BL, TR (Part 3:  The best left-handed hitting third basemen in major league history)

In Part 1, we introduced the concept of the rarity of right-handed throwers who bat left handed, identifying how rare it’s been over the past half-century for players at the defensive positions that nearly universally demand right-handed throwers (catcher, third base, second base and shortstop) to be left-handed hitters. We’re not talking about switch-hitters (though they’re rare too), but straight, full-on left-handed hitters, batting lefty even against southpaws.

In Part 2 we examined the best of these rare birds at the position of catcher. This time we’ll turn our attention to The Hot Corner.

How rare are they?

As a reminder, here’s what we saw in Part 1, the proportion of major league third baseman plate appearances taken by straight left-handed batters (not switch-hitters) from 1957 through 2006:

image
We see that over these 50 seasons the proportion never has been as high as 30 percent, and usually has been around 20 percent. Though not large, this population has remained rather stable. It did suffer a momentary dip in the mid-to-late 1960s (in 1967, no team in the major leagues deployed a left-handed hitting third baseman in more than 30 games).

The best

I’ve identified every left-handed hitting third baseman with a career of any significance in big league history, and done my best to rank them. My criteria aren’t rigorous, and one can easily take issue with the precision of this or that ranking. The essential issues I’ve considered are total games played (at third base, and overall), total Win Shares, and Win Shares per game, filtered through a mild degree of Time Line Adjustment.

Here are the best of the also-rans:

Honorable mentions

 Rank Third baseman      Years                 G by Pos                     G   WS WS/G
  25  Wayne Gross      1976-1986         3B903, 1B151, OF4, P1            1106  104 .094
  24  Mike Pagliarulo  1984-1995        3B1179, 1B16, SS2, 2B1            1246  102 .082
  23  Ken Oberkfell    1977-1992       3B1046, 2B402, 1B43, SS8           1602  141 .088
  22  Wayne Garrett    1969-1978          3B792, 2B195, SS32              1092  110 .101
  21  Pete Ward        1962-1970     3B562, OF185, 1B113, 2B2, SS1         973  117 .120
  20  Buddy Lewis      1935-1949             3B671, OF619                 1349  179 .133
  19  Hank Thompson    1947-1956       3B655, 2B102, OF102, SS2            933  123 .132
  18  Grady Hatton     1946-1960     3B956, 2B196, 1B14, OF5, SS4         1312  130 .099
  17  Jim Thome        1991-2008             1B1101, 3B492                2160  350 .162
  16  Harry Lord       1907-1915           3B907, OF47, SS1                972  116 .119
  15  Corey Koskie     1998-2006              3B908, OF25                  989  124 .125
  14  Red Rolfe        1931-1942             3B1084, SS64                 1175  162 .138
  13  Deacon White     1871-1890 3B827, C458, OF162, 1B133, 2B34, SS3, P2 1560  190 .122
  12  Richie Hebner    1968-1985       3B1262, 1B415, OF32, 2B2           1908  219 .115
  11  Eric Chavez      1998-2008         3B1225, SS5, OF2, 1B1            1279  169 .132

Third base being “The Crossroads” and all, it isn’t surprising to see so many of these guys playind extensively at positions in addition to third. They fall into two basic categories here: guys primarily in the lineup for their bats, and genuine defensive infielders who for one reason or another spent most of their careers at third.

The most prominent among the former group is of course Jim Thome, whom I debated not including because he’s primarily been a first baseman. But he did play nearly 500 games at third, after all.

The latter group would include Ken Oberkfell, Wayne Garrett, Grady Hatton and Red Rolfe (who was a minor league shortstop blocked at that position with the Yankees by Frank Crosetti).

Then there’s Deacon White, an intriguing character. Yes, it was way back in the Neolithic Era, but even then left-handed hitting third basemen and left-handed hitting catchers were a rarity, and he was both.

Only three guys here could be considered more-or-less “pure” third basemen: Harry Lord and Corey Koskie (who were pretty much the same ballplayer 90 years apart), and Eric Chavez (whose once gleaming career is now a sad injury-wracked rubble).

The 10th-best left-handed hitting third baseman in major league history

John McGraw

Years: 1891-1906
Games: 1,099
Games by position: third base 782, shortstop 183, outfield 60, second base 48, first base 1
Win shares: 207
Win shares/game: .188

Before he became one of the greatest managers in the history of the sport, McGraw was a damn fine player. His playing career was rather short; he started quite young but, dogged by injuries, by the age of 30 was focused on managing full-time. That relative brevity is the only aspect that kept McGraw from making the Hall of Merit or the Hall of Fame as a player, because his talent was tremendous.

McGraw was a little guy with zilch power, but his on-base ability, in hitting for average, in drawing walks and in getting hit by pitches, was world-class. That in combination with his fiercely combative personality must have made him the ultimate “pest” to opponents; he had to have been a blast to watch, at least if he was playing for your team.

The ninth-best left-handed hitting third baseman in major league history

Larry Gardner

Years: 1908-1924
Games: 1,923
Games by position: third base 1,656. second base 181, shortstop 5
Win shares: 258
Win shares/game: .134

Some ballplayers are underrated. This guy doesn’t even rise to that level: he’s invisible.

Can you think of another player with nearly 2,000 major league games and more than 250 Win Shares who’s as anonymous as Larry Gardner? Forget the average fan; I bet nine out of 10 SABR-attending baseball-history-expert geeks can’t tell you two facts about Gardner. Trust me, I’m the geekiest, and I don’t carry any info about him around in my head. He flies utterly under the radar.

Why? I guess it’s for a lot of the reasons anyone’s underrated: his skill set was broad-based, but he didn’t do any single thing brilliantly; his value was at least as much defensive as offensive, yet not at one of the up-the-middle defensive-star positions; he got traded a couple of times, and so isn’t associated with any particular franchise; and he didn’t have a colorful personality or gain a notable image in the press.

But he could really play ball. He wasn’t Hall of Fame-caliber, but a rock-solid Hall of Very Good performer. Following his playing career, Gardner spent more than 20 years as the head baseball coach and athletic director at his alma mater, the University of Vermont.

The eighth-best left-handed hitting third baseman in major league history

Darrell Evans

Years: 1969-1989
Games: 2,687
Games by position: third base 1,442, first base 856, outfield 84, shortstop 22
Win shares: 363
Win shares/game: .135

And then we have this fellow, the Poster Boy for The Underrated.

But that he played a substantial portion of his games at first base, Evans would rank higher on this list. That career total of 363 win shares is whopping.

Just how many win shares is 363? Well, let’s see … how about if we look at it this way …

I’m going to give you a pool of players, and from it you can pick out the all-star team of your choosing. Okay?

All right, for catchers, you get to select from Johnny Bench, Roger Breshahan, Roy Campanella, Gary Carter, Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey, Buck Ewing, Rick Ferrell, Gabby Hartnett, Ernie Lombardi and Ray Schalk. Think that’ll get you off to a good start?

Okay, then, first base: Take your pick from Jake Beckley, Jim Bottomley, Dan Brouthers, Orlando Cepeda, Frank Chance, Hank Greenberg, Johnny Mize, Tony Perez, George Sisler and Bill Terry.

At second base, mull over Bobby Doerr, Johnny Evers, Nellie Fox, Joe Gordon, Billy Herman, Tony Lazzeri, Bill Mazeroski, Bid McPhee, Jackie Robinson, Ryne Sandberg and Red Schoendienst. At shortstop, you have your choice of Luis Aparicio, Dave Bancroft, Ernie Banks, Lou Boudreau, Joe Cronin, Travis Jackson, Hughie Jennings, Rabbit Maranville, Pee Wee Reese, Phil Rizzuto, Joe Sewell, Ozzie Smith, Joe Tinker, Arky Vaughan and Bobby Wallace.

Third base? Pick from among Frank “Home Run” Baker, Jimmy Collins, George Kell, Fred Lindstrom, Brooks Robinson and Pie Traynor.

As for corner outfielders, you’re free to select any of Lou Brock, Kiki Cuyler, Ed Delahanty, Elmer Flick, Goose Goslin, Chick Hafey, Harry Heilmann, Harry Hooper, Willie Keeler, Joe Kelley, Mike “King” Kelly, Ralph Kiner, Chuck Klein, Heinie Manush, Tommy McCarthy, Joe “Ducky” Medwick, Jim O’Rourke, Jim Rice, Sam Rice, Enos “Country” Slaughter, Sam Thompson and Ross Youngs.

In center field, how about Richie Ashburn, Earl Averill, Max Carey, Earle Combs, Larry Doby, Hugh Duffy, Billy Hamilton, Kirby Puckett, Edd Roush, Duke Snider, Lloyd Waner and Hack Wilson.

As far as starting pitching goes, you’ll have to make do with Chief Bender, Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, Jim Bunning, Jack Chesbro, Stan Coveleski, Dizzy Dean, Don Drysdale, Red Faber, Bob Feller, Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, Lefty Gomez, Burleigh Grimes, Jesse “Pop” Haines, Waite Hoyt, Carl Hubbell, Catfish Hunter, Ferguson Jenkins, Addie Joss, Sandy Koufax, Bob Lemon, Ted Lyons, Juan Marichal, Rube Marquard, Joe McGinnity, Hal Newhouser, Jim Palmer, Herb Pennock, Eddie Plank, Eppa Rixey, Robin Roberts, Red Ruffing, Amos Rusie, Nolan Ryan, Don Sutton, Dazzy Vance, Rube Waddell, Ed Walsh, Mickey Welch, Vic Willis and Early Wynn.

But don’t worry: in the bullpen you can choose from Dennis Eckersley, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter and Hoyt Wilhelm.

Think you might be able to piece together a reasonably competitive squad? Think you might almost be able to stock a pretty damn phenomenal league?

I’m thinking you would.

And the two things in common among every one of those ballplayers?

{exp:list_maker}Each is in the Hall of Fame
Each earned fewer career win shares than Darrell Evans {/exp:list_maker}

The seventh-best left-handed hitting third baseman in major league history

Robin Ventura

Years: 1989-2004
Games: 2,079
Games by position: third base 1,887, first base 162, shortstop 1, second base 1, pitcher 1
Win shares: 272
Win shares/game: .131

A six-time Gold Glove winner and a consistently good-but-not-great hitter, Ventura doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame, but he’s comfortably ensconced in the tier just below that quality. He was bigger, stronger and slower than Larry Gardner (who would have been a second baseman in the modern era), but nonetheless in terms of overall career production they’re extremely comparable.

The sixth-best left-handed hitting third baseman in major league history

Stan Hack

Years: 1932-1947
Games: 1,938
Games by position: third base 1,836, first base 47
Win shares: 316
Win shares/game: .163

As good as Gardner and Ventura were, this guy was better. Durable and consistent, Hack didn’t hit home runs, but he delivered excellent results in every other regard. The only argument against his inclusion in the Hall of Fame is one that asserts that the institutions’s roster is far too big already, because Hack isn’t just better than the fringy guys, he is (like Darrell Evans) better than most current members of the Hall of Fame. Like Evans, Hack was elected to the Hall of Merit.

The fifth-best left-handed hitting third baseman in major league history

Frank “Home Run” Baker

Years: 1908-1922
Games: 1,575
Games by position: third base 1,548
Win shares: 301
Win shares/game: .191

This is what we had to say about Baker in the “Crossroads” series:

A fascinating player: not simply great (which he was), but a true anomaly. Baker was a devastating left-handed power hitter, as destructive as any slugger of his day. But though a fast and aggressive baserunner, he wasn’t regarded for especially quick-footed defense; he was generally considered a good but not great fielding third baseman. In all these regards, he’s a dead ringer for Eddie Mathews. He is, in fact, far more similar to Mathews than to any of his contemporaries, and was in general a player decades ahead of his time.

The fourth-best left-handed hitting third baseman in major league history

Graig Nettles

Years: 1967-1988
Games: 2,700
Games by position: third base 2,412. outfield 73, first base 14, shortstop 5
Win shares: 321
Win shares/game: .119

In his New Historical Baseball Abstract (published in 2001), Bill James ranks Nettles as the 13th-best third baseman of all time. Nettles joins six other left-handed hitting third basemen (all of whom we see here) in James’ top 13—that’s right, seven of the top 13 bat lefty. That’s 54 per cent. And left-handed batters grab five of James’s six top third base slots.

Last time we saw that left-handed hitting catchers are disproportionately represented among the all-time greats. Now we see that the phenomenon is even more true at third base … we’ll be examining this issue more closely in upcoming installments.

Nettles played in only 26 major league games at third base before he was 25 years old, yet in all of big league history the only player who would log more innings at The Hot Corner was Brooks.

The argument against Nettles for the Hall of Fame rests entirely upon the fact that his peak-value contribution is a little light by Cooperstown standards, because his career-value case is overwhelming. He passed Hall of Merit muster.

The third-best left-handed hitting third baseman in major league history

George Brett

Years: 1973-1993
Games: 2,707
Games by position: third base 1,692, first base 461, outfield 36, shortstop 14
Win shares: 432
Win shares/game: .160

The second-best left-handed hitting third baseman in major league history

Wade Boggs

Years: 1982-1999
Games: 2,439
Games by position: third base 2,215, first base 67, pitcher 2, outfield 1
Win shares: 394
Win shares/game: .162

There are obviously meaningful differences between Brett and Boggs: Brett was gifted with distinctly superior tools of power and speed, and Boggs was better able to exercise plate discipline and work the count. But their similarities are remarkable: lefty-hitting third basemen with an approach entirely focused on making contact, spraying the ball around, delivering line drives, consciously eschewing the home run-centric modern style of uppercutting and pulling.

Each broke out as a batting average champion quite early in his career, and each would repeat that status multiple times. Each was an extraordinarily hard worker, dedicated to his craft if not obsessed with it. And each chose not only to focus his intense work ethic on his hitting, but also on improving his fielding; while early in their careers neither was regarded as anything more than an average defender, through persistent hard work each improved on that reputation, such that Brett eventually was honored as a Gold Glove third baseman at the age of 32, and Boggs finally attained that achievement, remarkably, in his age-36 and age-37 seasons.

The best left-handed hitting third baseman in major league history

Eddie Mathews

Years: 1952-1968
Games: 2,391
Games by position: third base 2,181, first base 112, outfield 42
Win shares: 450
Win shares/game: .188

The Home Run Baker comment above mentioned Mathews. The similarities between Baker and Mathews go all the way down the line: Both were spectacular performers in their 20s, then good-but-flawed in their 30s, and both were done at 36. So why don’t we return the Baker favor here, and present our Mathews comment from “Crossroads:”

The utter complete package of athletic tools, it’s easy to imagine Mathews spending his career as a right fielder, or even a center fielder. Not exactly a stickler for conditioning (Braves shortstop Johnny Logan joked that he decided how far to play in the hole based on how late Mathews stayed out the night before), he went downhill pretty rapidly in his early 30s. A very great player.

When he retired, Mathews was the best third baseman of all time. That’s no longer the case, of course, since Mike Schmidt came along, and now, depending upon how one decides to categorize him, we have Alex Rodriguez to contend with. But that’s how great you have to be to outdo Mathews.

I don’t know why exactly; perhaps it’s simply that he was overshadowed on the Braves by Warren Spahn and Hank Aaron, but I truly don’t think most fans, even historically inclined fans, properly appreciate just how tremendous Mathews was.

Next installment

The best left-handed hitting second basemen in major league history

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