Something strange happened in 2011, and something equally strange happened in 2012. In 2011, exactly zero third basemen posted a wRC+ above 140, after four consecutive seasons in which at least three third basemen accomplished that feat. (wRC+ compares a player's weighted on-base average to the league average and adjusts for league and park factors.) In 2012, five third basemen accomplished the feat, the most since 1976, when Mike Schmidt, Bill Madlock, George Brett, Ron Cey and Pete Rose each crossed the threshold.
It was certainly interesting timing for third base to become flush with talent, but the position has seen the most variance in production since the beginning of the millennium. Third basemen's collective wOBA improved over 3.2 percent over 2011, one of only six instances in which a position saw an improvement greater than or equal to two percent in any season. Third base has seen three of those six instances.
For Cabrera, it was business-as-usual for the eventual 2012 AL MVP, as he finished with a 140 or better wRC+ for the fourth consecutive season and seventh time overall.
Ramirez continues to age like fine wine. Aside from a down year in 2010, he has consistently been one of the best-hitting third basemen since 2004.
Beltre ever so slightly outproduced then-teammate Josh Hamilton on the offensive side of things, leading in wOBA .388 to .387. Since leaving Seattle after the 2009 season, few have been able to match Beltre's production at the hot corner.
Wright had a bounce-back year, returning from .338 to .376 in wOBA and 1.9 to 7.8 in Wins Above Replacement, according to FanGraphs.
In total, the right tail of the proverbial Bell Curve for third basemen last year was a perfect storm of veteran players refusing to decline due to age or injury concerns as most of their demographic tend to do, once-great stars returning to form, and young players hitting their stride (David Freese, not to be forgotten, was not too far off the mark with a 132 wRC+, by the way).
While historically unlikely we'd see such an elite class of third basemen again, there are a few more third basemen who could accomplish the feat even as others drop off, such as Evan Longoria, Ryan Zimmerman, Brett Lawrie and Freese. Throw in Manny Machado, who may eventually become a star shortstop for the Orioles, but for now will play third base with J.J. Hardy manning shortstop. Mike Moustakas and Kyle Seager are two other young third basemen on the rise. Compared to where we were just a couple years ago, when Michael Young, Kevin Youkilis and Mark Reynolds were among the bigger bats at the position, we will be treated to a surfeit of talent going into 2013.
Chase Headley is perhaps the most interesting of them all, though. Not yet 29, Headley led the National League in RBIs, hit 31 home runs and stole 17 bases. The 30 HR/15 SB feat has only been accomplished 20 times in baseball history by a third baseman; before Headley, Reynolds did the deed for the Arizona Diamondbacks back in 2009. Headley also draws walks (12 percent walk rate last year), doesn't strike out too much (22.5 percent), and makes good contact (.339 career BABIP). All of this is crucial to his success in a ballpark which favors pitchers due to its homer-deflating dimensions.
More than one out of every five fly balls Headley hit last season was a home run, more than double his career average of percent and the NL average 11 percent. Crossing the 20 percent HR/FB threshold puts him in rarefied air, with elite power hitters such as Giancarlo Stanton, Prince Fielder and Matt Kemp. If Headley's sudden power surge is legitimate, he should once again find himself near the top of a stocked class of third basemen in 2013.
Bill Baer runs the Phillies blog Crashburn Alley. You can follow him on Twitter @CrashburnAlley.