Hello and welcome (back) to the 2020 Pitcher List third base rankings. Originally created back in March, these rankings have been updated in light of the 60-game season and other recent news.
As a Mets fan, third base holds a very special place in my heart, as it’s where one of the cornerstones of the franchise–and my favorite player of all time–played: Mr. Ty Wiggington.
In all seriousness, third base is fairly deep this year, with a steady stream of talented hitters occupying the first few tiers. The range of possible outcomes starts to widen significantly outside the first three tiers though, as guys like Miguel Sano, Yuli Gurriel, and Tommy Edman could either win people their leagues or completely vanish from fantasy relevance this season. Still, most owners will not be left wanting for a decent starting third baseman in this year’s drafts.
Before we get started, I should make it clear that these rankings are intended for standard category formats that use AVG, R, RBI, SB, and HR. I should also note that these are not my personal rankings, but rather the consensus rankings from some of the Pitcher List managerial staff. Nick Pollack, Ben Palmer, Dave Cherman, Austin Bristow, Rick Graham, Daniel Port, Scott Chu, and myself were all part of the roundtable discussion where these rankings were fiercely debated. Attacks were hurled, friendships were torn asunder, but in the end we managed to settle on rankings we all felt pretty good about. That said, we want to hear your thoughts! If you take issue with any of these rankings — or just want to point out how incredibly smart we are — don’t hesitate to let us know.
So, without further ado, let’s jump in.
When it comes to evaluating hitters, do you consider being too consistent a problem? Some people must, because Arenado has been slipping into the second round of certain drafts this year. But take a look at what he’s done over the past five years in terms of his average offensive line: .300 AVG, 40 HR, 104 R, 124 RBI, 3 SB. Again, that’s Nolan Arenado’s average season. Over the past five years. During that span his 621 total RBI are first in all of baseball by a huge margin–Edwin Encarnacion is second with just 538 RBI. He’s also 2nd in home runs, 12th in batting average, and 4th in runs scored during that span. Oh, and he’s just 28 years old. All this to say: don’t overthink it. Nolan Arenado is the #1 third baseman, and a surefire first-rounder.
Trying to pin down what to expect from Alex Bregman in 2020 is no easy task. On the one hand, he smacked 41 homers last year. On the other hand, those home runs were backed by a pedestrian 37.5% hard-hit rate and a below-average 5.4% barrel rate. “But wait,” you might say. “Isn’t Minute Maid Park one of the best ballparks in baseball for pulled fly balls and non-barreled home runs? And is it true that you, Jonathan Metzelaar, are one of the most devilishly charming fantasy analysts around?” Well, to answer your second question: duh. And as for the impact that Minute Maid Park had on Bregman’s suspiciously high home run output, on the surface it makes sense. But then you dig a little deeper and find that 25 of Bregman’s 41 homers came on the road. And everything you thought you knew starts to crumble again. At the end of the day, it’s probably safer to expect a 30-homer pace from Bregman this year–if not less. Especially when you consider how comically inflated his .592 SLG was compared to his .471 xSLG in 2019. But even with the power regression, Bregman’s elite contact ability should give him a safe floor in batting average, and he should continue to be a well-oiled machine when it comes to runs and RBI.
Anthony Rendon once said that baseball is “too long and boring.” I imagine that, when you’re as good at something as Rendon is at baseball, it’s understandable to feel that way. Unfortunately, I will literally never know. The amazing thing about Rendon is that he finds ways to get a little bit better every single year. In 2017 he knocked five percentage points off his strikeout rate. In 2018 he began hitting more line drives. And in 2019 he pushed his power output to new heights, posting a career-best hard-hit rate (46.6%) and barrel rate (12%). The only area he really has left to improve in is health–he’s played in over 150 games just twice in the last six years. In a short season, it would seem he has a better chance of staying on the field all year, which would give him a very real chance at surpassing last year’s .413 wOBA–especially now that he’ll be hitting behind the greatest hitter on the planet in Los Angeles.
No. 4: Jose Ramirez (Cleveland Indians)
A tough finish to the 2018 season and an absolutely brutal first half of 2019 has likely left a bad taste in owners’ mouths when it comes to Jose Ramirez. Explanations for his extended cold spell run the gamut. Some think he was trying too hard to hit the ball to the opposite field to beat the shift. Some think he was still hurt after fouling a ball off his knee at the beginning of the year. Some believe he was distracted in the months leading up to the birth of his daughter. And some think he is Jobu from the movie Major League come to life, and this is simply the price he had to pay for sentience. Whatever the reason for his struggles, here’s what’s important to keep in mind: in the second half of last year, Ramirez turned back into the MVP-caliber hitter he was in 2018:
Jose Ramirez does struggle against the shift–he’s posted just a .298 wOBA against it in each of the last two years. And perhaps that–in conjunction with his penchant for hitting weak fly balls–will continue to cap his batting average ceiling despite his elite contact skills. But even in what by all accounts was a rough season for Ramirez, he managed to produce 47 HR+SB in only 129 games. And for a guy with the upside of a top-3 hitter, he’s absolutely worth taking a shot on in the first few rounds, especially considering he’s shown that he can hit like a #1 overall pick in two-month spurts.
Nothing really seemed to go Rafael Devers‘ way in 2018, as he posted below-average wOBAs against all pitch types–even fastballs. It’s amazing what a difference a year can make:
Devers’ performance against fastballs and breaking balls simply bounced back to where it had been in his rookie year, but his ability to hit offspeed pitches improved exponentially, as he posted a .381 average and .453 wOBA against them. The result is a hitter that opposing pitchers now no longer have a clear plan of attack for. If there is a knock against Devers, it’s that he’s still a bit of a free-swinger, racking up a 40.7% chase rate last year. However, he is good at making contact with pitches outside the zone, and when his bat meets the baseball he makes it count, as evidenced by his 92 mph average exit velocity. There is certainly a lot to like about the 23-year-old, and if he continues to grow as a hitter this year, watch out.
No. 6: Eugenio Suarez (Cincinnati Reds)
Suarez suffered a mysterious shoulder injury in a swimming incident a few weeks prior to the original Opening Day, which required surgery and threw his status into question. However, with the season delayed, he now looks to be ready to go for the start of the year. Suarez has managed to increase his home run output for four straight seasons now, culminating in 2019’s 49-homer campaign. Last year’s power outburst coincided with some clear changes in Suarez’s approach, as his pull rate shot up from 42.7% to 52%, and his 42.3% fly ball rate was the highest he had posted since his rookie season in 2015. Fortunately he hit the ball hard enough to make this approach work, though the power did come at the cost of his contact and swinging-strike rates. Health is the big question mark here, as shoulder surgery of any kind is nothing to sniff at, especially for a power hitter. But if he’s fully healed to start the year, he may have the highest home run ceiling of anyone at the position.
LeMahieu’s incredible 2019 season shocked a lot of people, but perhaps it shouldn’t have been all that surprising. LeMahieu always made a ton of hard contact (43.8% career hard-hit rate) and excelled at avoiding strikeouts and hitting line drives, which gave him a safe batting average floor. It seems the move to Yankee Stadium and a slight uptick in his average launch angle were all he needed to tap into his latent power. The hitter-friendly right field confines of Yankee Stadium were tailor-made for LeMahieu, who drives the ball to the opposite field more than he pulls it — a rare trait for a hitter. And the benefit of his new home ballpark really showed, as he hit 19 of his 26 homers at home. It’s probably fair to expect his power to regress some. But the batting average is absolutely legit, the counting stats will be there in spades, and another 20+ homer season isn’t out of the question by any means. Add in the additional eligibility at first base and second base and you might be looking at the rare player who is somehow being undervalued coming off an MVP-caliber season.
No. 8: Yoan Moncada (Chicago White Sox)
Prior to 2019, Moncada was too passive at the plate. He was close to the top of the league in called strikeouts, which led to bloated 30% strikeout rates despite contact and swinging-strike rates that weren’t significantly worse than average. Then, in 2019, he became more aggressive, and everything seemed to click. If there’s a concern here, it’s that his increased aggression led to more swings at pitches outside the strike zone than in it, and that pitchers might adapt to this and start giving him less pitches to do damage against. Still, he made it work last year, posting a .291 xBA and .362 xwOBA along with an incredibly impressive 12% barrel rate. And there may still be some untapped speed here–Moncada stole 85 bases over his first 142 minor league games. As far as upside plays go, there might not be one more appealing than Moncada.
In 2016, when Bryant bashed 39 homers and hit .292., many thought it was the start of a trajectory that would carry him onto perennial 40+ home run seasons and superstardom. Unfortunately, his encore didn’t quite reach those heights, and a shoulder injury derailed his 2018. You could argue that 2019 was his most disappointing full season yet, at least in terms of fantasy output, and with five seasons now under his belt and the Cubs poised to possibly start a rebuild, one has to wonder what the future has in store for Bryant. His launch angle helps him make the most out of what has been a very pedestrian hard-hit rate the last few years, and while it’s still too early to say we’ve definitively seen his ceiling already, 2020 might be the year where he has to prove he’s capable of being a truly elite bat.
Manny Machado seems to suffer from a less extreme version of the problem that afflicts Eric Hosmer–he hits so many balls on the ground that his batting average and home run output are super dependent on batted ball luck, despite the fact that he makes really hard contact. Fortunately, he does elevate the ball more than Hosmer, so 30 home runs is a pretty safe floor. The issue is really his batting average, which could swing 30 points in one direction or another depending on how things fall. This, paired with the variance in his stolen base output from year to year, makes Machado a bit of a headache to project. At just 27 years old, there’s still plenty of reason to think he’s capable of putting up a season worthy of a top-3 third baseman. But Machado–and his owners–will probably need to depend on some good fortune for that to happen.
Matt Chapman took a huge step forward with his power last year, smacking 36 homers while posting a 48.7% hard-hit rate–one of the highest in the league. What makes the feat even more impressive is that he managed this while playing through a wrist injury that sapped his production for about a month in the middle of the year. Chapman has struggled a bit with staying on the field throughout his professional career, but there’s no doubt he has the potential to be one of the more dangerous power bats in baseball when he’s healthy. His ability to produce above-average contact rates while posting one of the best average exit velocities (92.6 mph in 2019), gives him elite upside.
Calf injuries robbed Donaldson of a productive 2018–and have been a recurring issue for him throughout his career. He bounced back nicely last year though, playing in 155 games and posting one of the league’s best barrel rates at 15.7%. Hard-hit, pulled fly balls have always been Donaldson’s bread and butter, and as long as his quality-of-contact doesn’t suffer he should continue to be able to turn that approach into 35+ home runs on a regular basis. Moving to Target Field this season–one of the better ballparks for right-handed HR/Brl%–should help as well. The average probably won’t blow you away, and the injury concerns still linger here in his age-34 season, but his bat could be a difference-maker.
Rumors of Muncy’s inevitable demise when facing lefties were greatly exaggerated. Though a convenient excuse for the Dodgers to sit Muncy on occasion, he proved he’s more than capable of handling southpaws last year, posting a .374 wOBA and 135 wRC+ against them. This, paired with the National League DH and the fact that Alex Verdugo is no longer creating a logjam in the Dodgers’ outfield, means we may finally get to see what Muncy can do with full-time at-bats. The career 12.1% barrel rate and 41.3% hard-hit rate point to the 35-home power being sustainable, and a bump in plate appearances might even help him get to 13+ home runs in the shortened season, though you probably can’t count on a batting average that reaches even .270.
No. 15: Vlad Guerrero Jr. (Toronto Blue Jays)
I know what you’re probably thinking–this seems low, especially considering that Guerrero Jr. is the 53rd overall player coming off the board according to consensus ADP. But perhaps we should take a cue from Guerrero Jr.’s 2019 season–when he was the first rookie pegged by Steamer to hit over .300–and not let his pedigree go straight to our heads again. There’s no doubt about the talent or the upside here. But players don’t always arrive in the majors as finished products–especially when they’re just 20 years old. The 38.4% hard-hit rate last year belied Guerrero Jr.’s 80-grade future power, as did his 49.6% groundball rate. What makes the latter stat more concerning is that Guerrero Jr. has had issues elevating the ball throughout the minors as well. On top of that, he struggled mightily against breaking balls, which pitchers were able to exploit to the tune of a 38% whiff rate. Could all of these issues vanish into thin air this season? Absolutely. But if you’re staking a top-50 pick on it, you might be better off going with a player with a safer floor.
If you’ve spent any time trawling the infinite depths of baseball Twitter over the past year, you’ve probably seen J.D. Davis‘ Statcast profile shared once or twice as a testament to how good he really was last year:
With a .308 xBA and .383 xwOBA, it’s hard not to get excited about Davis potentially being an elite bat–especially considering where he’s going in drafts right now. He was in the top 10% of the league in xBA, xSLG, xwOBA and xwOBACON. He was also top 10% in average exit velocity and Hard Hit rate. And in addition to destroying fastballs, he posted a .313 average and .364 wOBA against breaking pitches. All while displaying above-average plate discipline and roughly league-average contact ability. The delayed season has been a godsend for Davis, who injured his shoulder in Spring Training. And the implementation of the National League DH means competition for the left field job will no longer be as tense. There’s upside for a top-50 hitter here.
No. 20: Miguel Sano (Minnesota Twins)
If you’re a fan of hard contact, you’re going to love Miguel Sano. His otherworldly 57.6% hard-hit rate was first in baseball last year, and he had the fifth-highest barrel rate in the league. This was thanks almost exclusively to his performance against fastballs though:
With an already-putrid 63.8% contact rate and 15.8% swinging-strike rate, one can’t help put wonder what might happen to Sano’s batting average should pitchers start to pull back on the amount of fastballs they give him. Considering how hard he hits the ball, a 50-homer pace wouldn’t be totally shocking, and in a shortened season he could easily lead the league in homers. But bear in mind that a .200 average could also be in the cards.
Is Justin Turner the Nelson Cruz of third basemen? We keep waiting for him to show some age-related regression, and he just keeps improving. Turner continues to crush fastballs to the tune of a .402 wOBA last year–a sign that his bat speed hasn’t started to slow just yet. And his 43% hard-hit rate was the best of his career. That’s great to see from a guy who posted an excellent 84.5% contact rate and can still hit .290 in his sleep. The issue here is just durability–he’s only eclipsed 150 games played once in his entire career. But perhaps that’s not as much of a concern in a 60-game season.
Where did that come from? Those who remember Urshela from his days as a Cleveland Indians prospect probably recall that he was pegged as a light-hitting, defense-first third baseman. But, of course, the Yankees managed to work their devil magic last year and transform him into an offensive monster. His 25% line drive rate and 40.6% hard-hit rate really stand out, and when paired with his excellent contact ability, it’s easy to see how he posted a .294 xBA. His 41.8% chase rate was pretty concerning, and he does generate a lot of ground balls, so there’s no slam dunk for a repeat here, especially with Miguel Andujar lurking. But there’s plenty to like about Urshela, especially if he locks down full-time at-bats in the loaded Yankee lineup.
We wrote about Escobar in our recap of the Pitcher List second base rankings, which you can read here.
It’s easy to write off Gurriel’s 31 homers from 2019 as a fluke, considering he’s 35 years old and had never surpassed 18 homers in any season prior. However, bear in mind that Minute Maid Park is a hitter’s paradise for right-handed pull hitters, and Gurriel’s power outburst came in a year where he upped both his pull rate and fly ball rate significantly. If those changes stick, hitting at least seven homers should be fairly easy for Gurriel in this shortened season, and his elite contact ability gives him a safe batting average floor. The question marks here are really whether his age will catch up with him and exactly how much his power will regress this season.
Hunter Dozier taught me a valuable lesson last season: pay attention to barrel rate. Hesitant to buy into Dozier’s breakout considering his age and history of middling power, I ignored the fact that Dozier’s quality-of-contact metrics looked good over the first few months of the 2019 season. As a result, I missed out on a really good season from the 27-year-old. He likely would have reached 30 homers if not for an IL stint towards the middle of the year, and if he maintains his 10% barrel rate in 2020 he could easily get close to that pace while posting an average around .270.
We wrote about Edman in our recap of the Pitcher List second base rankings, which you can read here.
Kingery’s calling card coming up through the minors was his speed, and he certainly has it in spades, flashing 93rd percentile sprint speed last year. Oddly enough though, that only translated to 15 stolen bases in 2019. What he did produce, however, was some newfound power. After hitting just eight homers in 2018, Kingery parlayed a drastically improved 38.9% hard-hit rate into 19 homers over just 126 games. Kingery also had a spectacular 26% line drive rate which, if he can sustain it, should help him offset some of the impact that his ugly 15% swinging-strike rate will inevitably have on his batting average. You’re not going to find too many legitimate 20/20 threats outside the first 150 picks in drafts this year, but Kingery is one of them.
No. 26: Yandy Diaz (Tampa Bay Rays)
When Diaz was traded from the Indians to the Rays, the hope was that the team would help unlock Diaz’s latent power by having him focus on elevating the ball more. While he did cut down on his ground ball rate a bit, it still sat at a concerning 50.8%, and his average launch angle remained below-average. Diaz crushes the ball, as evidenced by his 44.8% hard-hit rate, but it’s going to be difficult for him to reap the benefits of that power unless he gives more of those batted balls a chance to leave the yard.
I get the appeal with McMahon. I really do. Seeing that he was in the top 10% of all hitters last year in average exit velocity and hard-hit rate is appealing, especially when you know he’ll play half his games in Coors. With Daniel Murphy likely shifting into the DH role this year and Ian Desmond having chosen to sit out the season, McMahon currently projects to be the team’s full-time first baseman. McMahon has some contact issues that become completely exposed when he plays on the road though–he had just a .299 wOBA in 67 away games last year. Maybe it all works itself out and you wind up with a guy who can produce at a 30-homer pace with a middling batting average. Or maybe he becomes pure waiver wire fodder.
Anderson showed some promising growth last season, adding a bit more loft and a lot more power to his swing. The result was a fairly impressive 8.9% barrel rate and a 45.7% hard-hit rate that ranked him 35th in baseball. Unfortunately Anderson’s season ended in late August when he fractured his hand. Otherwise, he’d probably be getting a lot more attention as a potential sleeper this year. His ability to spray the ball to all fields and pair decent contact rates with impressive quality-of-contact makes him a really intriguing player who could hit about .270 with nine homers if things break right. He’ll likely be the Marlins’ everyday right fielder heading into 2020, so definitely keep him on your radar in the later rounds of drafts.
No. 29: Renato Nunez (Baltimore Orioles)
Renato Nunez may have had the quietest 30-homer season in the majors last year. The expected stats backed it all up, but things are pretty bleak in that Baltimore lineup, and Nunez’s propensity for chasing pitches outside the strike zone should cap his average around .250.
Is there any reason to be hopeful that Travis Shaw can return to being the top-100 hitter he was entering last season? Well… maybe. Ignore the .183 xBA. Ignore the .278 xwOBA. Ignore the ballooning strikeout rate and plummeting contact rate. We’re all in a state of slow, imperceptible decay. But at least Travis Shaw maintained his quality-of-contact last year. That at least gives us some hope that he’s not too far gone. And that, perhaps, the wrist sprain he sustained early in the year threw his mechanics out of whack, and he simply wasn’t able to recover. He’s 29 years old. He’s a year removed from back-to-back 30-homer seasons. And he’s likely Toronto’s everyday first baseman, playing in a friendly home ballpark. You could do worse.
Photo by Joshua Sarner/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)