Season review: third basemen

Traditionally, third basemen are an offensive group. First basemen have usually held down the top spot on the offensive positional rankings, with third basemen just one notch below. Usually. Let’s see how this group performed as a whole this year compared to years past:

En Masse

+------+--------------+------+---------+
| YEAR |THIRD BASEMEN |	OPS  |	WPA/LI |
+------+--------------+------+---------+
| 2004 |           29 | .820 |	1.16   |
| 2005 |           28 | .781 |	0.53   |
| 2006 |           27 | .833 |	1.02   |
| 2007 |           24 | .823 |	1.09   |
| 2008 |           24 | .801 |	0.99   |
+------+--------------+------+---------+

This table has the same basic structure as the one in the catchers article with the “Third Basemen” column header meaning the number of third basemen that qualified. The baseline to qualify is a minimum of 450 plate appearances (for catchers it was 350). OPS is the average OPS and WPA/LI the average WPA/LI.

One could definitely call 2008 a down year for third basemen as a whole, but they did not perform unprecedentedly bad. The 2005 group of third basemen performed the worst, playing only a half-a-win better than the average hitter. 2008 is the only other year in which third basemen were less than a full win better than an average hitter. I wouldn’t make anything of the apparent downhill trend of fewer third basemen reaching 450 plate appearances; that number has just as good a chance to go up as to go down.

The most important thing to realize with these tables is that the numbers are simply a composite of individual “scores”. Take 2004 for example, the year with the best offensive numbers. That was the year Adrian Beltre had his miracle season with a .334 average, 48 home runs, and 121 RBI. All of this came with a 23.3 HR/FB percentage after two years of 13.5 and 10.0 percent and a .328 BABIP after three years of .256, .277, .297.

Still, the Mariners decided to give Beltre a five year, $64 million contract after that season, and of course, both of those indicator stats regressed back to his career norm, resulting in a likewise regression of his counting stats. In 2005 Beltre’s HR/FB percentage was back down to 10.8 percent and his BABIP, .284. The end result was a .255 batting average, 19 home runs, and 87 RBI. Quite the difference.

What I’m demonstrating by this example is how much impact one player can have on these numbers. I’m not a fan of doctoring the numbers and removing certain data samples, as in—if you ignore that start against the Phillies when Barry Zito gave up nine runs in one-third of an inning, his ERA drops to 1.46!— but if you do remove Beltre’s contributions to the 2004 season data, the OPS becomes .813 and the WPA/LI 1.02. All of a sudden, the best year becomes simply an average year because of just one player.

This means that last year’s positional numbers are almost meaningless alone (comparing them to other positions is important, and something we will do after going through all of the positions); you will be much better off forming predicted stats for the upcoming season and averaging those to determine how you will handle positional scarcity. How to handle positional scarcity is a topic in fantasy baseball that draws a lot of different viewpoints, but I’ll share my opinion on the subject and explain how I handle it in drafts in a future article.

Individuals

The Risers

Kevin Youkilis was the 15th third basemen selected in leagues and finished with the

image
Kevin Youkilis: Baseball player or lumberjack? (Icon/SMI)

fourth-best stats. Youkilis, who looks more like a lumberjack than a baseball player, compiled a .312 average, 29 home runs, and 115 RBI in what should be considered his breakout season. Unlike Beltre, whose “breakout” season was a fluke, Youk has the smell of the real deal.

Aubrey Huff, besides making fantasy teams sound sexy, (see this list for more examples) provided great value in all of the six percent of leagues he was drafted. He finished with similar stats to Youkilis with a .304 average, 32 home runs, and 108 RBI. Nothing jumps out indicating Huff’s year was lucky, but at 32 he is not getting any younger. I still like him for next season.

Jorge Cantu, like Huff, made a return this season to fantasy relevance with a .277 batting average, 29 home runs, and 95 RBI. Back in 2005 Cantu had a similar season to this one, but 2006 and 2007 were a very different story. Determining which Cantu will show up in 2009 is difficult, but if Cantu falls far enough in drafts, he could easily find himself onto some of my teams next year.

Melvin Mora was a solid fantasy option at third base for a three-year stretch from 2003-05 when he was 31 to 33 years old. In his 36 year-old campaign, Mora regained his former glory, posting a .285 average with 23 home runs and 104 RBI. Heading into his tenth MLB season, I would not be surprised if Mora’s home run total dropped to around 15, limiting his value.

The Fallers

Surprisingly, despite the drop in OPS for third basemen overall, not many had bad seasons. It was tough to label any as true fallers, but here it goes:

Alex Gordon and Ryan Zimmerman are two players I talked about extensively in this article. As I mention, both had decent seasons but were disappointing based on potential and predictions.

Mike Lowell was a disappointment this season to those who thought the 33 year-old would match the .324 average, 21 home runs, and 120 RBIs he compiled in 2007 this season. I did not, so I was not disappointed when the now 34 year-old Lowell posted a .273 average with 17 home runs and 73 RBI. Those who drafted him in the eleventh round were, though.

Reminder

The comparisons between the positions will come after all of the positions are reviewed individually.

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