The Tuesday Discussion: Who Was The Greatest Third Baseman Ever?
We’re going to go position-by-position around the diamond asking our writers to tell us the greatest big leaguer at each position.
We’ll continue with shortstop.
We asked or writers, “Who was the greatest third baseman of all-time?”
Lincoln Mitchell – One of the most difficult things about determining who was the greatest ever at a particular position is comparing across eras. How can Rogers Hornsby’s extraordinary offensive production in a segregated and less competitive league be measured against Joe Morgan? How can you compare shortstops Honus Wagner and Cal Ripken, Jr. as the game changed so much in the more than half a century between their careers.
This is not an issue at third base because there were no great third baseman in the pre-war era when the position was a defense first position and there were few third baseman who hit well for more than a few years. The best pre-war third baseman was probably Frank Baker. Some might choose Pie Traynor, but Traynor’s high batting average must be seen in the context of playing in an extreme hitter’s park in an extreme high offense era.
Chronologically, the first third-baseman who is in the conversation for greatest ever is Eddie Matthews, who spent most of his career with the Milwaukee, and then Atlanta, Braves beginning in 1952. Brooks Robinson broke in with the Oriole’s three years later, but while his defense was unparalleled, did not hit enough to be in the conversation.
George Brett, Adrian Beltre, Wade Boggs and Chipper Jones merit some mention as well. Alex Rodriguez had some great years at third base, but did not play their enough to qualify as the greatest ever at the position.
The greatest third baseman ever, and it is not particularly close, is Mike Schmidt. The outlines of Schmidt’s career are well known. He led the National League in home runs eight times, won nine Gold Gloves and three MVP awards. He led the league in OPS+ six times including every year from 1980-1984.
Because Mike Schmidt never hit for a high batting average, he was underrated during his career. Not too many 12 time All-Stars and three time MVPs are underrated, but Schmidt was never fully appreciated. He played at a time when batting average mattered and his .267 career batting average and only hitting over .300 once, in a strike shortened 1981 season, obscured his extraordinary batting eye which contributed to his .380 career OBP.
One way to see this is that Schmidt won the MVP award in 1980, 1981 and 1986-although he may not have deserved that last one, but in 1974 he had more than twice the WAR of MVP Steve Garvey and in 1977, 1979, 1982 and 1987 had more WAR than the NL MVP.
Paul Semendinger – I think, this time we’re going to find a modern player. I’d love the answer to be Graig Nettles. I’m a huge fan and I want him in the Hall of Fame, but I know that he wasn’t the greatest.
Heading into my research on this, I suspected the answer would be either Mike Schmidt or George Brett. I know that Pie Traynor, who was always considered the greatest at third when I was a kid growing up, wouldn’t be in the running. I suspected that Eddie Mathews might have a case…
And, when all was said and done, I went with the player with the highest WAR, because my that measure, it isn’t even close.
Three third basemen had 3,000 hits (Adrain Beltre, George Brett, and Wade Boggs). My choice wasn’t one of them.
The most Gold Gloves at third was Brooks Robinson who had 16. The player I chose had 10.
Two third basemen hit 500+ homers. Eddie Mathews was one of them. The player I chose was the other.
Michael Jack Schmidt (.267/548/1,595) was the greatest third baseman ever.
Top 2 By Various Metrics:
WAR: Schmidt (106.9), Mathews (96.1)
WAR7: Schmidt (58.8), Boggs (56.4)
JAWS: Schmidt (82.8), Mathews (75.0)
WAA (Wins Above Average): Schmidt (73.7), Mathews (58.3)
Yeah, Mike Schmidt wins this easily.
Cary Greene – Third base is an especially difficult position to evaluate but it’s hard to argue that Mike Schmidt wasn’t the greatest third baseman of all time. He was exceptionally consistent and productive over his 18 year career. Schmidt deserves his status as the best third baseman ever. That said….
My heart wanted to answer this question by saying Brooks Robinson is the greatest and I do think he was easily the greatest fielding third baseman I ever saw play in my lifetime. Robinson played for 23 years and at his peak, he was a defensive force of nature.
Graig Nettles was also pretty great with the glove, though he wasn’t on Brooks Robinson’s level. Eddie Mathews also deserves serious consideration because he put up great numbers over the 17 years that he played and prior to Mike Schmidt, Mathews would have to be considered the best third baseman of them all.
George Brett at his peak was the best to play the position and though he played for 21 years, he wasn’t consistently as good as Schmidt. RBI’s are the single most important offensive stat there is and Schmidt not only produced mightily in that department, totaling 1595, but he was also pretty fabulous defensively, in his own right. Brett was one of the best pure hitters I have ever seen and of course, as a Yankee fan, I have to tip my cap to Brett.
Most baseball historians rank Schmidt #1 with Mathews a distant second, followed by Brett and then Robinson. I will say if I was picking an all time team, Brooks Robinson would absolutely be my starting third baseman but those here who know me are aware that I value defense above all other things, because if an opponent can’t score, they can’t beat you! I’ll trade some fairly substantial offensive value for elite defense any day and it’s not like Robinson was a bad offensive player.
Mike Whiteman – Growing up in the Philadelphia fan market in the 1970s and 1980s, I followed Mike Schmidt’s career fairly closely. He wasn’t always appreciated by the tough Phillie fans, but he could do it all. Ten-time Gold Glover, twelve-time All-Star, three-time MVP. World Series MVP, Hall of Famer. Great peak and long term numbers.
No other third baseman in baseball history can match.
Tim Kabel – For me the choice of the best third baseman of all time came down to Mike Schmidt or George Brett. It was incredibly close in my mind but then I remembered all those at bats that Brett had against the Yankees, including the pine tar game. I never wanted to see him up against the Yankees, particularly against Gossage. Therefore, I give the edge to George Brett.