If you’re an Atlanta Braves fan, maybe you remember the rookie Bobby Cox entrusted to hit third in the lineup in the 1995 World Series. Or maybe you remember September of 1999, when Chipper Jones hit 10 home runs, including two solo shots in a 2-1 victory over the Mets. He followed that performance with one more in each of the next two games as the Braves swept their NL East rivals to turn a one-game division lead to four. Or maybe you recall 2008, when Jones was hitting .400 as late as June 18. Or maybe you just remember that sweet, easy stroke from both sides of the plate that generated more power than you always expected.
Jones recently announced that he’ll be returning for a 19th major league season in 2012. I’m sure he found the $13 million salary to his liking, but he’s also returning because he’s still a productive hitter. Despite undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery on July 9 and then suffering a hamstring strain, Jones is hitting a solid .279/.349/.468, including .386 in August. A line like that will lead a player to believe he has something left.
I would hope everyone recognizes by now that Jones is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Last week, I exchanged Twitter messages with readers on where Jones ranks among the greatest third basemen of all time. Six names came up in that discussion, and with apologies to Home Run Baker and Ron Santo, here is my ranking of them.
(For the uninitiated, WAR stands for wins above replacement level, an all-encompassing stat that factors in a player's hitting, fielding and baserunning. All WAR numbers used in this story are from Baseball-Reference.com.)
6. BROOKS ROBINSON
"If his feet were slow, his reflexes were the fastest. If his arm was average, his accuracy and quick release were the best. Somehow he always seemed languid, especially as he threw overhand toward first; yet the fastest runners were out by larger margins when Robinson made his syrupy perfectos than when the most kinetic jack-in-the-box third basemen made similar plays as frantically as though they’d just sat on a cattle prod."
Career: .267/.322/.401, 2896 G, 268 HR, 1357 RBI, 1232 R, 104 OPS+, 69.1 WAR
Best five seasons (1964, ’68, ’67, ’62, ’71): 33.5 WAR
Best 10 consecutive (1962-71): 51.9 WAR
Best 10 hitting seasons: +142 runs above an average hitter
Robinson was so beloved in Baltimore that his final game with the Orioles drew the largest regular-season crowd up to that date in Memorial Stadium history. Robinson won 16 Gold Gloves and the defensive numbers back up his reputation -- Baseball-Reference rates him as the greatest defensive player ever, ahead of Andruw Jones, Roberto Clemente and Ozzie Smith. But I think he’s pretty clearly the No. 6 guy on this list, despite his syrupy perfection at the hot corner. His bat is just too far behind the other guys. Not that he was an easy out -- he had enough power to hit 20 or more home runs six times and hit .317 in his 1964 MVP season. That was also the only year he slugged better than .500. He didn’t walk much, leaving his on-base percentage nearly 100 points less than Wade Boggs', for example. But he was an amazingly durable player, a great teammate and a key member of some of the greatest teams of all time.
5. WADE BOGGS
"There’s no question that Boggs hits the ball farther and harder than Jim Rice or Dwight Evans or Don Baylor. He has titanic power that he hasn’t shown yet. But he will. He regularly hits the ball onto the roof in Chicago and into the waterfalls in Kansas City. He’ll hit 10 home runs in one round of batting practice. He’d win any home run contest he ever entered."
--Red Sox pitching coach Bill Fischer, 1987
Career: .328/.415/.443, 2440 G, 118 HR, 1014 RBI, 1513 R, 130 OPS+, 89.0 WAR
Best five seasons (1987, ’88, ’86, ’85, ’89): 43.1 WAR
Best 10 consecutive (1982-91): 69.3 WAR
Best 10 hitting seasons: +425 runs above average
Boggs never did hit for power, except for that one season in 1987 -- the rabbit ball season -- when he hit 24. Otherwise, his career high was 11, as he was content to slap doubles off the Green Monster, win batting titles (he won five) and collect his 200 hits per season (he did so seven straight seasons). That Boggs became a Hall of Famer and collected 3,000 hits was pretty remarkable considering his first full season didn’t come until he was 25. His great eye at the plate and high batting averages produced some fantastic peak seasons. From 1983 to 1989 he hit .352 with a .446 on-base percentage, leading the AL in OBP in six of those seven years.
And yet I’m always left wondering if Boggs would have been as good anywhere else. During his Red Sox years from 1982 to1992, he hit .369 at Fenway, .307 on the road. On the one hand, Boggs deserves credit for mastering the unique dimensions of his home park; on the other hand, he never developed the power that so many said he possessed. His high on-base percentages made him an incredibly valuable offensive player and he was underrated with the glove, but would he have had a .328 career average if he'd come in a more conventional park? The best players would be stars in any era or any ballpark, and there is just enough of a question with Boggs that I put him fifth on this list.
4. GEORGE BRETT
"Sometimes I think the catcher can hear me, but I try not to let him. I'll say, 'I'm hot,' or 'I’m really swinging the bat good,' or 'I’m going to hit this pitcher.' But, hey, that's where it ends. It's not like I'm always having conversations with myself. I mean, I don't go back to my hotel room and say, 'What do you want to watch on TV, George? Oh, I don't know. Johnny Carson looks pretty good tonight.'"
Career: .305/.369/.487, 2707 G, 317 HR, 1596 RBI, 1583 R, 135 OPS+, 85.0 WAR
Best five seasons (1980, ’79, ’76, ’85, ’77): 41.9 WAR
Best 10 consecutive: (1976-85): 62.2 WAR
Best 10 hitting seasons: +392 runs above average
Baseball-Reference has a fun tool called the MLB EloRater, in which you’re given two players and rate which one you think was better. It then converts those choices into a ranking of players. As I write this, Brett is rated 20th all time among position players, two spots ahead of Mike Schmidt, and the highest among third basemen. So the fans think Brett is the best ever. I just don’t see it, and I say that as somebody who had a Brett poster on his wall as a kid. (OK, I had a Schmidt poster as well.)
It’s easier to compare these two since they were contemporaries -- in fact, they were chosen with consecutive picks in the 1971 draft, the Royals drafting Brett 29th overall, the Phillies selecting Schmidt 30th. Offensively, Brett hit 38 points higher, despite which Schmidt still posted a better career on-base percentage. Schmidt placed in the top 10 in the NL 11 times in OBP, Brett seven times in the AL. Obviously, Schmidt had more power -- 231 more home runs, led his league eight times. Defensively, Brett turned himself into a good fielder after being a bit error-prone early in his career, but he was also shifted to first base at age 34 and played only 15 games at third over his final seven seasons. Schmidt, meanwhile, was a superb third baseman; he may not have deserved all 10 of his Gold Gloves, but he deserved many of them.
As pretty as Brett’s swing was, as California cool as he was, as clutch as he was in the postseason (.337/.397/.627 in 43 games), I have to rank Schmidt higher.
3. EDDIE MATHEWS
"He does everything well. He hits, he hits with power, he's a good fielder, he has a good arm, he's a fast runner. Maybe he won't lift a team the way a Mays or a Mantle will, but he's still one of the five or six best players in the game. You talk about Mays, Musial, Mantle, Aaron. He's in that group.
--New York Giants vice president Chub Feeney, 1958
Career: .271/.376/.509, 2391 G, 512 HR, 1453 RBI, 1509 R, 143 OPS+, 98.3 WAR
Best five seasons (1953, ’55, ’63, ’60, ’54): 41.3 WAR
Best 10 consecutive (1953-62): 73.2 WAR
Best 10 hitting seasons: +483 runs above average
Mathews was one of the best young players in baseball history, hitting .302 with 47 home runs and 135 RBIs at age 21. He never hit 47 again and hit .300 only two more times, and while active some viewed him as a disappointment ... not exactly fair given the numbers he put up. You can see this in the MVP voting: Mathews finished second in 1953 in that age-21 year and second in 1959, when he hit .306 with 46 home runs, but had only two other top-10 finishes (eighth and 10th). In 1954, he hit .290/.423/.603 with 40 home runs, but finished only 19th in the vote. The next season, he hit .289/.413/.601 and finished 18th. Man, those were some tough voters.
During my Twitter discussion, one reader pointed only to Mathews’ WAR advantage as evidence that he was the second-greatest third baseman. My issue with using just WAR is that it was "easier" to accumulate WAR during Mathews’ time. Here’s what I mean: A 7.0 WAR season is an MVP-type season. Factoring in the number of teams per season, here’s the ratio of "team seasons" for each 7.0-WAR season:
1950-1959: 1 for every 3.3 team seasons (49 7.0 WAR seasons in the decade, out of 160 team seasons)
1960-1969: 1 for every 2.9 team seasons
1970-1979: 1 for every 5.0 team seasons
1980-1989: 1 for every 5.1 team seasons
1990-1999: 1 for every 4.6 team seasons
2000-2009: 1 for every 4.5 team seasons
To me, this means it was more difficult to achieve a 7.0 season in the '70s and '80s than in the '50s or '60s. I would argue this is because the overall caliber of play improved. Fewer "bad" players means it’s harder to excel beyond an average player or replacement player, which is what WAR measures. Now, the other interpretation could be simply that the '50s had more superstar seasons. Anyway, here is the number of 7.0 WAR seasons for the six guys on our list:
2. CHIPPER JONES
"It helps that he has some ridiculous gifts. He was in a visiting clubhouse a while back, reading the crawl on a cable channel from about 30 feet away. A teammate said, 'You can read that?' Jones thought, You can't? He can remember hundreds, maybe thousands of at-bats, what he hit off whom. One night last week, after a game in which he saw two dozen pitches, he could remember in detail all but two or three of them: count, pitch, location, result. He watches game tape like a detective, and if a pitcher tends to slightly open his glove before throwing a curve, Jones knows it."
--Michael Bamberger, Sports Illustrated
Career: .305/.403/.533, 2359 G, 449 HR, 1549 RBI, 1550 R, 142 OPS+, 82.0 WAR
Best five seasons (2007, 1998, ’99, ’08, ’96): 34.9 WAR
Best 10 consecutive (1998-2007): 57.5 WAR
Best 10 hitting seasons: +444 runs above average
Chipper’s game was consistent excellence over a long time. His peak seasons may not quite match those of Brett or Mathews, but he’s never had a bad season. He’s had some injury issues later in his career, but through age 32 he averaged 153 games per season. Brett, meanwhile, battled injuries throughout his career (the turf in Kansas City didn't help); he played 140-plus games nine times, but four of those came after he moved to first base or DH. Considering Chipper’s adjusted OPS is actually greater than Brett’s and Brett moved to first base in his mid-30s, I give Chipper the slight edge.
The call over Mathews is a little tougher. Chipper had the weakest glove of the six, while Mathews was regarded a solid glove. (Baseball-Reference gives Mathews a five-win advantage over Chipper for defense over their careers.) Chipper’s adjusted OPS is actually nearly identical to Mathews’ and right now Baseball-Reference has Mathews as creating 550 runs above an average hitter of his era, Chipper at 549. Yes, Mathews has a good edge in career WAR. I think it’s close, and maybe I’m succumbing to era bias here, but I’m going Chipper by the length of a Louisville Slugger.
1. MIKE SCHMIDT
"I don't think I can get into my deep inner thoughts about hitting. It's like talking about religion."
Career: .267/.380/.527, 2404 G, 548 HR, 1595 RBI, 1506 R, 147 OPS+, 108.3 WAR
Best five seasons (1974, ’77, ’80, ’76, ’82): 45.6 WAR
Best 10 consecutive (1974-83): 81.5 WAR
Best 10 hitting seasons: +449 runs above average
Schmidt was one of the first players to strike out a lot and not really care about it. He struck out 136 times in 132 games as a rookie (when he hit .196). He led the NL in home runs each of the next three seasons, but also led the league each year in strikeouts (138, 180, 149). At a time when batting average was still the primary way to evaluate a hitter, the fact that Schmidt struck out a lot and didn’t hit .300 led, I believe, for him to be somewhat under appreciated early in his career. But if you trust the numbers at Baseball-Reference, he was a superstar from his second season: B-R ranks him as the No. 1 or No. 2 position player in the National League every year between 1974 and 1983, and first again in 1986. I believe Schmidt clearly remains the greatest third baseman of all time.
And what about Alex Rodriguez, you ask? We’ll cross that bridge once he plays more games at third than shortstop.
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.