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Baseball's best third basemen visualized

In this ongoing series reviewing players position by position, this post uses a Tableau data visualization to discuss the best (and worst) third basemen this year.

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout baseball history, the role of third base has changed as the game evolved. What had been primarily a defensive position over 100 years ago is now one in which defensive deficiencies can be overlooked with a plus bat--but only to a certain extent. The current crop of third basemen is among the best offensive third basemen in quite some time.

This basis for this post, like the other posts in this series, is a Tableau data visualization. The horizontal axis shows the player's FanGraphs Dollar Value (FG$V), which in 2015 is around $8 million per win. The vertical axis shows the player's pro-rated 2015 salary, and imagining a line through the 0-0, 1-1, 2-2 lines and so on will help explain which players are delivering the most value for their salary--players in the upper left above that imaginary line are delivering less value than their salary, and players in the lower right below the line are delivering greater value than their salary. Use the various filters to narrow the data as desired, and scrolling over any data point shows more information.

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The Josh Donaldson trade was one of the big deals of the offseason, one I wrote about it at the time. It turned out there were personality conflicts between Donaldson and Oakland GM Billy Beane, which turned into this trade (values through Thursday):

Player Age Stats
Josh Donaldson 29 68 G, 270 AB, 83 H, 17 HR, 46 RBI, .307 BA,.923 OPS, 3.9 fWAR
Brett Lawrie 25 64 G, 239 AB, 68 H, 6 HR, 29 RBI, .285 BA, .737 OPS, 1.0 fWAR
Kendall Graveman 24 3-4, 10 GS, 4.02 ERA, 4.82 FIP, 0.0 fWAR
Sean Nolin 25 Minor Leagues (Triple-A)
Franklin Barreto 19 Minor Leagues (A+)

Looks like a good deal to me! Of course, it's too soon to write the final post-mortem due to the age of the players Oakland received. Donaldson is right in the thick of any AL MVP discussion as Nicolas Stellini pointed out last week. He's not unknown to MVP voters since he finished in the top 10 the past two years, and if Toronto continues to play like they have in the last couple of weeks, he'll get the attention he deserves.

Ah, the poor Reds--they've been blasted with a wave of injuries and bad luck, like losing Homer Bailey for the year to Tommy John surgery. Devin Mesoraco has a degenerative condition that has probably ended his days behind the plate, and Zack Cozart is out for the year. Joey Votto is back to his Joey Votto-type self, and now he's being joined by Todd Frazier, who's proving last year wasn't a fluke. He's not an elite fielder, but hitting like he has this year will easily overcome any defensive deficiencies. He was a 2007 first round pick, so it's not like he came out of nowhere, but his offense, while steady since becoming a regular in 2012, has reached another level. Like Josh Donaldson, he got a late start--Donaldson didn't become a regular until he was 27, Fraizer when he was 26, which means both will be reaching free agency in their early 30s.

There are two dots by Kris Bryant, and they tell pretty interesting stories. Bryant's bat has been everything it was advertised to be, and his fielding is far better than I was led to believe--I expected to see a man who stared at his glove with a mixture of unease and confusion, but he's not afraid to make a play, and what I've seen (and don't consider me any kind of fielding expert) shows he can field third well enough to play there. His baserunning has been spectacular for a 6'5" player, but he's probably going to end up in left field eventually as the Cubs are simply loaded at middle infield and can shift one of their plethora of shortstops over for better defense.

Next to Bryant is Manny Machado, and it's easy to forget he's one year younger than Bryant, even though he's been playing full-time since 2013. He was injured last year, but he's back this year and reclaiming his spot as one of the best all-around third basemen in the game. It's hard to know for sure if he's the doubles machine he was in 2013 or if that was a fluke, but he's a solid foundation the Orioles can build around. The AL East will be up for grabs for the entire season (except for the Red Sox--RIP), and he enters arbitration after this season. He's making $548,000 this year--it's going to increase significantly next year.

There's an unlabeled point to the left of Bryant and Machado, and that seems to be entirely appropriate--it's Nolan Arenado of the Rockies, quite possibly one of the most overlooked players in baseball today. Playing in Colorado will do that, and it's a shame, because at 24 he's one of the best young third basemen, right there with Machado and Bryant. Before his offense is written off as a Coors Field mirage, he has a 114 wRC+, and his defense is elite no matter who rates him (FanGraphs or Baseball Prospectus). The funny thing is I almost forgot to write about him.

There's a group that includes Matt Carpenter, Mike Moustakas, Justin Turner and Kyle Seager that has many intriguing stories. Turner is an enigma who's never really received any extended playing time except for 2011, and even this year doesn't have the number of plate appearances one would expect from someone who's played in almost 60 games.

A team without much power like the Royals can't afford to have a player who can't hit for average and get on base, and it's a testament to the rest of the team they were able to live with Mike Moustakas' 2014 slash line of .212/.271/.361/.632 and 76 wRC+, second-lowest for third basemen. He's certainly fixed that by hitting over .320 in the #2 slot, adding offensive punch to what was already excellent defense. He's under team control through 2017, so they have time to see if this is the real Mike Moustakas.

Kyle Seager is the one I'm most curious about, because I don't know who the real Seager is, and playing in Seattle doesn't do me any favors. He's been a steady performer for the past couple of years, good for 25 home runs, 80 RBIs and a .260 batting average, and after last year the Mariners locked him up through 2022 at over $85 million. If the Mariners have any hope of being competitive (and they better have those thoughts now), Seager will have to bear a significant share of the offensive load. Hitting home runs in Seattle will always be difficult, making it that much more important to drive in runs in any way possible.

The Giants and Red Sox showed the pitfalls of trying the fantasy approach to addressing team needs ("Hey, he's been good so far, he'll be good again! Oh, he's how old? That doesn't matter!"), and they're reaping the whirlwind by trying to plug holes with players who might be on the wrong side of the aging curve. Casey McGehee is no big deal--he's only making around $5 million for this year, but Pablo Sandoval is another story, as he's signed through 2020 for almost $80 million. Ken Rosenthal wrote recently the Red Sox should dump both Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez, and while I agree with the sentiment, who's going to give anything of value in return?

Evan Longoria continues to be the centerpiece of the very surprising Rays. They have issues all over the field and probably don't have the money to address a single one, but they're leading the AL East as of this writing. Adrian Beltre was one of the more intriguing stories of the past several years as he had a career resurgence after leaving Seattle after the 2009 season. He appears to be done for the season, and makes it worthy of speculation how well he'll recover, since he'll be 37 at the beginning of next year and nearing the end of his time in Texas as his contract is up after 2016. Aramis Ramirez has been one of the more underrated third basemen throughout his career. He's never been a strong fielder, but he's always been consistent with the bat, but now injuries seem to be catching up to him. With the Brewers floundering, it's probably time for them to find their next third baseman, since his contract is up after this year.

The beginning of this post suggested this crop of third basemen might be the best in some time--this chart shows the average fWAR for third basemen with at least 300 PA since 1901:


Alex Rodriguez drove up the values for many years, and the two years Miguel Cabrera played third for the Tigers in 2012 and 2013 also caused spikes, but this year's crop is on a pace for an average of around 2.7 fWAR.

Just for fun, I grabbed all the FanGraphs data for third basemen and normalized their defense value (fielding value + position adjustment) to 162 games. Here's the top defensive third basemen in baseball history (minimum of 300 games played for current players, 1000 for retired):

Player From To G Def Def-162G
Manny Machado 2012 2015 356 52.5 23.9
Nolan Arenado 2013 2015 309 39.1 20.5
Brooks Robinson 1955 1977 2896 359.7 20.1
Clete Boyer 1955 1971 1648 198.8 19.5
Jimmy Collins 1895 1908 1725 171.6 16.1
Juan Uribe 2001 2015 661 60.9 14.9
Scott Rolen 1996 2012 2038 182.4 14.5
Josh Donaldson 2012 2015 460 40.2 14.2
Arlie Latham 1883 1896 1595 138.7 14.1
Buddy Bell 1973 1989 2273 196.2 14.0
Robin Ventura 1989 2003 1977 168.9 13.8
Adrian Beltre 1998 2015 2475 203.5 13.3

Important note--data shown only for when player was considered a third basemen

Poor Brooks Robinson might not only lose his crown as the best-fielding third baseman in history, he might not even still be the best Oriole if Manny Machado keeps it up, but it's a little early to state that. There are plenty of current third basemen who are poised to be among the best players in baseball for years to come and on a trajectory to generate similar discussion when their careers are finished--and we'll have been lucky to have been able to watch them.

Scott Lindholm is a featured writer and editor for Beyond the Box Score and a contributor to BP Wrigleyville. Follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.

Prior posts in this series


First base

Second base