Welcome to another edition of Top Ten! This week, we’ll take a look at the hot corner to reveal our best third basemen of all time. If you’re interested in any of the other positions we’ve covered to date, you can find them and a lot of other great content in the archive. Below is some background on how we compiled the list if you are new to this segment.
The core of the evaluation was based on several types of WAR, including ratings from Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs, which calculate it differently. We rely heavily on WAR as it is difficult to compare players of different eras to each other, given how the game has changed over the years. WAR measures players versus their contemporaries, thus putting players on as level a playing field as possible. We always try to balance the rankings between longevity and dominance to get a good cross-section. Therefore, in addition to career WAR, we looked at WAR7 (seven best seasons), WAR/162 (Avg WAR per season), and the number of seasons the player was among the WAR leaders in the league.
Traditional offensive stats such as hits, BA, OPS, HRs, RBI, etc., were fused with wOBA, wRC+, and OPS+ for an offensive rating. All-Star game appearances, MVP awards, and seasons where the player finished in the top ten in MVP voting were also given consideration, though not weighed as heavily as MVP votes and All-Star games didn’t exist in the early years.
Onto the fun stuff, here’s Number Ten:
10. Paul Molitor
Paul Molitor could hit. His 3,319 hits rank 11th on the all-time list, and his 39-game hitting streak in 1987 ranks seventh-longest. Molitor was also fast. He stole 504 bases in his career, second most among third basemen historically. Molitor played more DH in his career than third base, but that was more due to his propensity to get injured than subpar defense. He was average defensively, but his bat needed to stay in the lineup.
Molitor made the Brewers squad out of spring training in 1978 and finished the season as the runner-up in the AL rookie-of-the-year voting to Lou Whitaker. By 1980 he was an All-Star, an honor he would receive seven times in his career. He also won four Silver Sluggers. Molitor led the league in plate appearances, runs, and hits three times during his career. In addition, he led the AL in doubles and triples once. He never won the MVP award but finished second in 1993, his first season in Toronto, when he played DH almost exclusively.
“Moli” signed with Toronto as a free agent before the season. The Blue Jays were coming off a world championship, and Molitor hadn’t seen the post-season since 1982. His presence with the club was a huge reason they repeated as he batted .458 in the World Series with two HRs, two triples, and seven RBI en route to winning the series MVP. Molitor stayed two more seasons in Toronto before finishing his career with his hometown Minnesota Twins. Seventeen years after his retirement, Molitor became the Twins manager.
The Brewers honored Molitor in 1999, the year after he retired, by retiring “The Ignitor’s” number 4. Five years later, the BBWAA elected Molitor to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility with 85% of the vote.
9. Scott Rolen
Scott Rolen had a seemingly underappreciated career. He was never really a superstar, but he was a seven-time All-Star and an eight-time Gold Glove winner. Rolen was an excellent offensive and defensive player who quietly contributed solid seasons to four different franchises.
Rolen debuted in August of 1996 for the Phillies and took over the starting third base job. He didn’t get in enough at-bats to exhaust his rookie eligibility and proceeded to win the NL rookie-of-the-year in 1997. Despite solid production in Philadelphia, Rolen didn’t make his first All-Star team until 2002. A few weeks later, he was traded to the Cardinals. Rolen had informed the Phils he didn’t intend to re-sign with the club when he became a free agent after the season, in large part because of clashes with outspoken manager Larry Bowa. Ironically, 2002 was one of his best seasons, as exemplified by his winning the Silver Slugger and Gold Glove while playing for two teams.
Rolen made it to two World Series with the Cardinals, losing in 2004 and winning in 2006. He didn’t fare well in the first series but hit .421 with a HR and two RBI in the winning effort. Before the 2008 season, St. Louis sent Rolen to Toronto. The following year he was moved again, this time at the deadline to the Reds. Injuries marred the last five years of his career, and in 2012 he’d had enough and retired at the age of 37.
Rolen has not yet been elected to the Hall of Fame. However, he received 63.2% of the vote this year – the highest total among those who weren’t inducted. Thus he has an excellent chance to get to Cooperstown, perhaps as soon as 2023.
8. Brooks Robinson
You can’t talk about Brooks Robinson without referring to his defense. Known as the “Human Vacuum Cleaner,” he is considered by many the best defensive third baseman of all time. His incredible 16 Gold Gloves are a testament to this notion, as are his defensive ranks among all-time third basemen. Robinson is the historical leader in putouts, assists, double plays, and total zone.
Robinson made his debut in 1955 as a fresh-faced 18-year-old and in 1960 made his first of 18 all-star appearances. In 1964, Robinson was the AL-MVP after hitting .317 with 28 HRs and a league-leading 118 RBI. The back half of Robinson’s career was the franchise’s heyday, and he handled the hot corner for the Orioles in four World Series. Baltimore split the four series, but Brooks did his part, especially in 1970 when he was World Series MVP. In the five-game victory over the Reds, he hit .429 with two HRs and six RBI.
Robinson finally retired in 1977, and the Orioles immediately retired his number 5. In 1983, his first year of eligibility, The Human Vacuum Cleaner joined the group of elite players in Cooperstown with 92% of the vote.
7. Ron Santo
Ron Santo debuted in Chicago in 1960 and quickly established himself as the Cubs’ third baseman for the next 13 seasons. A workhorse, Santo averaged 156 games per season after his rookie year. This feat is even more remarkable because Santo was diagnosed with diabetes when he was 18 – a fact he kept secret for most of his career.
Santo played stellar defense at the hot corner, winning five Gold Gloves. He possessed power and a keen eye at the plate, leading the league in walks four times and OBP twice. Santo was an All-Star regular for the team, attending the Midsummer Classic nine times, including his last season with the Cubs in 1973. After the season, Santo was traded across town to the White Sox, where he played one more year before retiring.
The Cubs retired his jersey in 2003, which Santo said meant more to him than making the Hall of Fame, which had eluded him to this point. After succumbing to cancer in 2010, Santo finally made it into Cooperstown posthumously when the Veteran’s Committee elected him in 2012.
6. Adrian Beltre
Adrian Beltre is the most recent entrant on the list, having just retired a few years ago. Beltre began his career with the Dodgers in 1998 as a fresh-faced 19-year-old and retired 20 years later, in 2018, as a seasoned veteran with over 3,000 hits and nearly 500 HRs. Beltre was a strong contributor offensively and defensively, where he may be the best defender at third base after Brooks Robinson.
Beltre’s career in LA peaked in the last season of his rookie contract when he hit .334 with a league-leading 48 HRs and 121 RBI in 2004. He took home his first of four Silver Sluggers that year and was runner-up in the MVP voting. After the season, Beltre spurned the Dodgers’ low-ball offer and signed a five-year contract with the Seattle Mariners. His years in Seattle were underwhelming offensively, though he did win his first two of an eventual five Gold Gloves. His last season with the Mariners was so mediocre that he could only garner a one-year deal with the Red Sox the following offseason.
That one year in Boston turned his career around. He hit .321 with a league-leading 49 doubles, 28 HRs, and 102 RBI and made his first of four All-Star appearances. The next off-season, the offers were more robust, and Beltre joined the Texas Rangers, where he would remain until retirement. Beltre thrived in Texas, batting .305 over his eight seasons with the club and averaging 25 HRs and 87 RBI per year. In addition, he was the platinum glove winner in 2011 and 2012. Beltre also got to play in four post-seasons with the Rangers, including the 2011 World Series, which they lost in seven to the Cardinals.
In 2019, the year after he retired, Beltre’s number 29 was retired by the Rangers. He won’t be eligible for the Hall of Fame vote until 2024 but seems destined for Cooperstown.
5. Wade Boggs
Wade Boggs, aka the “Chicken Man,” made the Red Sox as a utility infielder in 1982 and, after a slow start, ended up hitting .349 that season. The following spring, he was given the starting third base job and rewarded the Sox with his first of five batting titles. Boggs’ plate discipline was the stuff of legend as he also led the league in OBP six times and rarely struck out. In 1985, Boggs attended his first all-star game, where he would become a regular, making the team twelve times in total. Boggs’ trophy cabinet also includes eight Silver Sluggers and two Gold Gloves in addition to his batting titles.
After the 1992 season, Boggs left the Red Sox as a free agent and signed with the hated New York Yankees. Needless to say, this didn’t sit well with the Boston faithful, but he enjoyed several more good years and a World Championship in New York.
Boggs played his last two seasons with the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays. It was in Tampa that he would join the 3,000 hit club. Shortly after this accomplishment, Boggs played his last game, retiring in August 1999. The Devil Rays were so pleased that the future Hall of Famer joined them in their inaugural season that they retired his number 12 in 2000. It took a while, but the Red Sox followed suit in 2016, finally taking number 26 out of circulation.
Boggs was officially voted into the Hall of Fame in 2005. It was his first year of eligibility, and he received an impressive 92% of the vote.
4. George Brett
George Brett is Royals’ royalty, spending his entire 21-year career with the franchise and leading them in plate appearances, hits, doubles, triples, home runs, runs, RBI, and walks. He debuted with the club in August 1973 and was their starting third baseman the following spring. Brett was one of the premier hitters of his era, winning three batting titles and leading the league in hits/triples/SLG/OPS three times and doubles twice. In 1976, Brett attended his first All-Star game and would continue to represent the Royals at the mid-summer classic for the following twelve seasons.
In 1980, Brett flirted with .400 but fell short, hitting .390 on the year en route to his first of three Silver Sluggers and his lone MVP. He added a Gold Glove to his collection in 1985. Brett won his third batting title in 1990 at the age of 37, making him the first player to win titles in three different decades. He is one of only four players to retire with 3,000 hits, 300 home runs, and a lifetime .300 batting average.
Brett’s Royals were perennial post-season participants and made it to two World Series in 1980 and 1985. They lost the first but became world champions with the second when they defeated the Cardinals in seven games. Brett was his usual stellar self in October, batting .337 in the post-season and .373 in the Fall Classic throughout his career.
Brett retired after the 1993 season, and the Royals took his number 5 out of circulation the following year. In 1999, his first year of eligibility, 98.2% of the BBWAA voted him into the Hall of Fame.
3. Chipper Jones
Chipper Jones spent his entire 19-year Hall of Fame career in Atlanta. Only Hank Aaron played in more games as a Brave than Jones. Chipper debuted in September 1993 but missed all of 1994 due to injury. So his MLB career really got started in 1995, and Jones lived up to the hype, finishing second in the NL rookie-of-the-year voting. That season culminated in a World Series championship for the team. It would be the only ring Jones would win despite twelve more playoff appearances.
Jones made eight All-Star games in his career to go along with two Silver Sluggers and the 1999 NL MVP. In his MVP season, Jones slugged 45 HRs, scored 116 runs, and drove in 110 while batting .319. In 2008, Chipper won the NL batting title with a .364 average. He also led the NL in OBP that season, getting on base 47% of the time.
As the Braves were regular playoff participants during Jones’ tenure, he amassed 417 post-season plate appearances. Chipper didn’t shrink in the spotlight, slugging 13 HRs with eight stolen bases, 47 RBI, 58 runs, and a .287 batting average in October.
Jones retired after the 2012 playoffs, and the Braves promptly retired his number 10 the following season. The Hall of Fame voters didn’t waste any time admitting him either, electing him with 97.2% of the vote in his first year of eligibility (2018).
2. Eddie Mathews
The Braves franchise can boast two of the top three third basemen in history, with Eddie Mathews checking in one slot ahead of Chipper Jones. Eddie Mathews broke in with the Boston Braves in 1952 – the team’s last season before moving to Milwaukee. He bookended this by spending his final season with the club in 1966 – their first year in Atlanta. On the last day of 1966, the Braves traded Mathews to the Houston Astros, ending his run with the club after 2,223 games. Mathews was traded again to the Tigers mid-season in 1967 and retired one year later.
Mathews was an All-Star with Milwaukee twelve times over nine seasons (there were two All-Star games from 1959 to 1962) from 1953 to 1962. A great power-hitter with an excellent eye, Mathews led the league in HRs twice and BBs four times. Mathews’ 512 HRs rank second all-time among players who primarily played third base. Mathews had 25 or more HRs every season for the first 11 years of his career. Eddie was also extremely durable, averaging 148 games per season during his Braves’ tenure.
Mathews played in three World Series, two as a Brave and in his last season as a Tiger. His Braves split the two appearances, and he added a second world championship in his final season – though he was limited to a bench role by this point. The season after his retirement, in 1969, the Braves retired his number 41. Nine years later, in his fifth year of eligibility, the BBWAA voted him into the Hall of Fame.
1. Mike Schmidt
In terms of WAR, there’s no doubt about who is the best third baseman of All-Time. Mike Schmidt is ten points higher than Mathews on both Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference. He also has the highest WAR7 and WAR/162 of all third basemen historically. Thus he not only had a long, fruitful career but a dominant one.
Schmidt got his first taste of the big leagues in September 1972 and was the regular third baseman the following season. It didn’t take long for “Schmitty” to establish himself as one of the premier power hitters of his generation as he led the league in HRs from 1974-76. Schmidt was the NL home run king a whopping eight times in his 18-year career. Even more remarkable is that four of those seasons were shortened by injury, meaning he was the league leader 57% of the time he played an entire season. He also led the league in RBI/SLG four times, BB/OPS five times, and runs once.
Schmidt won six Silver Sluggers in his career and was the league MVP three times, including back-to-back seasons in 1980 and 1981. He was an All-Star twelve times and a premier defender, winning ten Gold Gloves in his career and leading third basemen in assists seven times. Schmitty’s Phillies made it to the post-season six times, twice advancing to the World Series. In 1980, Philadelphia defeated George Brett’s Kansas City Royals in six games, and Schmidt was the World Series MVP. He batted .381 during the series with two HRs, seven RBI, and a 1.176 OPS.
Schmidt called it quits after the 1989 season, and his number 20 was retired by the team the following May. He was a no-doubt addition to Cooperstown, elected in 1995 by 96.5% of the BBWAA voters.
We’ll shift to the outfield in two weeks and reveal our Top Ten Left Fielders of All-Time. If you enjoyed this article, check out our All-Franchise Starting Lineup in the between weeks. You can find both and tons of other great content in the We Love Baseball section.
Photo by Ben Gorman/Unsplash | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)