By In Stuff

The BBWAA Project: Third Base

Previously on The BBWAA Project:

First Base roundup
Second Base roundup
Shortstop roundup
And now …

Third base
Seven third basemen have been voted in by the BBWAA, five of them on the first ballot (Wade Boggs, George Brett, Paul Molitor, Brooks Robinson, Mike Schmidt).

Median Career: 84 WAR (High: Schmidt 103; Low: Pie Traynor 33.8)

25th percentile career: 72.6 WAR

Median Peak: 51.7 WAR (High: Schmidt 57.2; Low: Traynor 24.4)

25th percentile peak: 41.2 WAR

Here are the BBWAA third basemen as ranked by the fans on Baseball Reference’s EloRater:

No. 17: Mike Schmidt
No. 18: Eddie Mathews
No. 22: Wade Boggs
No. 23: George Brett
No. 38: Paul Molitor
No. 58: Brooks Robinson
No. 215: Pie Traynor

Yowza … those are some SERIOUSLY high standards, you know, except for the Pie Man. It is well know that BBWAA has been ruthlessly tough on third basemen, and to this day Ken Boyer (No. 95), Graig Nettles (No. 114), Buddy Bell (No. 126) Darrell Evans (No. 130) and Joe Torre (No. 131) are not only missing from the Hall of Fame, but none of the group ever even came especially close (Torre and Boyer did stay on the ballot for a long time, but neither ever garnered much momentum). Ron Santo (No. 56) was voted in by the Veterans but he never got 50% of the vote.

Pie Traynor played in the 1920s and 1930s and well into the 1950s and 1960s was widely viewed as the greatest third baseman in baseball history. This probably has more to do with his .320 batting average and genial personality. He played in an era when the gloves were so flimsy, he would rarely backhand the ball, choosing instead to scoop it barehanded. In any case, he’s a weird outlier for the BBWAA, who did not vote in Home Run Baker, Stan Hack or Heinie Groh, who were probably at least as good and also had good names/nicknames.*

*One point worth making about Pie Traynor — in 1928 for Pittsburgh he had FORTY-TWO sacrifice hits. That’s the most for any player since 1925 … though in in 1977 Bert Campaneris had 40.

The Veterans Committee is all over the place. As mentioned, they did finally elect Ron Santo, who was for a long time the best eligible player not in the Hall of Fame. But they also elected Freddie Lindstrom (No. 467) and George Kell (No. 431), two of the lowest value players in the Hall of Fame. The rest are Jimmy Collins (No. 243) and Home Run Baker (No. 105).

This year’s candidate:

Edgar Martinez
Career: 64.4 WAR (minus 19.6 against Median)
Peak: 41.8 WAR (minus 9.9)
Ranking: No. 118.

Edgar wasn’t really a third baseman — he played only 564 of his 2,055 games at third. Still, he played third base way more than he played first base (28 games) and, frankly, we have to put him SOMEWHERE. Plus, I list Paul Molitor as a third baseman, and he played only 790 games at third (against more than 1,000 games at DH). This seems as natural a spot for Edgar as anywhere.

But … putting Edgar here rather than at first base badly hurts his Hall of Fame candidacy. Judged against the BBWAA first basemen, his case looks quite strong. His career value is almost 10 wins above the first base median. His peak is about three wins below the median. The point is, he’s in the ballgame.

Here at third base? He’s nowhere near the median. The third base standard is SO high because of Schmidt and Brett and Boggs and Brooksie and Mathews  that there’s no way Edgar Martinez can compete. He was not nearly as good as any of those players. He hit a baseball about well as any of them, more or less. But he didn’t play the field, couldn’t run, and that hurts his case a lot.

As mentioned, I think Molitor is probably the closest comp. In that comparison, Molitor played for a longer time and played more in the field and could run — so has a higher career value and a key Hall of Fame statistic (3,000 hits). But Edgar had a better peak and was better at hitting baseballs.
I think this is Edgar’s biggest problem as a Hall of Fame candidate. He was a truly incredible hitter — historically great as a hitter. But how do you fit him into the Hall of Fame? Who do you judge him against?

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29 Responses to The BBWAA Project: Third Base

  1. Give the small sample sizes at each position and how wildly inconsistent the BBWAA has been, it’ll be curious to compare candidates against the career and peak medians for the ENTIRE group of BBWAA selections. I bet Edgar would do much better at that point.

  2. Lou Mindar says:

    It’s hard to believe, but 2013 will mark the 40th anniversary of the introduction of the designated hitter to Major League Baseball. The DH is no longer an experiment. It is an entrenched part of baseball that is much more likely to be expanded into the NL than it is to be done away with. We now have data for 40 years’ worth of designated hitters and it’s time that we seriously consider players for the HOF who spent the majority of their playing time at DH. With the possible exception of Frank Thomas, Edgar Martinez is arguably the best DH in the history of baseball. He deserves a place in the HOF.

    • Scott says:

      Kickers have been in the NFL a lot longer than DH’s have been in baseball, and the NFL HoF still treats them like, well, like Baseball’s HoF treats closers.

    • Jeff Bunnell says:

      I agree Lou. I expect the DH to expand to the NL sometime in the next 5 years…
      There is very little separation between the leagues anymore. No NL and AL baseballs, no separate umpires, inter-league play is now season-wide…I think it will be the one thing that Bud will focus on implementing before he retires.

  3. DJM says:

    The possible problem I notice with putting Edgar Martinez here is that WAR is adjusted for position. He loses points for being a DH, significant points (by BR, about minus-15 runs per full season)

    It seems like an adjustment would have to be made for this to be a fair comparison.

  4. Stephen says:

    Well, the BBWAA has been “ruthlessly tough” with 3b, yet elected more post-WWII thirdbasemen than any other infield position. I think the perception of being stingy comes from having elected a total of 7 (ie. only Traynor from the pre-War era).

    And that was largely because 3b pre-Mathews was largely a defensive position much like SS was before Yount/Trammell/Ripken. Yet, you have to figure, if the player was truly a spectacular fielder, he’d be at SS.

  5. Theo says:

    So, really, there are only six BBWAA-elected third basemen in the Hall. Why exactly does the BBWAA have such high standards for third basemen? Are they that high for any other position?

    As a Scott Rolen fan, this worries me about his chances in the future.

    • Stephen says:

      What? Not really, though Rolen will certainly be a question.

      Look, post-WWII, there have been 4 1b, 5 2b, 6 SS & 6 3b (including Molitor).

      Pre-WWII, there were 5 1b, 5 2b, 5 SS and 1 3b.

      The discrepancy is all Pre-War.

      Why? I’m happy to be corrected, but from what I understand, teams emphasized defense in choosing a 3b back then. Yet, one’s truly great fielders would be at short. So a 3b was a gloveman who was not your best gloveman.

      In this 3b at the time were remarkably like a reliever — a good pitcher who can’t do all you’d like a starter to do. Or if you decided a LF didn’t need to hit, but had to field — you’d put a great fielder in left, yet he had to not be great enough to be your CF.

    • Rob Smith says:

      Rolen’s numbers look like Dale Murphy’s without the two MVPs….. compiled during the peak of the steroid era. I think you should be worried about his chances.

  6. rmtaylor12 says:

    I hope the HOF museum has a nice tribute and display to the designated hitter, explaining it’s history and purpose. I hope that tribute has a nice diarama of Edgar Martinez because he’ll never get a plaque in the Hall itself. I believe that (contrary to public opinion) if the designated hitter rule were never adopted Edgar Martinez would have a much greater chance of being a HOFer. I believe that he was such a good hitter that the Mariners (or another club) would have found a place to hide him on the diamond. This would eliminate the main argument against him in the HOF debate. There’s plenty of poor fielders enshrined in Cooperstown, there are none who didn’t play in the field. Of course I might be wrong and teams might have decided that if he could not field he could not play in the majors, in which case I bet he would have hit .400 in Japan more than once.

    • Lou Mindar says:

      It’s important to realize that Edgar Martinez was no slouch at third base. At least according to Fangraph’s TZ rating, he was above average. However, he kept getting hurt playing the field and the Mariners decided it was more important to keep him in the batting order than in the field. I’d say they made a wise choice.

      It seems completely inconsistent for the BBWAA to vote for players despite their defensive woes (i.e., Ted Williams, Willie Stargell, etc), but largely ignore players like Martinez simply because his team chose to play him at DH. Inconsistent logic drives me crazy.

  7. A note on sacrifice hits. From 1926 through 1930, these events were all recorded under the “sacrifice hits” statistical column:

    1) What we now know as sacrifice hits.
    2) What we now know as sacrifice flies.
    3) Fly balls that advanced runner(s) one or more bases without driving in anyone. These used to be considered sacrifice flies, but aren’t now.

    Research indicates that 31 of Traynor’s 42 sacrifice hits in 1928 were fly balls that advanced one or more runners. Presumably, some of these were sacrifice flies in the modern sense, and some were not. The modern record for sac flies in a season is 19, by Gil Hodges in 1954.


  8. Grulg says:

    Boys Pie Traynor can’t catch a break w/ the statborgs. Pay no attention to those 7 100 rbi seasons. Pay no attention to that .320 average. Pay no attention to the MVP vote. Pay no attention to the stolen bases. Pay no attention to his great glove. Just pay attention to his small walk total and pretend Mssrs Groh, Hack and co were better because they had prettier walk totals.

    Complete crap. Traynor’s Job was to: play great D, make contact, drive in Max Carey and the Waner Brothers, steal some bases along the way. He did what what he did at third better than anyone else in the NL pre-Eddie Matthews, and it’s not some goofy illusion cooked up by idiots in the fifties.

    Joe let’s not try the swift boating of Traynor like we see you doing the Jim Rice, Jack Morris and (presumably) Omar Vizquel. Anyone who is so goofy for Dale Murphy seriously has a credibility problem on their hands here. Pie was better than this and deserves better than the usual slag job the borgs pile on top of him yearly. WAHHHHHH he didn’t walk enough. Shaddap.

    • schuyler101 says:

      It turns out we know a little more now than we did before WW2. That’s how life works, time brings added perspective. Every player’s job is to be as good as possible. And it turns out Pie Traynor isn’t quite as good as we thought.

    • Mike says:

      “Pay no attention to the stolen bases. Pay no attention to his great glove.”

      He stole 158 bases for his career with a poor SB%and was a below average defender.

      “Pay no attention to the MVP vote.”

      I already don’t, so this will be easy for me.

    • David in NYC says:

      All of your “ignored” stuff is included in WAR in some form, which is why it is the stat Joe is working with in these columns. It has become the de facto single stat for evaluating a player.

      Nobody here, especially Joe, is saying that you should ignore anything relevant to a player’s evaluation. OTOH, your argument is basically “Who you gonna believe? Me or your lying statistics?”

    • Rob Smith says:

      I think the better way to look at this is that Traynor was the best pre WW2 third baseman. If he wasn’t in the HOF, then there would be exactly zero HOF third basemen voted in for the first 50+ years of baseball. No, he doesn’t measure up to the other guys listed & his election starts to look odd when adding players over the last 60 years. But, it’s still a valid pick when you compare Traynor to his own era and the 20 years before and after his era. I think many are making the same case for players from the 60s and 70s when offense was down and pitching was up. Third baseman such as Craig Nettles and Ken Boyer … and dare I even add Ron Cey …. get lost in translation to Mike Schmidt and Chipper Jones.

  9. Mark Daniel says:

    EloRater has Wade Boggs as the 22nd best position player of all time?

    • Badfinger says:

      Wade Bogs had more than 10,000 plate appearances and got on base in 41.5% of them. He did that playing almost exclusively 3B (2200 games). You can debate if he’s actually exactly 22nd, but yeah.

  10. Number of seasons producing >5.0 bWAR:
    Schmidt – 13
    Mathews – 12
    Brett – 9
    Boggs – 8
    Molitor – 7
    Robinson – 5
    Santo – 7

    Boyer – 7
    Nettles – 6
    Bell – 5
    Torre – 4
    Evans – 2

    Martinez – 8
    C Jones – 8

  11. Unknown says:

    Shouldn’t Nettles get props for the superballs that exploded out of his bat?

  12. gessoart says:

    If we are allowed to factor in a great player’s character when it is particularly negative – ie, Pete Rose, then why are we so slow to recognize a player’s great character as an important factor? Edgar Martinez was admired for his integrity, kindness, willingness to mentor younger players, and to respect and honor his fans. Can’t this count for something, the fact that he was a great human being?

    • Mark says:

      Unfortunately, the character clause seems to work in only one direction, otherwise Dale Murphy would have been a lock. Steve Garvey too, at least before we found out he was father of our country.

  13. Dave Hanson says:

    So many baseball people believe that 3rd is a offensive premium position – I believe there may be yet another evolution coming in the way the position is considered, that is, if that mentality changes toward recognition of defensive value as a premium (in the same way as shortstop, for example). We’re all simply conditioned to demand the same offensive output from third as first base and outfield, but history shows that we’re not getting that except from outstanding offensive players like Schmidt, Boggs, Brett and Chipper Jones.

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