Let me start by stating I hate arguing against a player. I much more enjoy arguing for a player. This is especially true when it comes to one of the absolute classiest guys to ever put on a big league uniform. But I mentioned on Twitter that the top three third basemen of all time are Mike Schmidt, Eddie Matthews and Adrian Beltre.
People assumed I forgot a legendary Oriole.
Brooks Robinson is the greatest defensive third baseman in Major League Baseball history. That fact is inarguable. Statistically, he’s probably the most valuable defensive player – non catcher – the game has ever seen.
Does that make him the greatest third baseman of all time?
No! It might not even make him one of the top five third basemen of all time.
Surely, this writer is crazy, you say.
Well, let’s just look at the facts and we’ll start with the first of two questions.
The first is a simple one. Do we define the greatest third baseman by just looking at defense? No. Here’s a valuable thought experiment: Who are the ten greatest first basemen in history? Wait, I thought we were talking about third base? We are, but just follow this exercise. What names popped into your head when asked the best first basemen of all time? Surely Lou Gehrig popped in there. Your probably thought of Albert Pujols and Jimmie Foxx. Maybe Willie McCovey, Eddie Murray and Johnny Mize are on your list.
Did you think of Keith Hernandez? Stop laughing! Of course you didn’t think of Keith Hernandez. But he’s the greatest defensive first baseman. So no, we don’t just look at defense when we talk about the “greatest third baseman.” If we were looking at defense, we’d be asking who “the greatest defensive third baseman” was. We’d be adding that qualifier.
Now, let’s look at the second question. How much should defense play into the equation? Well, it’s half the game.
I’m not so sure if is. I’m not so sure you’re sane. Bare with me here.
The game is played half defensively and half offensively. Some positions take more toll on one aspect of the game. We’re never going to judge the best pitcher arguments by whether or not Randy Johnson had a better OPS than Walter Johnson. And catchers have to heavily rely on defense. We certainly grade center fielders more for their defense than left fielders.
But by how much? Well, consider this question: does a third baseman have more chances to impact the game defensively or offensively?
Statistically, this has an easy answer.
Mike Schmidt had 10,062 plate appearances and 6,949 chances in the field. That’s 1.4 times at bat for every play in the field.*
George Brett had 11,625 plate appearances and 5,307 chances in the field. A 2.1 ratio.
Chipper Jones had 10,614 plate appearances and 4,829 chances in the field. A 2.2 ratio.
Brooks Robinson had 11,782 plate appearances and 9,165 chances in the field. A 1.3 ratio.
Wade Boggs had 10,740 plate appearances and 6,025 chances in the field. A 1.8 ratio.
Every Hall of Fame or Hall of Fame Caliber third baseman had similar ratios. Defensive gems like Robinson, Schmidt, Scott Rolen and Santo were in the 1.3-1.4 ratio, with Robby leading the way.
Again, this doesn’t measure a batter’s defensive prowess, but it shows you how much more, statistically speaking, offense matters.
Now, we know the game isn’t played on a stat sheet. A great defensive third baseman can affect an opponents game plan.Robinson, Schmidt, Rolen and Craig Nettles aren’t going to face as many bunts as Boggs and Mathews are.
But a dominant offensive player affects the game plan of the other team too. The batter’s behind Boggs had the benefit of hitting with a guy who was on base .400 percent of the time. And guys who batted in front of Schmidt and Matthews saw more pitches over the plate because no pitcher wanted to walk the men before those potent bats.
So when you really delve down into the facts, we know for sure that Brooks Robinson is the greatest defensive third baseman in the game. He was also fairly competent with the stick, launching 268 homers and 482 doubles while posting a .322 on-base percentage while playing a great portion of his career in a pitcher dominated era.
But aside from a few seasons, he wasn’t that dominant offensively.
His career high for on-base percentage was .368. That’s lower than the averages for Wade Boggs, Chipper Jones, Mike Schmidt, Dick Allen, Eddie Matthews and George Brett.
He scored 90 runs in a season once. Boggs had seven straight 100-run seasons. Mathews had 10 consecutive 90 run seasons. Ron Santo, whose career was during Robinson’s, did it four times. He also doubled Robinson’s 100-RBI seasons, 4-2. His batting average is 60 points below Boggs’ almost 40 points below Brett’s and Jones’ and 20 points below Beltre’s.
Brooks had one season slugging above .500 (.521 in 1964). Dick Allen, Chipper Jones and Mike Schmidt slugged better than that for their careers.
Some people will argue about Robinson and Schmidt being the best third baseman of all time. But the more you look at the facts, you realize his slightly better than average offense (a 104 OPS+, five season of an OPS+ above 120) hurts him a lot in the Greatest Third Baseman of All Time argument.
I’m not alone in having Robinson outside my top 5. I think he’s probably 8 or 9. I might even go as high as 7.
That’s where Bill James has him in his 2001 “Historical Baseball Abstract.” James has him behind Schmidt, Brett, Mathews, Boggs, Home Run Baker and Rob Santo.
Jay Jaffe’s JAWs rankings has him eighth behind Schmidt, Mathews, Boggs, Brett, Belte, Jones and Santo. JAWs looks at a players WAR for their career and their seven best years and averages them out. It’s a pretty efficient way to look at it.
*of course fielding stats are inherently flawed a bit, Moreno than their offensive counterparts.