Third Base:  The Crossroads, Part One

Baseball’s Hall of Fame has seen fit to enshrine a total of 195 individuals based primarily on their achievements as major league players (as opposed to Negro Leaguers, managers, executives or umpires). Of these 195, a grand total of 10 played most of their games at the position of third base.

Think about that. Of 195 major league Hall of Famers, only 10 of them (5.1%) are third basemen. And one of these 10, Fred Lindstrom, played just six of his 13 major league seasons as a third baseman (and played 100 games at the position four times). Lindstrom and another of the 10, George Kell, are both widely considered to be among the most questionably qualified members of the Hall of Fame.

The remaining eight are all no-doubter Hall of Fame caliber players:

- Frank Baker
- Wade Boggs
- George Brett
- Jimmy Collins
- Eddie Mathews
- Brooks Robinson
- Mike Schmidt
- Pie Traynor

Schmidt, generally agreed to be the greatest all-around third baseman of all time, is on most people’s lists as a true “inner circle” type all-time great. But he’s the only one here so loftily regarded; all the rest, though considered great, have one chink or another in their armor.

So the long history of major league baseball has produced just 10 Hall of Fame third basemen, only eight of whom are unquestioned in that status, and only one of whom is in the highest echelon of elite players. There’s just no other way to put it: that’s a remarkably meager output compared to any of the other eight positions on the field.

What’s up with this?

There’s no cosmic law that requires standout talent to be distributed perfectly evenly across the diamond. Indeed it might be the case that The God of Randomness keeps rolling His Royal Dice, and third base Hall of Fame talent keeps coming up snake eyes.

But I doubt it. I think there’s more going on here than that. In fact, I think the scarcity of all-time great talent emerging at third base is merely a symptom, an indicator, of a deeper dynamic that speaks not to any lack of talent being deployed there, but rather, due to the fascinating uniqueness of the position itself, perversely reveals the high volume of great talent being deployed there—but usually on a more or less short-term basis.

Third base has traditionally been nicknamed the Hot Corner, and it assuredly does draw its share of wicked line drives. But perhaps a better term to use to think of third base is The Crossroads.

Cue Cream, Performing Robert Johnson

We’re all familiar with the concept of the Defensive Spectrum. I don’t know if Bill James was the first to articulate it, though he was certainly the first to popularize it back in the early 1980s. At any rate, it’s a concept that’s been intuitively understood at some level since the very beginning of baseball time. It’s the recognition that all defensive positions aren’t equally difficult to play, and that their relative difficulty can be arranged in a spectrum, from easiest to toughest, in this order (leaving out pitcher and catcher, which are so highly specialized as to not really be comparable):

1B LF RF 3B CF 2B SS

That one you see smack dab in the middle there is third base. Occupying that precise middle ground on the spectrum, third base is simultaneously easier to play than half of the positions and harder to play than the other half. This makes third base a position that one half of the roster can aspire to as the highest challenge of their skills, as well as a position that the other half of the roster can relax toward as their skills erode due to age or injury. To be played well, third base demands the strong arm and quick reflexes of more difficult positions, but third base can also be played passably by the slow-footed players generally found in the easier positions.

All of this means that at some point in their careers (maybe early, maybe late, maybe right in the middle), a very high proportion of players are likely to spend at least some time playing third base. This high degree of potential traffic passing through third base—its Crossroads status—has the consequence of causing many teams to plan for third as a transitional position, to leverage its capacity to maximize roster flexibility. It often makes sense for teams to not concern themselves with finding and settling on a long-term answer at third base, thus reducing the opportunity for players to pursue full careers as third base specialists, a dynamic very different from that found at shortstop, second base or center field.

Third base is The Crossroads, both within players’ careers and within teams’ tactical and strategic roster management. It lends itself to so many different purposes and it can be handled (though rarely mastered) by so many different types of athletes, that there are fewer opportunities for outstanding third basemen to emerge than at other positions.

The Developing Spectrum

The placement of third base in the exact center of the defensive spectrum is a function of modern baseball, or more precisely, a function of the way baseball has been played since roughly the 1920s. In this form of baseball, the third baseman:

- Handles the ball less frequently than either the shortstop or second baseman
- Rarely handles more than one or two bunts per game, and very often none at all
- Is more valued for handling hard smashes than slow dribblers

Thus, the modern third baseman doesn’t have to have the hands or the agility of a middle infielder. It is rather important that he have a strong arm, because he’s expected to handle grounders deep behind the bag that require him to make long accurate throws.

It wasn’t always this way. As the game developed in the 19th century, it went through various more or less experimental phases of rules, tactics, and styles of play. By the 1890s, it had taken a form we would find quite recognizable today, especially with the establishment of the 60’6” pitching distance in 1893 and with gloves becoming commonplace and less rudimentary. But one aspect of 1890s baseball is something we wouldn’t find familiar: that was the decade in which the bunt was fully mastered as a technique and its uses as a tactic fully discovered and explored. Bunting became a very regularly deployed maneuver, occurring not just several times per game but sometimes several times per inning, as a means of getting on base as well as moving runners along.

Bunters were taking advantage of infielders not accustomed to the play and unskilled in responding to it. In particular, a third baseman without speed and agility, comfortable with hanging back and handling grounders and force outs at the bag, but not adept at sweeping in and nimbly handling bunts, was a vulnerable target.

Infields were forced to master new drills of rotation and base coverage, which we may take for granted today but were novel at the time. And teams were also forced to find athletes to play third base who exhibited the kind of quickness that had previously only been required of shortstops. (First basemen were similarly challenged to be able to move nimbly in reaction to bunts, and a new breed of quick-footed first baseman also emerged.)

One particular third base star emerged at this point, the first superstar third baseman (and to this day one of the Big Eight): Jimmy Collins. Arriving in the majors in 1895, Collins was of more or less average size for the period (5’9”, 178), and his stolen base and triples numbers don’t suggest that he was especially fast, but he was a good hitter with excellent power (frequently among the league leaders in homers, doubles and slugging). But his quick-footed fielding was what wowed everyone, especially the way he neutralized the bunt. Here are what two contemporaries had to say about Collins, as quoted in The New Bill James Baseball Abstract (p. 555):

[Collins] completely revolutionized third base play. Actually, he was the first modern third baseman, developing the technique of coming in for bunts and playing an alert mobile game at third instead of the accustomed style of the third baseman of the nineties of laying back and not “moving off a dime.” – Ed Barrow

… Collins was particularly adept at going in for bunts. The art of bunting had just come into being when Collins began playing third base and he was one of the first to solve this style of play. – John McGraw

Collins was a rare and true third base specialist, playing third in 1,683 of his 1,725 big-league games. Certainly, few others could be expected to be as remarkably capable as Collins, but his impact was enormous. He became the model for the major league third baseman—not so much for his batting ability, but rather for his fielding skill. Third basemen who could charge in and handle bunts in Collins’s manner became the object of every team’s desire; through the extreme “dead ball” era of the 1900s and the continuing very low-scoring environment of the 1910s, the bunt remained a constantly deployed offensive weapon. (A major league batter has been credited with 35 or more sacrifice hits in a season 101 times, and 89 of those occurred between 1902 and 1925.)

Thus third base was seen as a defense-first position in the opening decades of the 20th century. If a third baseman could hit, that was great, but the primary qualification for the job was his ability to handle the defensive challenge. The model of the third baseman as lithe and quick, with his bat as a secondary consideration, was much closer to what’s typically expected of a second baseman today.

And the role of the second baseman itself was different then too. Given the rampant bunting and stealing, opportunities for infield double plays were far less frequent than today (and the inferior gloves made turning double plays very challenging anyway). Thus the ability of an infield to reliably turn double plays wasn’t the priority it’s since become. Thus the capacity of the key infielder in most double plays—the second baseman—to manage the pivot wasn’t the priority it’s since become.

If a second baseman isn’t called upon to handle many double plays, his throwing ability isn’t particularly challenged. Thus all that was required to play second base was decent range (and good hands weren’t even all that critical, since a second baseman can knock a grounder down and still have time to throw the batter out). Thus second base emerged as a position not especially focused on fielding skill—it became, not to the degree that third base is today, but certainly far more than second base is today, an offense-first position.

This, in combination with the much greater challenges than today for first basemen, both in handling bunts as well as receiving throws with the era’s inferior glove, meant that the defensive spectrum of about 1900 through 1920 was probably something like this:

LF 1B RF 2B 3B CF SS

Thus many highly valued third basemen of the era were, by modern standards, extreme good-field, no-hit types. (This was true at first base as well.) It was also the case that several of the most prominent star second basemen—Napoleon Lajoie, Larry Doyle and Del Pratt come to mind—were strong hitters, and whatever their defensive skill, were relied upon as RBI men, middle-of-the-order guys.

The Big Shift

Everything changed after 1920, of course. The new style of play ushered in by the live ball and the banishment of ball doctoring completely altered the wisdom of offensive tactics. It took managers several years to adapt (though not as long as one might have expected), but when they did, the incidence of bunting and stealing sharply declined. Thus the balance of skills demanded of third basemen, second basemen and first basemen were realigned. They assumed their modern shape, and the wisdom of the modern defensive spectrum was gradually recognized.

It’s interesting how gradual that recognition was; it was far slower than the pace at which teams adapted their offensive approaches. It took many years for the profile of the typical major league third baseman to significantly change. We’ll explore this next time.

Those Passing Through The Crossroads

Next time we’ll categorize and profile all of the star third basemen in the majors since 1910 or so. Following that, we’ll explore the careers of many stars who only played a bit of third, or who plausibly might have been major league third basemen.

Among the various categories we’ll populate:

Third Basemen: Great Glove, Good Bat
Third Basemen: Great Bat, Good Glove
Third Basemen: Great Bat, Great Glove
Third Base to First Base Conversions
Third Base to Outfield Conversions
Outfield to Third Base Conversions
Catcher to Third Base Conversions
Outfielders Who Might Have Been Third Basemen
First Basemen Who Might Have Been Third Basemen
Second Basemen Who Might Have Been Third Basemen
Shortstops Who Might Have Been Third Basemen

The traffic at The Crossroads is always heavy. Hopefully we’ll make some headway in understanding it.

References & Resources
Honest, it was pure coincidence, but Dan Fox presented a fascinating piece on the issue of third basemen a couple of weeks ago, right here:

http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/the-distinctive-chone-figgins/

Also, one of the best discussions ever presented on the changing nature of the relationship between third base and second base may be found in “Why Did the Defensive Spectrum Jump?,” by Bill James with Jim Henzler, Win Shares (Stats Inc. Publishing, Morton Grove, Illinois, 2002), pages 182-184.

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