So I came back from the laundromat and turned on the television. It was
scoreless in the second inning, one out, runners on second and third.
And Rajai Davis promptly lashed a two-run single to left... and oh
hell. That's Scott Rolen at third base, and there he is making
the diving stop, holding the runner at third and throwing Davis out at
first. Bloody Hall of Famers.
Is Scott Rolen a Hall of Famer? I sort of assumed he was, but where does he stack up amongst all the third basemen who have come, been, and gone? I would assume he's one of the ten best ever, and I would just assume that if you're one of the ten best players at your position in the history of the game, there would be something strange about a Hall of Fame that didn't include you.
Some perspective might be useful. When Bill James did the last version of his Historical Abstract, he ranked the greatest third basemen of all time as follows: (Hall of Famers marked with *)
1. Mike Schmidt* (it's just so wonderfully easy when the best hitter ever at the position also won, and more than deserved, 10 Gold Gloves...)
2. George Brett*
3. Ed Matthews*
4. Wade Boggs*
5. Frank Baker*
6. Ron Santo
7. Brooks Robinson*
8. Paul Molitor*
9. Stan Hack
10. Darrel Evans
11. Sal Bando
12. Ken Boyer
13. Graig Nettles
14. Al Rosen
15. Pie Traynor* (who was, trust me on this, universally regarded as the greatest third baseman ever for the longest time, right up until Brooks Robinson came along. No one knows why!)
Hall of Fame third baseman not making James' Top 15:
Jimmy Collins (17), a great defensive player, regarded as the best player at the position before Traynor.
John McGraw (26) - in the Hall as a manager. A great player but a very short career.
George Kell (30) - Go figure. He was a good player, but Cooperstown? Who's next? Tim Wallach?
Fred Lindstrom (43) - He was Frank Frisch's teammate, and got inducted when Frisch was running the Veterans' Committee. That is all ye need to know...
Ron Cey, Buddy Bell, and Robin Ventura were each better players than all of those guys. Well, maybe not better than Jimmy Collins. But they were definitely better than the other three, for sure. Never mind how much better Santo and Hack and Evans and Bando were....
That's probably not how you would rank them, and it's definitely not how I would rank them. (I'd flip Matthews and Brett, Boggs and Baker... Brooks seems too high, not sure if he is or not. Etc etc.)
I would assume that the first thing you notice is that just eight of the top fifteen, barely half, are in the Hall of Fame,. The two great Cubs third basemen have both been found unworthy, and snubbed accordingly. You'll also observe that one of the players who is in the Hall, Paul Molitor, played a mere 791 games at third base in his career. That's the exact same number of games that Harmon Killebrew played at third, by strange coincidence. It's more games than Molitor played anywhere else, but it's just not enough. I can't regard Molitor as one of the game's all-time great third basemen on that basis alone. Six seasons... sorry, just isn't enough. Molitor is a no-doubt Hall of Famer, but he's one of those guys (like Killebrew himself, and Pete Rose) who qualifies as a ballplayer in general rather than at a particular position.
I also have a little trouble with Al Rosen making the Top 15 as well. Rosen was a helluva player, and unlike Molitor he was a career third baseman. But his career started late (he was blocked by Ken Keltner) and it ended early (back problems), and when it was over he had played just 932 games at third base. I think I'm kind of insisting on at least 1000 games...
Of course, in the decade and change since James published his list we've had several contemporary third basemen make a case for themselves. It's much, much, much too early to be thinking about Ryan Zimmerman or Evan Longoria or David Wright. If you're not sure of that, I'd point out that Eric Chavez was at the same stage of his career that those three young players were at, he was an absolute lock to be on the ten greatest third basemen ever. An absolute lock. So let''s hold off a while on those guys.
However, enough of the careers of several other contemporary third sackers is in the books by now that we can get some sense of where they stand. But first, there is the strange case of Alex Rodriguez. At this moment, Rodriguez has still played more games as a shortstop (1272) than he has as a third basemen (1049). By mid summer of 2013, he'll have played more games as a third baseman. And after he winds up his career as a DH, he probably won't have any one defensive position where he played 50% of his career games.
I'm not sure what you do with a guy like that. (Like there's ever been another guy like that!)
Well, Robin Yount and Ernie Banks both had Hall of Fame careers split pretty evenly between shortstop and another position. (Banks actually played more games at first base than he did at shortstop.) Banks and Yount were both much better players as shortstops, partially because they had their best years as hitters while they were still playing shortstop. It makes sense to regard them both as shortstops because they were better players while they were there, and they played enough short (each was over 1000 career games) for it to make sense. Yount did win MVPs as both a shortstop and as a centre fielder, but while he's certainly one of the ten best shortstops ever, I would think he's closer to being about the 25th best centrefielder ever (roughly equivalent to Amos Otis, I would think.) Banks is a much more extreme case - Banks is definitely one of the ten best shortstops ever, but at best he's only about the 85th best first baseman ever.
But Rodriguez - I dunno. For one thing, hes been the exact same hitter (to this point) at both positions. I think he would rank in the top five at both positions. Which makes him unique. Not sure what to do with him.
Which brings us to our three contemporary veterans: Adrian Beltre, Chipper Jones, and Scott Rolen.
Beltre, I think, is sort of the modern version of Brooks Robinson. Brooks-lite, if you will. Like Brooks, Beltre is a brilliant defender and a pretty decent hitter. Beltre did have two sensational seasons with the bat when he was playing for his next contract, but for most of his career he's really been about a league average hitter. (Don't you wish that teams could give this guy one-year contracts just to see what would happen.) Brooks was actually a fair bit better than that. I'd probably put Beltre ahead of Pie Traynor, but no one else.
Now Chipper... he's not the greatest glove man you'll ever see. Far from it. But my gosh - the man has simply been a mighty offensive force, much mightier than people seem to recognize. Jones is definitely one of the best hitters ever to play third base. As a hitter, he's just a shade behind Schmidt and Matthews (and Rodriguez). And just ahead of Brett and Boggs.
Rolen, it seems to me, is very comparable to Ron Santo. Slight edge to Santo with the bat (and Santo had bigger seasons), slightly larger edge to Rolen with the glove (Santo was great, Rolen is awesome.)
I think Santo and Rolen's glove work is enough to move both of them ahead of Boggs, who was a slightly more productive hitter but nowhere near the defensive player. They can't catch Brett, who was quite a good third baseman. As far as I can tell Frank Baker was pretty much the exact same player as Brett, so they don't catch him either.
I don't know if Santo and Rolen saved enough runs with their gloves to make up for all the extra ones Chipper was producing with his bat. I'm going to err on the side of caution in this case and assume they didn't.
So I'm thinking they now line up a little like this...
1. Mike Schmidt
2. Ed Matthews
3. George Brett
4. Frank Baker
5. Chipper Jones
6. Scott Rolen
7. Ron Santo
8. Wade Boggs
9. Brooks Robinson
10. Sal Bando
11. Stan Hack
12. Graig Nettles
13. Darrel Evans
14. Ken Boyer
15. Adrian Beltre
And Alex Rodriguez, who stands second on the shortstop list (obviously!), would be no worse than fifth on this list.