Where have all the third basemen gone?

George Brett would cringe if he saw some of the hitting totals for third basemen in 2011. Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images

One reason baseball fans are so excited about Brett Lawrie is that 2011 was a miserable season for third basemen around the majors.

Not one full-time third baseman posted a .900 OPS, the first year that's happened since 2002. Third basemen hit just .252 and slugged under .400. Their collective OPS was .707 -- less than the overall major league OPS of .720. Here's a chart showing how poorly third basemen hit in 2011 compared to other seasons:

As you can see, historically third basemen have performed well above the average major league hitter. As recently as 2008 -- led by Chipper Jones, Alex Rodriguez and David Wright -- third basemen were 30 points better than the major league OPS.

Of course, part of the problem for the decline in 2011 was injuries. Rodriguez, Wright, Ryan Zimmerman, Pablo Sandoval, Kevin Youkilis and David Freese all missed significant time with injuries. Evan Longoria and Adrian Beltre missed a month apiece. In this chart, you can see that only 11 third basemen received the qualifying standard of 502 plate appearances in 2011:

Things were so bad that Scott Rolen, who was hitting .241 with five home runs, made the National League All-Star team. Guys like Rolen, A-Rod and Jones are older and in decline, no longer the threats they were even a couple years ago. Glove-first third basemen like Chone Figgins, Brandon Inge and Placido Polanco were terrible at the plate.

There is some hope that third base might return to the days of the mid-'80s, when future Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt, George Brett and Wade Boggs all manned the hot corner. Lawrie looks like a future star, a guy who will combine with Jose Bautista to form a lethal 1-2 punch in Toronto. Longoria is still just 26, and in his "bad" year still hit 31 home runs. Sandoval is just 25, coming off a .315 season with 32 home runs in 117 games. Guys like Cleveland's Lonnie Chisenhall and Kansas City's Mike Moustakas could be ready to make an impact, and Keith Law had five third basemen ranked in the top 43 on his top 100 prospects list.

I think 2011 was just a little blip. Old stars are fading away. But Brett Lawrie is on his way.