A slow year at the hot corner

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

There are many quality third baseman in the majors at the moment, but as a group they have lead feet on the bases.

Third base is not a position manned by players cut from a single mold. You will find guys at third base who are unbelievably athletic and incredible defensively, such as Manny Machado or Nolan Arenado, and you will find players who are hitters first and hang around the hot corner because there is nowhere else to put them. Miguel Cabrera is the most obvious player that comes to mind, but guys like Michael Young, David Freese and Mark Reynolds are other examples of guys who are very much unlike Manny Machado in the field.

Today, I don't want to go too far in depth in terms of the defense because Bryan already did a good job of looking at where the position stands in terms of defense back in December. The reason I bring up the varied degrees of defensive aptitude among third baseman is because it's a very vivid reminder that this is a position that is stocked with a strange assortment of players in terms of raw athleticism.

One of the most obvious ways of capturing raw athleticism statistically in baseball is by looking at stolen bases and base running numbers. It's not even close to a perfect way, a lot of base running is based on making good decisions and having good instincts, but it tends to give us an idea. When we look it these numbers we see a positional group that may not be trending towards a young, athletically gifted one the way it is sometimes depicted. The following chart shows the MLB's SB and BsR numbers by third baseman dating back to the 2002 season when UBR was added to BsR, making it a more complete statistic.

Year BsR Stolen Bases
2002 -1.8 233
2003 -5.3 245
2004 -18.5 317
2005 -25.0 311
2006 -4.1 233
2007 1.5 320
2008 -33.1 242
2009 -5.9 322
2010 -19.2 212
2011 -23.3 302
2012 -43.0 294
2013 -55.4 164

While third baseman have never been a downright speedy bunch, in 2013 they demonstrated nothing but square wheels on the base paths. Of the 21 third baseman that qualified for the batting title only five managed a positive BsR score and not one of them stole more than ten bases.

There are exceptions to this rule. David Wright is still good for a few steals - he had 17 last season - and many frustrated Brett Lawrie fantasy owners know that he's a guy who should swipe some bags, in theory. However, by and large, third baseman are running like a bunch of Paul Konerkos out there, which is genuinely surprising considering some of the young talent at the position. In 2012, first basemen stole more bases than third baseman did in 2013. Although the men of the hot corner aren't nipping at the heels of catchers and first baseman in terms of raw slowness, they aren't that far off.

Once again, it's important to reiterate that stolen bases and BsR do not perfectly equate to speed. Manny Machado had an awful time trying to steal bases last year going six for 13, but it's pretty clear that he's not an immobile Molina brother type.

One could point to the numbers above and try and pick out some sort of trend here, but personally I think it's a little early for that. Due to the fact that speed and athleticism is a very different thing from base running ability, it would be unfair to make some kind of claim regarding teams putting a different kind of player at the position. For now this post exists solely in the realm of idle curiosity. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I'm a pretty big fan of idle baseball curiosities. However, should base running statistics continue to trend downwards for third basemen, there might be something to consider. If Carlos Santana spends much time at the position this year, the numbers may suffer indeed.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs

Nick Ashbourne is an Editor for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Nick_Ashbourne.

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