Third Base:  The Crossroads, Part Three

Last time, we looked at the most prominent major leaguers who played all or mostly at third base. This time, we’ll peruse the very long list of highly talented players who, for one reason or another, wisely or foolishly, were allowed to spend only part of their careers passing through The Crossroads.

Third Base to First Base Conversions

Harmon Killebrew (35.3% of his major league defensive appearances were as a third baseman, between 1954 and 1975). Very thick-bodied, very strong and very slow, Killebrew was pretty much unsuited for any position except the batter’s box; he didn’t throw well enough to be a catcher—a scout who passed on signing him said “he throws like a girl.” To be fair, Killebrew was sure-handed. He was signed as a second baseman (suggesting he might not yet have been quite so thick-bodied in high school) but immediately moved to third. He established himself there in his first full big-league season, but was shifted to first base the very next year—damage control, one might say.

But Killebrew wasn’t a terrible third baseman; he was acceptable enough there to be moved back to third in two separate periods (1965-66 and 1969-71) when the needs of his team dictated it, and he was still there for 64 games at the age of 35.

Dick Allen (37.9%, 1963-77). Like Killebrew, built like a mailbox, but in Allen’s case, only from the waist up; Allen’s legs were actually rather slender, and for someone of his immense strength, he was remarkably light on his feet. He originally played shortstop and then second base in the minors before being shifted to the outfield; he never handled a professional chance at third base until his major league Rookie of the Year season.

He might have developed into a decent third baseman, but being Allen, he expended ever-diminishing effort toward doing so, and finally the Phillies just gave up on playing him there altogether. Both the Cardinals (see Joe Torre below) and Dodgers gave him serious shots at third in 1970 and 1971, but he fielded dreadfully both times, and was just a first baseman from then on.

Tony Perez (29.8%, 1964-86). Never graceful, but long-limbed and reasonably agile, Perez was signed as a second baseman, and he played mostly third in the minors and majors through age 29. Then the Lee May-for-Joe Morgan trade opened up first base, and Perez never played another inning at third, but he hadn’t been a terrible fielder there.

Jim Thome (31.0%, 1991-2005). To look at the huge, slow Thome, one might expect he would have been a horrible third baseman, but he wasn’t too bad. It was always obvious that he’d wind up at first eventually, but the Indians were able to extract several useful seasons out of Thome at third base. A hitter that great would have to be a far worse fielder than Thome to not provide enormous value as a third baseman.

Third Base to Outfield Conversions

Tommy Leach (45.2%, 1898-1918). A curious player. Even by the norms of his day, Leach was a little guy (5’6½”, 150). He was a third baseman from his first minor league appearance in 1896 through his major league career to 1904, but then, at age 27, he began to be deployed in the outfield, and from 1909 (age 31) onward, he was pretty much exclusively an outfielder. I don’t know why. Offensively, he didn’t steal many bases and was a low-average, high-power hitter.

Freddie Lindstrom (58.2%, 1924-36). A good player, but if you can identify a lesser-qualified Hall of Fame member, I’m all ears. Lindstrom was a good-hitting young third baseman who was suddenly moved to the outfield at age 25 (a fate, as I recall Bill James once wryly noting, that somehow never befell Pie Traynor, Brooks Robinson or Graig Nettles). Lindstrom then suffered repeated injuries and was completely finished at age 30.

Ben Chapman (5.7%, 1930-46). On the rare occasions Chapman’s name is raised today, it’s almost always in connection to his ugly race-baiting confrontations with Jackie Robinson that took place during Chapman’s otherwise forgettable stint as manager of the Philadelphia Phillies. His managerial behavior created a legacy for Chapman as a boorish lout and has largely obscured his long and quite outstanding career as a player.

Chapman could hit and he could field, and he had tremendous speed: his total of 61 stolen bases in 1931 was unsurpassed by any major leaguer between 1920 and 1962. And as a 21-year-old rookie in 1930, he was the Yankees’ primary third baseman, while also playing quite a bit of second base. But he made a lot of errors at both third and second, and the Yankees acquired Joe Sewell to play third base for 1931, and Chapman was moved to the outfield.

Buddy Lewis (52.0%, 1935-49). Tall and slim, Lewis was a major league regular third baseman at age 19, and he soon developed into a star. His sudden conversion to right field at age 23 was of questionable wisdom (and involved Cecil Travis, see next time). The effects of World War II pretty thoroughly spoiled his baseball career. (A great anecdote about Lewis in the war can be found in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, page 564.)

Hector Lopez (35.0%, 1955-66). A base-stealing, singles-hitting shortstop in the minor leagues, Lopez filled out and began hitting for power once he reached the majors, while playing mostly third and some second base. Upon being acquired by the Yankees, he was deployed as a platoon outfielder; under many other circumstances, Lopez would have played out his career as primarily a third baseman.

Don Buford (27.4%, 1963-72). Short (5’8”), stocky and extremely fast, Buford was an outfielder converted to third base at the minor league level. Then as a major league rookie with the White Sox, Buford was given the tall order of converting to second base and replacing fielding legend Nellie Fox. Buford understandably struggled in that role and was playing mostly third base again after a couple of years. Acquired by the Orioles, he found his way back to left field and thrived as an elite leadoff hitter through age 34.

Larry Parrish (69.6%, 1974-88). Big and strong (6’3”, 215), a so-so defensive third baseman who always seemed on the verge of breaking out as a slugging star. The Expos finally got tired of waiting and traded Parrish to Texas at the very end of spring training in 1982. The Rangers had Buddy Bell at third base and shifted Parrish to right field with zero preparation: new team, new league, new position, Opening Day, GO! To his credit, Parrish handled the transition well enough, though his range in the outfield was nonexistent.

Third Base to Designated Hitter Conversions

Paul Molitor (52.9%, 1978-98). Molitor’s route was by way of shortstop, then second base and then (briefly) center field, but he had arrived at The Crossroads by the age of 25, and he mostly stayed there through the age of 32. He played almost 400 more games at third than at any other defensive position, and while Molitor’s play there dazzled no one, he was reasonably sure-handed, and he had a decent arm. It was the long final phase of his career as a near-full-time DH that allowed him to rack up the career batting stats that placed him in the Hall of Fame. Without that, he was a very good but not great player, and he would have been yet another on the long list of third basemen not quite good enough for Cooperstown.

Edgar Martinez (95.3%, 1987-2004). The major argument against Edgar’s Hall of Fame case is that the 95.3% represents only 563 games. The story seems to be that Martinez wasn’t really a poor defensive third baseman so much as he just kept getting hurt while playing in the field, and of course his bat was just so monumentally valuable that DH was the obvious solution. He may very well make it to Cooperstown anyway, but with just a few more years as a third baseman he’d be an easy slam-dunk.

Outfield to Third Base Conversions

Pepper Martin (41.2%, 1928-44). A short guy (5’8”) with great speed, Martin played second base and shortstop in the minors before being moved to the outfield. He’d been an outfielder for several years before being converted to third base in his age-29 season. He eventually moved back to the outfield, but he played at least occasionally at third through age 36.

Mel Ott (9.9%, 1926-47). John McGraw toyed with the teenaged Ott at second base and third before settling on right field for him. Under Bill Terry, Ott filled in a bit at third in 1935 and then took over as the Giants’ regular third baseman in late 1937 and most of ‘38. Ott continued to play third on a more-than-occasional basis in 1939-40.

Master Melvin makes for a very intriguing case. A little guy (5’9”, 170) who clearly had the agility and arm to have been an infielder, there’s every reason to believe that Ott, if focused there from the beginning, might have become an all-time, inner-circle great third baseman.

Bob Elliott (71.6%, 1939-53). Medium-sized (6’0”, 185), never played anywhere other than the outfield in his first six professional seasons. Then in 1942 (at age 25), in his third year as a major league regular, Elliott was converted to third base, and for the next decade he performed at a level matched by very few power-hitting third basemen. An overlooked guy who should be a prominent member of everyone’s Hall of Very Good.

Sid Gordon (32.3%, 1941-55). Mostly a third baseman in the minors, Gordon was primarily an outfielder in the majors through age 29. Then at age 30, the Giants moved the muscular (5’10”, 185) Gordon back to third base, and he simultaneously emerged as one of the game’s better power hitters, a status he maintained for five years.

Andy Pafko (11.9%, 1943-59). Bigger (6’0”, 190) than Ott, but with an oddly similar story: a star outfielder (who, like Ott, hit lots of homers but rarely struck out) suddenly converted into a full-time third baseman in his late 20s and then moved back to the outfield. Had Pafko been a long-term third baseman, the kind of offense he produced would make him a serious Hall of Fame candidate.

Wally Westlake (3.9%, 1947-56). A very good defensive outfielder and a consistent home run producer, Westlake was suddenly moved to third base by the Pirates in his age-30 season. He responded by hitting better than he ever had (16 homers in 50 games) but then was traded to the Cardinals in June. He never played another inning at third and never hit as well again either.

Bobby Thomson (10.8%, 1946-60). The 1940s/50s was the period in which the idea of third base as a power position really took hold, and as a consequence lots of power-hitting outfielders were shifted to third. The Giants, in particular, seemed to try all of their outfielders at third at some point. Thomson was moved from the outfield to third in mid-1951 (and was playing at the Hot Corner on that fateful afternoon in October), but then in mid-1952 he was moved back to the outfield … and replaced at third by Hank Thompson, who had moved from third to the outfield after Thomson was moved from the outfield to third … are you getting this?

Maybe Leo Durocher just got confused over which guy was which.

Frank Thomas (23.0%, 1951-66). This Thomas wasn’t nicknamed “The Big Hurt,” but he could have been: he was a tall, strong (6’3”, 205) power guy, whose home run totals were significantly dampened by Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field. (The “Kiner Korner” short fence in left field was removed following the 1953 season; with the Pirates in 1954-58, Thomas hit 42 homers at home, and 89 on the road.) Initially moved to third base in his age-27 season, Thomas never played the position well, but he handled it capably enough to be used there in 394 games over nine different seasons. He played third in 139 games in 1958 and finished fourth in the NL MVP vote.

Al Smith (25.1%, 1953-64). “Fuzzy” was moved from the outfield to third on two separate occasions with two separate teams: by the Indians, to replace the retired Al Rosen in 1957, and by the White Sox, to replace the traded Gene Freese in 1961.

Bill Tuttle (6.7%, 1952-63). A truly odd case. A good defensive center fielder with a so-so bat, Tuttle was 31 years old when he … well, let’s let the boys in The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book tell it:

… was forced in 1961 to undergo the ultimate in baseball indignities—being sold by the ninth-place Kansas City Athletics to the seventh-place Minnesota Twins, who promptly tried to turn him into a third baseman. This is a little like being expelled from the Bowery for slovenliness and then deported to Denmark for a sex change operation.

Don Demeter (14.0%, 1956-67). A long, tall drink of water (6’4”, 190), Demeter was a good defensive outfielder. In 1962, the Phillies found themselves with a surplus in the outfield and a hole at third base, and they responded by shifting the 27-year-old Demeter to third. He responded with the best season of his career. But the next season, Demeter was back mostly in the outfield.

Mike Shannon (56.9%, 1962-70). Most of these outfield-to-third guys were robust hitters who were shifted as a means of squeezing another big bat into the lineup. Shannon, on the other hand, swung a middling bat but was an excellent defensive right fielder with a cannon arm. The Cardinals made the bold move of trading their regular third baseman (Charley Smith) for a right fielder (Roger Maris), fully committing themselves to a transfer of Shannon to third (which we examined here). “Moonman,” who in nine years of pro ball had never played anywhere in the infield, quickly became a good third baseman, and the Cards won back-to-back pennants. Subsequently, a serious kidney ailment prematurely ended Shannon’s playing career, creating an opportunity for Joe Torre (see below).

Keith Moreland (19.5%, 1978-89). A thick-bodied guy who was converted from third base to catcher in the minors. Arrived in the majors as a catcher, then was moved to the outfield, where he played as an unexciting regular for several years. Then, at age 33, the Cubs made him their full-time regular third baseman. That arrangement lasted just one year, but it’s worth considering whether Moreland—who was never quite a star—might have been a star if he’d been allowed to just dedicate himself to third base.

Pedro Guerrero (38.9%, 1978-92). Guerrero was a barrel-chested fellow who moved with an easy grace, and the Dodgers tinkered with him all over the place in his first few years, mostly in right and center field. Then in his age-27 season, they committed to Guerrero as their full-time third baseman. His fielding there was, well, terrible, and the Dodgers were eventually forced to give up on the idea, though Guerrero hit a flipping ton wherever he played. He was, quite simply, as great a pure hitter as anyone who has ever played third base.

Shortstop-to-Third-Base-to-Outfield Conversions

Kevin Mitchell (21.8%, 1984-98). Hard as it may be to believe for those who only saw him later, Mitchell was deployed at shortstop in 24 games as a rookie with the 108-game-winning World Series champ Mets of 1986. By the next year Mitchell was playing primarily third (where, to be honest, he had mostly played in the minors), and he wasn’t a bad defensive third baseman: Mitchell had limited range, but he was quick, with decent hands and an excellent arm. But like Gary Sheffield (see below), Mitchell was such a special young hitter (and such a difficult fellow to motivate) that it made sense to forego the chance of him developing into a complete player and just let him go to the outfield, relax, and be a slugger.

Gary Sheffield (22.3%, 1988-2005). The abundantly talented Sheffield arrived in the majors as a teenaged shortstop. His range there was limited, so he was soon moved to third base. Disciplinary/attitude issues aside, while Sheffield’s defensive performance at third base through age 24 had more downs than ups, he had at least the potential to develop into a fine fielding third baseman; he certainly had the physical tools.

But whatever his defensive potential, Sheffield’s offensive capacity was obviously stupendous, and the Marlins’ decision to send Sheffield to right field (and let him focus on his hitting) was entirely rational.

Chipper Jones (74.5%, 1993-2005). Chipper is much taller than Sheffield, and he’s a switch-hitter with a smooth, easy stroke rather than a righty with an indescribably violent swing, but his skill profile and Sheffield’s are remarkably alike. Their career progressions have some similarity as well: ballyhooed shortstop prospect moved to third at a young age, eventually winding up in the outfield. But Jones played third for many years (and reasonably well), and he has returned there after a relatively brief sojourn in left field.

Sheffield has aged remarkably well through his mid-30s, and he thus appears likely to make it to Cooperstown. Whether Chipper, burdened by injuries at ages 32 and 33, will be able to follow suit is a good question.

Third-Base-to-Shortstop-to-Outfield Conversion

Hubie Brooks (34.7%, 1980-94). And then there’s this unique case. A big fellow (6’0”, 200) who sure looked like a third baseman, Brooks spent a few years playing third but hitting like a skinny little shortstop. So finally the Expos figured, the heck with this, if he’s going to hit like a shortstop he might as well play there, and so they moved Hubie to short, where he didn’t field particularly well but started to hit like a third baseman. Thoroughly flummoxed, the Expos couldn’t think of anything else to do next but shift Brooks to right field.

Catcher to Third Base Conversions

Rudy York (2.6%, 1934-48). Just how bad a defensive player was Rudy York, you ask?

- So bad as a catcher that despite hitting .307 with 35 homers in 375 at-bats (151 OPS+) as a 23-year-old rookie, the Tigers decided to shift him from catcher (where their best alternative was Birdie Tebbetts, with a 31 OPS+) to third base, where Marv Owen had held the regular job for five years.

- So bad as a third baseman that the Tigers gave up forever on the York-at-third-base attempt after 41 games and the following season put York back behind the plate, while third base was given over to Don Ross (57 OPS+) and Mark Christman (49 OPS+).

- So bad as an outfielder that in his 14-game trial in left field that season, York compiled a fielding percentage of .815 (the league average was .972).

- So bad overall that by the following year, despite compiling in his age-23, age-24 and age-25 seasons a batting average of .303 with 41 homers and 141 RBI per 550 at-bats, York was reduced to the status of backup catcher.

- So bad overall that the year after that, the Tigers moved their franchise superstar slugger Hank Greenberg—notorious for poor fielding—from first base to left field (where he was atrocious, but considered vastly superior to York) in order to get York into the lineup at first base.

And the interesting thing about that is that York doesn’t appear to have turned out to be a bad defensive first baseman.

Hal Smith (15.9%, 1955-64). Never a star, but an interesting guy in this regard. Smith was a good-hitting, not-so-good-fielding catcher who, for some reason, the Kansas City Athletics decided to deploy mostly at third base in his age-27 and age-28 seasons. This despite the fact that the A’s had no better alternatives at catcher (Frank House? Harry Chiti?) and an abundance of guys who could hit as well as Smith and play third base (Hector Lopez, Preston Ward, Dick Williams). This was just one of many demonstrations of inscrutable wisdom by the Athletics in that period.

Joe Torre (23.3%, 1960-77). Many young fans today may be only dimly aware that Torre was ever a player, yet his playing career was of borderline Hall of Fame quality. It was a long career, with two distinct halves. In the first, Torre was a rotund catcher (not bad defensively) whose bat was so great that the Braves played him at first base on his days off. He wasn’t quite Mike Piazza, but Torre was a truly comparable player.

Then in the 1969-70 offseason, Torre, now with St. Louis, undertook a dramatic weight loss program (he’s kept the weight off to this day), and the slim-hipped mode stimulated new life in his bat. Simultaneously, the 1970 illness of Mike Shannon (see above) created a hole at third base in the Cardinal lineup. Dick Allen (see above) failed to fill it, and in mid-season the Cards turned to the 29-year-old Torre, who had never played third before. He rose to the challenge marvelously, and the following year, playing third base full-time, Torre produced a spectacular MVP season. He was never again able to match that level of play, but he remained a good-hitting corner infielder for several years.

Johnny Bench (8.9%, 1967-83). The innate athletic qualities that helped Bench to be such a brilliant defensive catcher—in particular, the huge, soft hands and the howitzer arm—might well have helped him instead to have been a brilliant defensive third baseman. Like the young Joe Torre, Bench’s bat was so great that his team strove to find a way to keep him in the lineup even on his days off from behind the plate; throughout his career, Bench played more than a little corner outfield, first base, and third.

But when in 1982, at age 34, his days as a regular catcher behind him, the Reds decided to make Bench a regular third baseman, it was an idea whose moment had passed. The thousands of innings behind the plate had taken too great a toll. I recall reading a quote from a scout: “John used to be big and quick. Now he’s just big.” Bench spent two humiliating seasons playing a very bad third base, and one of the all-time great careers went out on a very sad note.

B. J. Surhoff (14.5%, 1987-2005). A contact-oriented line-drive hitter, Surhoff’s first six major league seasons were as a regular catcher, though an unusually quick-footed one, and throughout that time, he was also filling in occasionally at third base. Then he was moved to third more or less full-time for a few years, before finally becoming a bulked-up, slowed-down outfielder with a semi-powerful bat.

Todd Zeile (71.4%, 1989-2004). The Cardinals’ decision to shift Zeile to third base at the age of 25 is highly questionable. He had just established himself in his rookie year as one of the best young catchers in the game: sound defensively and with a solid bat. It wasn’t as though they had better alternatives behind the plate. (Tom Pagnozzi? Please.) Zeile went on to have a fine, long career as a good-but-not-great third baseman, but he might have been something special as a catcher. I never saw the logic of it.

Phil Nevin (47.6%, 1995-2005). Nevin was not only a catcher who successfully made the transition to third base and emerged as a minor star, but he had previously been a failed third baseman who made the transition to catcher in order to salvage what would certainly have been a defunct career. Not a great player, but a study in adaptability, perseverance and hard work.

Brandon Inge (40.2%, 2001-05). Well-regarded defensively behind the plate, but a complete disaster with the bat. Once moved to third base, Inge’s hitting has improved dramatically—all the way up to “okay.” Unless he proves to be a defensive whiz at third, there’s little reason for Inge to continue as a regular.

Entirely-Unique-and-Historically-Notable Third Base Conversions

Pete Rose (18.0%, 1963-86). Rose came to the majors as a second baseman, and though he was anything but smooth and slick, he was a pretty good fielder. But it was his bat that was making him a star, and by mid-1967 the Reds (with Tommy Helms on hand) decided that it made sense to get Rose into the outfield before he got hurt playing second.

Though he wasn’t especially fast, and didn’t have a strong arm, through sheer effort Rose made himself into a superior defensive outfielder. He won back-to-back Gold Gloves in 1969 and 1970, beating out the likes of Tommie Agee, Willie Davis, and Bobby Bonds.

But in 1975, the Reds had developed a major hole at third base, and the development of George Foster was creating a surplus in their outfield. The 34-year-old Rose, a former MVP and a hugely paid megastar, eagerly accepted manager Sparky Anderson’s request to convert to third in mid-season. He handled the third base defensive challenge more than adequately, and was an All-Star at the position four years straight.

Alex Rodriguez (19.9%, 1994-2005). Honus Wagner is universally regarded as the greatest shortstop of all time—and therefore, necessarily, one of the greatest (top three? certainly no less than top six or eight) players ever to play the game of baseball. But A-Rod, through his early and mid-20s, was universally regarded as being on a trajectory that might allow him to at least threaten Wagner’s towering status. How positively weird, then, that at age 28 and at the peak of health, Rodriguez should be shifted to third base.

That A-Rod has proven to be a princely fielder at third is no surprise. However, it remains the case that the Yankees’ decision to deploy him at third while keeping Derek Jeter at shortstop was asinine.

I can’t prove it, of course, but I strongly believe that the totality of evidence indicates that Jeter’s defensive performance over the years hasn’t been nearly as bad as his detractors say; it might even be the case that overall Jeter has actually been a pretty good fielding shortstop. But still: he’s pretty good at best, and possibly pretty bad, and in either case his one weakness that no one disputes is range on ground balls. Range!

You’ve got two long-time shortstops on your roster. One is 28, is coming off of back-to-back Gold Glove awards and is widely regarded to have outstanding range. The other is 30, has never won a Gold Glove, and is widely regarded to have good hands and a strong arm, but poor range on grounders. Which one do you move to third base?

Clubhouse harmony, chemistry, whatever we want to call it, is real and does matter. It is important for teams to understand that their players aren’t Strat-o-Matic cards; they’re human beings with egos and emotions. Jeter has long been properly accorded respect as the Yankees’ on-field captain, and keeping him happy and productive is an appropriate priority, and ensuring that other players see him treated with the respect he’s earned is also an appropriate priority. But still: I have to believe there was a mature and sensitive way for the Yankees to go to Jeter and explain to him that upon the acquisition of the great superstar A-Rod, it was in the best interest of the team for Jeter to move to third base (or perhaps to center field, which also would have made lots of sense). Everything I understand about Jeter strongly suggests that he would have been able to handle such a move with the poise and confidence he generally exudes, and doing so would only have enhanced his reputation for leadership, expanded his immense popularity with fans, and nurtured his lofty Yankee icon status.

It’s not fair to have expected it of him, but the best scenario would have been for Jeter to volunteer to move, to proactively let the team know he was ready and willing to do whatever was right for the organization. He might have been inspired to do so by looking to the example provided by Pete Rose in 1975. It’s rare indeed when can look up to Pete Rose as a behavioral role model, but this is genuinely such a case.

If it was ironic that the better-fielding shortstop was the one to be moved to third base, then it’s been a second irony that Jeter, at least statistically, has never fielded better than in his two seasons with A-Rod at his side, and whether he’s deserved them or not, won his first two Gold Glove awards. And deservedly or not, Rodriguez has failed to unseat reigning Gold Glover Eric Chavez at third. Nothing about the episode has gone as logic would have predicted (except that both A-Rod and Jeter have remained offensive powerhouses). Especially given that these are Steinbrenner’s Yankees, one suspects there’s drama yet to come, and how this situation will continue to unfold is one of the most fascinating questions in all of baseball.

Still to Come

First Basemen Who Might Have Been Third Basemen
Second Basemen Who Might Have Been Third Basemen
Shortstops Who Might Have Been Third Basemen
Outfielders Who Might Have Been Third Basemen

And, some thoughts on the future of The Crossroads.

References & Resources
The Bill Tuttle passage is from the wickedly delightful little tome by Brendan C. Boyd and Fred C. Harris, The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading, and Bubble Gum Book (Little, Brown: Boston-Toronto, 1973), page 46.

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