MLB's current third-base talent could be some of the best we've ever seen
As of 2017, there are only 16 third basemen enshrined in Cooperstown.
You'd recognize the names: George Brett, Wade Boggs, Mike Schmidt, Brooks Robinson. Those men are four of the seven who have been voted in by the Baseball Writers' Association of America. Seven others were voted in by the Veterans Committee, while the remaining two were voted in by the Negro Leagues Committee or another special committee.
It's an elite group, no doubt. But with what we're seeing across baseball in 2017, the talent at the position is deeper than a Chuck Palahniuk book.
The hot corner has been bubbling with talent the past decade or so. It's hard to tell when the influx of third-base talent really started, but one thing is apparent: There are plenty of excellent third basemen in baseball today who could be destined for Cooperstown.
Just look at some of the starters around the league today: 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson posted a 154 wRC+ during that 2015 campaign, and followed it up with a 155 wRC+ in 2016.
Travis Shaw is having a breakout season with the Brewers after being traded from the Red Sox during the offseason, and could finish with a 5.0 WAR or higher. Anthony Rendon is posting an OPS of .996 with the Nationals in 2017. It seems like All-Star caliber third basemen are everywhere.
But then there are the next-level elites, such as the excellent trio of Nolan Arenado, Manny Machado and Kris Bryant.
It's hard to see Bryant, Machado and Arenado and not be wowed by their production to this point in their careers. I'd put them up there with legendary trios like Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman or bacon, lettuce and tomato. All three players are seemingly on Hall of Fame arcs.
Sure, it's a projection, but it's not hard to see how some current MLB talent at third — not just those three — could go on to Hall of Fame careers. Here's how they've made their mark so far.
Nolan Arenado, Rockies
In his fifth year in the majors, Nolan Arenado is finally getting some national recognition. Maybe that's partly because Arenado was part of Team USA in this year's World Baseball Classic (though, to be fair, he was abysmal during the tourney).
Arenado's numbers this season are staggering: 129 OPS+, 24 home runs, 95 RBI (which leads the National League).
He led the NL in 2015 and '16 with 354 and 352 bases, respectively.
In fact, Arenado is the only third baseman who has amassed 350 total bases in consecutive seasons and to lead the league both years.
Furthermore, in baseball history, only 30 players have amassed more than 1,100 total bases in their first four seasons, with only two third basemen making that list. Only Hall of Fame third baseman Eddie Mathews has more (1,189) than Arenado's 1,119.
Arenado also started the first four years of his career winning four-straight Gold Gloves and is widely considered to be one of the best overall defenders in baseball regardless of position.
Sure, you can point to Coors Field but, through it all, what Arenado has done in Colorado purple and silver will have him in bronze and in Cooperstown if he keeps up the production.
Kris Bryant, Cubs
Bryant has had a hell of a run to this point, huh? A focal point of the Cubs' present and future, Bryant has already accomplished a lot. To this point in his career, Bryant has:
- won the Golden Spikes Award (2013);
- won Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year (2014);
- won NL 2015 Rookie of the Year (2015);
- won 2016 NL MVP (2016);
- helped the Cubs win their first World Series in 108 years;
- posted 17.4 WAR in his first three seasons, including a 7.7 WAR season in 2016.
He's the first player in baseball history to win those awards in successive seasons. So yeah, no big deal.
Moreover, Bryant has the highest WAR (13.6)* in his first two full seasons than any other third basemen currently in the Hall of Fame. Higher than Boggs (11.7), Brett (7.2), Schmidt (11.6), Mathews (10.6). That's not just great. That's historic.
*All WAR stats via Baseball-Reference.com.
Manny Machado, Orioles
Machado is probably one of the more polarizing figures in baseball today, given his attitude and controversies he's been involved in. That being said, he's still an incredibly talented player.
Machado's made his mark in history: In his age 20 season, he crushed 51 doubles. That number led the majors, and he's the youngest third baseman in baseball history to reach the 50 doubles mark, supplanting Miguel Cabrera's mark in 2006 (Cabrera was 23).
Machado is also only one of 17 third basemen in baseball history with 100 or more home runs in their first five seasons in the majors. Ahead of him, Hall of Famers Schmidt and Mathews, and active players Arenado and Tampa Bay's Evan Longoria.
But offensive prowess is only half the conversation with Machado. While he came up as a shortstop through Baltimore's system, he's found a home at third base, winning two Gold Glove awards in five seasons, and the Platinum Glove award in 2013, as the AL's best overall defender.
Knee injuries derailed some parts of the early seasons of Machado's career. But he's still just 24, so if the talent he's shown in the box and the field to this point are any indication of what he's capable of for the next 15 years, watch out.
It would be unfair not to mention the most recent inductee to the 3,000-hit club.
Adrian Beltre, Rangers
For some reason, Beltre hasn't gotten the respect that he's due as a major leaguer. Not only has he reached the highly regarded plateau of 3,000 hits, but he's aged like a fine wine.
Though Beltre's career average wRC+ sits at 119, since he's been with Texas, that number has increased dramatically. Since 2011, he's posted wRC+ seasons of: 135, 142, 135, 142, 109, 130 and 134. Those are his age-32 through 38 seasons.
Here are some other crazy numbers regarding Beltre, via Sporting News contributor Ryan Spaeder.
Players with at least 3,000 hits & 5,000 total bases before turning age 39:
— Ryan M. Spaeder (@theaceofspaeder) August 1, 2017
Third basemen with at least 150 DRS & 300 HR:
I can't wait to petition these two gentlemen for the Hall of Fame. pic.twitter.com/n78B6JofXo
— Ryan M. Spaeder (@theaceofspaeder) August 2, 2017
Also, Beltre's 2017 ISO (Isolated power) — a metric that ranks a hitter's raw power — is .216. League average is roughly .140, sticking Beltre in the elite catagory of sluggers.
So, as we've seen seven third basemen voted in by the BBWAA, in the coming years we'll see definitely one, possibly two more. Chipper Jones' first appearance on the Hall of Fame ballot comes later this year, and he's a slam-dunk candidate.
Scott Rolen is also on the ballot for potential 2018 induction, and while his case is a bit more complicated, his defensive metrics speak for themselves. We should value what they do with the glove at the hot corner, no?
While it's certainly a projection that some of these players will make the Hall of Fame — as they each have lengthy careers ahead of them — it's tough to rule them out entirely.
For now, we should probably appreciate how hot the hot corner has gotten.