The Golden Age of Third Basemen?

Third base presents a couple of fascinating issues as it pertains to the Hall of Fame in general and the index specifically. One of the governing principles of the Hall of Fame index is that each player should only be compared to players from their own position group. Third base is the best example of why. Third base is the least represented position in the Hall of Fame and there are some good reasons for that.

For our purposes, the biggest and most important reason is because third basemen have long been compared to first basemen in terms of the expectations for numbers. Third basemen aren’t first basemen. First basemen tend to last longer and in the early history of the game they were closer in style to shortstops or second basemen. You’ll notice that there is only one player in the Hall of Fame that played before World War II and he shouldn’t have been. When the Live Ball Era ended, third basemen began to develop more power until they morphed into what we recognize in the 1960s.

The 1960s-1980s is the other subject of our discussion. In an earlier post we looked at what happens when there are no legitimate Hall of Famers. Now, we look at the opposite problem. What do you do when there are a bunch of solid Hall of Fame candidates. If we consider the Expansion Era as roughly occurring between 1962 and 1990 then you could identify nearly ten good Hall of Fame type of players. This of course includes the likes of Eddie Mathews, Brooks Robinson, Ron Santo, Mike Schmidt, George Brett, and Wade Boggs. They are already in and all are more than qualified. So how many Hall of Famers is too many from the same position and same era?

We have six more Hall of Fame candidates from the same time period. Are any of them deserving? How do we draw the line between who should be in or who should be out? The index can help, but it was never designed to be the final word on the subject. It was designed to help refine the conversation. All debate is fun and reasonable when it is refined. So, let’s take a look.

Career Value 

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Graig Nettles 68.0 65.7 64.2 197.9
Darrell Evans 58.8 61.1 72.6 192.5
Buddy Bell 66.3 61.7 60.2 188.2
Sal Bando 61.5 56.2 56.6 174.3
Ken Boyer 62.8 54.8 55.8 173.4
Ron Cey 53.8 55.6 56.0 165.4

The first test is to look for gaps. Sure, there is a gap between Nettles and Cey, but it isn’t a huge one and we also haven’t looked at peak value yet. In short, the numbers above make all of them look like Hall of Famers. At least they should be in the conversation. The nuts and bolts of the proposition dictate that not all of them can be Hall of Famers. So, there needs to be a place where we have an obvious dividing line. Career value appears to split the group into two groups of three. That is a decent enough place to start.

We look to peak value because peak value adds the depth we need to get an accurate picture of a player. Accomplished painters can add perspective to their paintings to the point where they can appear to be three dimensional. Peak value does that for Hall of Fame candidates. It differentiates the players that were pretty good for 20 years from the ones that may have been really good for 10 to 15 seasons. They call it the Hall of Fame and not the Hall of Stats. We want to reward greatness whenever possible.

Peak Value 

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Sal Bando 56.5 52.3 49.4 158.2
Ken Boyer 56.8 49.8 45.0 151.2
Graig Nettles 54.6 51.9 44.4 150.9
Ron Cey 47.5 49.8 44.2 141.5
Buddy Bell 50.8 44.9 36.8 132.5
Darrell Evans 38.3 39.8 42.6 130.7

Presidential historians often seem unfair in their grading of presidents. A president that did almost everything well could be graded under another that had more significant crises during their tenure. Similarly, a player that happened to be a part of a great team is seen as somehow better than a similar player on a bad team. All of the top three guys played on World Series champions. That’s plural. So, their peaks take on more significance even beyond what they individually accomplished.

Conversely, Bell languished on teams that could charitably be called mediocre and more accurately be called bad. That affected him directly in win shares but also indirectly in both WAR formulas. It really affects him in the eyes of history. Branch Rickey once famously told Ralph Kiner, “I could finish in last with or without you.” Value has a definite mathematical quality, but for much of history it has had a more esoteric definition. What did you do to help your team win? Solo home runs are great, but they don’t mean much when you are on the business end of an 8-2 rout.

Hall of Fame Index 

  Career Peak Total
Graig Nettles 197.9 150.9 348.8
Sal Bando 174.3 158.2 332.5
Ken Boyer 173.4 151.2 324.6
Darrell Evans 192.5 130.7 323.2
Buddy Bell 188.2 132.5 320.7
Ron Cey 165.4 141.5 306.9

We can probably safely say that Graig Nettles is a Hall of Famer going by these results and that Ron Cey is not. That isn’t to say that there isn’t strong evidence to go the other way on both guys. Anytime you score between 300 and 350 you are in what we might call the borderline zone. So, we could go either way on all six of these guys. That presents a huge problem historically when considering the era.

There were 24 teams for the majority of the Expansion Era. Are we to suggest that there were as many as 12 Hall of Fame third baseman that played a majority of their careers during the period? Really? I get that completely. From an appearances standpoint we have to draw the line somewhere and for many of the BBWAA and Veterans Committee they have already drawn that line.

Unfortunately, that ignores some really good players that somehow fell through the cracks. Some of that is natural. Who wouldn’t look human compared to Schmidt, Brett, Boggs, and Mathews? When we look at the offensive and fielding numbers we will see some things that stick out. They may make you think differently about some of these players.

Offensive Numbers 

  OPS+ Rbaser OW% wRC+ wOBA
Ron Cey 121 -15 .614 123 .356
Darrell Evans 119 -6 .621 120 .355
Sal Bando 119 11 .594 121 .346
Ken Boyer 116 13 .615 116 .355
Graig Nettles 110 -3 .551 111 .337
Buddy Bell 109 -17 .533 108 .335

You could throw a towel over these numbers and cover them all up. However, seeing Cey on top even by a small margin is probably a surprise. People have a split memory of him. Those that grew up in the 1980s remember a solid but unspectacular third baseman that played for the Cubs. Older fans remember a really good third baseman that played for the Dodgers. The rest are somewhere between pretty good and above average.

Offense is only part of the picture. Fielding holds the other key and with this grouping presents some numbers that will shock some. Memories fade and perceptions are often misguided. Some of these guys were surprisingly better fielders than we might have remembered. We will include Win Share Gold Gloves in the fielding data because it will serve as a direct comparison with the actual Gold Gloves. Bell won six of those and Boyer won five. The others won two or fewer. So reputations don’t always match up.

Fielding Numbers

Buddy Bell 174 23.8 168 83.3 2
Graig Nettles 140 21.4 136 90.6 7
Ken Boyer 73 10.7 71 64.2 7
Darrell Evans 37 0.2 5 65.6 3
Sal Bando 36 8.5 36 52.0 0
Ron Cey 19 6.6 21 60.2 0

Even win share Gold Gloves are a one-dimensional look at fielding. Coming in second or third still has a great deal of value. So, watching a Buddy Bell finish with just two really doesn’t even tell most of the story. How many great players were in the league at the same time? Nettles may have been better at his very best but how long was he at his peak? These are questions that Gold Glove awards (or single season honors) don’t answer. They do answer the question of how dominant the player may have been.

They can serve as a tie breaker when the vote gets really close. The implication is that Bell was a good player for a long time, but when you consider his offense and fielding in concert he may have never risen to the level of a great player. Naturally, the peak value index numbers indicate the same thing. That’s really what we are looking for here. We are looking for consistencies across various data points. When we find them, we are much more comfortable making a determination one way or another.

Ask anyone whether they would rather win a title or two or if they would rather be good, but not quite the best for five or six years and they would all answer the same way. The same goes with players individually. When a Bando plays well at the same time as a Gene Tenance, Reggie Jackson, and Bert Campaneris then you get three consecutive World Series titles. The same could be said for Boyer and the Cardinals of the 1960s. Right or wrong, these players were afforded the opportunity to contribute more to history and that is why they probably should get the nod (along with Nettles) over the other three. We could compare playoff numbers and if the conversation drags on we probably would, but we will leave it right there for the moment and move on to the next conversation.

Author: sbarzilla

I have written three books about baseball including The Hall of Fame Index. I also write for You can follow me on twitter @sbarzilla.

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