least, Arenado has the highest slugging percentage but Gallo the best ISO and home run totals.
In descending order, here is my list of the top five third basemen in baseball.
5. Justin Turner, Los Angeles Dodgers
In the Orioles and Mets organizations from 2009–2013, Turner hit .260/.323/.361 and eight home runs — not terrible, but essentially replacement level. From 2014 to 2017, he hit .303/.378/.502 and 71 home runs, consistently generating 3–5.5 wins above replacement. Last year was by far his best, as he clubbed 21 home runs and hit .322/.415/.530. His Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) of 151 was top among third basemen and 7th in MLB, on the heels of Joey Votto, Jose Altuve, Giancarlo Stanton, and Freddie Freeman. He has been an on-base machine since coming to Los Angeles, and his weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) of .400 last year tied with Freeman for eighth in the majors, across positions. Turner is also at or slightly above average defensively, so he doesn’t lose points there. He does lose some points for inconsistency: much of his production came in the first half of the year in which he hit .377, before cooling off and hitting .266 the rest of the way. He’ll likely look more like his second-half self in 2018, but we can expect him to keep getting on base and to provide consistent production for a team that has developed into a perennial contender.
4. Nolan Arenado, Colorado Rockies
Arenado has been one of my favorite players in the game for years. I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen a play of his like the one below. Even though he’s not yet twenty-seven, Arenado has performed consistently at a high level for years, going all the way back to 2013. In that time he has played the second-most games (720) and hit more home runs (148) than anyone else at the position. His 37 home runs last year trailed only Moustakas and Gallo, and his .309/.373/.586 was ranked 3rd/5th/1st at the position. (One note here: Arenado’s stats should be viewed with a grain of salt because he plays in Denver, where the thin air helps balls fly faster and farther. His wRC+, which measures runs created but neutralizes park effects, puts him at 4th among third basemen last year.) Last year he led third basemen with 20 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and was ranked 2nd in Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and Defensive Runs Above Average (DEF) — even while playing in hitter-friendly Coors Field. His player-friendly 2-year, $29.5M contract is second on the Rockies’ payroll in Average Annual Value (AAV), and he is arbitration-eligible next year. Arenado will likely have a productive summer as he seeks to boost his earnings next year.
3. Anthony Rendon, Washington Nationals
Anagram fun: shuffle “Arenado” a bit, swap out an “a” with an “n”, and you get A. Rendon. The Nationals’ third baseman, who finished sixth in NL MVP voting last year, avoided arbitration with a one-year $12.3M deal last month. Like the Nationals’ old third baseman (and current first baseman) Ryan Zimmerman, Rendon was drafted by the Nationals and has been in the organization ever since. His career slash line is .280/.358/.454 — good, but enough to question whether his 2017 line of .301/.403/.533 was a flash in the pan. Still, his career wRC+ of 119 is strong, and he has turned in two season long campaigns (2014 and 2017) with a wRC+ at or above 130. Although Arenado and Machado consistently generate highlight reels with their flashy play at third, last year it was Rendon who led third baseman in UZR and DEF. All told, Rendon is poised for another big year — expect a wRC+ around 125 and a slash line around .285/.375/.475.
2. Jose Ramirez, Cleveland Indians
With Ramirez manning third and Lindor at shortstop, the Indians have one of the best left sides of the diamonds in baseball. Ramirez, who is younger than everyone else on this list, split his time last year between second base (71 games) and third base (88 games). Early reports indicate that he may start the 2018 season at second if Michael Brantley isn’t ready to go, but eventually Ramirez should shift back to third. Ramirez’s .318/.374/.583 last year ranked 1st/3rd/2nd among third basemen who played at least 80 games. His strikeout rate of 10.7% was by far the best, with Rendon a distant second at 13.6%. He swiped the most bases (17), had a top-five ISO (.265) and an MLB-best wRC+ of 148 for third basemen. While most projections predict Ramirez to have some inevitable regression in 2018, he is locked down through 2021 on a 5-year, $26M contract with club options for 2022 and 2023 and will almost certainly to be providing outstanding value and production for Cleveland for a long time.
1. Kris Bryant, Chicago Cubs.
The Cubs’ one-year, $10.85 million contract with Bryant looks like a bargain compared to the $12.3 million one-year contract that the Nationals signed with Rendon. Bryant is one of a handful of players in history to follow up a Rookie of the Year award with a league MVP. He did this in 2015–16, when he went from a .275/.369/.488 line as a rookie to a .292/.385/.554 sophomore campaign, collecting 8.3 WAR and 39 home runs along the way. Although his 29 home runs in 2017 might look like a step backward, his .295/.409/.537 looks like progress, and he also walked more, struck out less, and had a higher weighted on-base average. Unlike Rendon, Bryant’s 2017 campaign doesn’t look like an aberration so much as the continued development and refinement of a player who one scout in 2013 said had a “chance to be special.” He will likely mount another MVP-caliber season in 2018, solidifying his case as the best third baseman in the game.
One final note: Adrian Beltre, a surefire first-ballot hall of famer, just played his twentieth season and collected his 3000th hit and trails only George Brett (3154) for the most ever among third basemen. With seven home runs this year, Beltre will pass Chipper Jones for 3rd-most among 3rd basemen. He’s past his prime and likely won’t be better than the five third baseman on this list, but he is capping an incredible baseball career. Five years from whenever he retires, you can count on another third baseman making the Hall.