By bWAR, it’s actually pretty close at the top, with only about fifteen career wins - so, less than one per season - spanning first and fourth place on the chart. It’s also a category where the modern era seems to dominate proceedings. All of the top ten played their entire careers in the integrated era, with the earliest to retire being Eddie Mathews, whose playing time ended in 1968. Three of them didn’t even make their first appearance in the majors until the nineties. But it appears the point of peak third-base was probably 1974, when half of the all-time top ten by bWAR were simultaneously active: Mike Schmidt, George Brett. Brooks Robinson, Ron Santo and Graig Nettles.
Right now, the top active third baseman is Evan Longoria. He’s currently #16, with 57.6 bWAR. He turned 36 in October, after a season where he was worth 1.8 bWAR. He’s under contract for one more season, with a team option for 2023, though the 10.6 bWAR he would need to break into the top 10 seems a bit of a stretch. Probably the man with the best shot at making the top 10 down the road is Manny Machado, who has already accumulated 45.2 through his age 28 season. If I re-run the numbers for third-baseman to that point, he is fourth on the list, trailing only Mathews, Santo and Brett. So if he ends up playing as long as they did - Brett until he was 40, for example - Machado could end up as highly-ranked.
The other player who stands out here is Wade Boggs, because of his late arrival. He didn’t make his major league debut until his age 24 season. He’s the only position player in the top 75 at any spot by bWAR to have arrived that late. Obviously, getting an early start is a big help in terms of racking up counting stats. But Boggs has 23 more career bWAR than other 24-year-old position player debutants, with the next best being Edgar Martinez and Kenny Lofton. Across the top 30 by career bWAR, almost half (14) debuted while still teenagers. Only three of the thirty were later than age 21 when they arrived in the majors: Boggs, Schmidt and Honus Wagner.
Below is the list of the top 10 (here’s the full chart, if you fancy exploring beyond them). As usual, their names go to the appropriate page at Baseball-Reference.com for full details of their careers.
Best 3B ever
Interesting to see a position which has apparently blossomed in the modern era. You have to go down to #13 to find anyone from before the war, in Home Run Baker (hey, 12 HR led the majors in 1913!). As usual, we took a look at Negro League contenders, for whom bWAR didn’t do justice. But here, there wasn’t anyone who stood out. Using the same criteria as above (50% of games played at 3B), no Negro League player reached even 20 bWAR. The leader is Dewey Creacy, who put up 18.1 bWAR over 957 games. That works out at 3.1 bWAR per 162 games, which is more “respectable everyday output” than Hall of Famer. Though at his peak of 3.4 bWAR over 83 games in 1925, he was probably at or near All-Star caliber.
As usual, we need to narrow the candidates down to five or thereabouts, for the final poll. This will be done largely on the basis of recs in the comments, though the decision of the judging committee i.e. me, will be final in this regard. Just identify the player in the subject line, and make your case in the body of the comment. If you agree with a choice already made, give it a rec. If you don’t see your choice, post a new comment. I will delete subsequent top-level comments about the same player. Poll to follow on Friday!