FanPost

Third Base is a Key Defensive Position

Two articles ago we discussed the vagaries of WAR and how while we are quite clear on how to measure offensive output: we are far less certain on how to measure defensive value. Another portion of WAR is what is called positional adjustment. This is the adjustment Baseball-Reference makes to take into account the comparative difficulty of fielding certain positions; we all intuitively understand that catcher is a more difficult and grueling position than first base. B-Ref measures this difference in actual runs and the breakdown from most to least is: Catcher +9, Shortstop +7, Second Base +3, Center Field +2.5, Third Base +2, Right Field -7, Left Field -7, First Base -9.5, DH -15. The assumption then being all else being equal a league average hitting catcher is worth quite more than a league average hitting first baseman.

Now, one comparatively minor difference between the positions is between second and third base (only one run) which is quite smaller than say center field and the corners (nine and a half runs), or first base and third base (11.5 runs). You would assume given the small difference between the two infield positions voters would consider players similarly.

Needless to say they do not.

Third base has the fewest Hall of Famers inducted compared to other positions. Third base has 15 players in it. Right field (the most) has 27, Shortstop has 23, first base has 21, second base & left field have 20, center field has 19 and catcher 16.*. This is in part that, despite being a premium defensive position, is not viewed that way by the electorate (center field faces similar constraints, but is not quite as bad as third base). As a result while second base and shortstop both have numerous Hall of Famers who earned induction largely due to their glove, only one third baseman entered the Hall as a 'Glove first' player: Brooks Robinson.

*Catcher being an outlier makes more intuitive sense than third base. Most catchers do not get to play for a particularly long time, or need to move off the position as they age. As a result: many great catchers posted great but quite short careers, keeping them from the length necessary to earn the attention of BBWAA voters. Ivan Rodriguez accumulated over 10,000 plate appearances at catcher, the most in the Hall of Fame, but the fewest for any position.

This is important because two way players are regularly lionized at second base, shortstop, centerfield and catcher, but far less so at third. As a result there's a massive backlog of two way thirdbasemen outside the Hall, here are a few I have written about before with their JAWS in parantheses:

-Ken Boyer (14th) Boyer was a terrific hitter who played great third base. It's not like Boyer was completely ignored: he won an MVP and made 11 All-Star Games. His OPS+ is a solid 116 (almost the same, for reference, as Ryne Sandberg). His case has routinely been ignored by the voters.

-Buddy Bell (15th) Bell is almost the same as Boyer with less respect. Bell was a slightly worse hitter, but a slightly better defender. He also spent much of his career in Cleveland, when the Indians stunk, so he got little All-Star love.

-Graig Nettles (12th) I sound like a broken record here: but Nettles was better than both Bell and Boyer, offensively and defensively.

There are others: Sal Bando (16th), Darrell Evans (19th), probably soon: Evan Longoria (18th), already underrated: Jose Ramirez (who's 48th in JAWs and climbing rapidly). It's rather nuts. If I had my druthers I'd put Boyer, Bell, & Nettles all into the Hall of Fame. Which does finally bring us to Scott Rolen (10th).

Scott Rolen, 3B 70.1/43.6/56.9 (10th); AVG: 68.6/43/1.55.9

I want to start by saying: without JAWS I think Rolen would face incredibly long odds for induction into the Hall of Fame. Scott Rolen is nearly a carbon copy of Nettles, Boyer and Bell. All four were solid but not all time great hitters with OPS+ of: 122, 110, 116 and 109 respectively. All four played great defense with dbWAR of: 21.2, 21.4, 10.7 and 23.8 respectively. However, all four (including Rolen initially) fell into this trap third basemen fall into of the great, professional, hitters and great defensive players who simply did not get as much respect as they deserved.

Rolen did not debut on the ballot in a strong position: only 10.2% of voters thought Rolen was a Hall of Famers in the 2018 balloting. Since then his support grew steadily to 17.2% then 35.3% and finally crossing the 50% mark last year. All of this is thanks to JAWS/WAR in my opinion. Of the voters whom I could read their opinions on why they flipped their votes (not a perfect sample I know) nearly all of them listed WAR directly as a reason why they changed including: Mark Saxson of The Athletic last year who wrote:

While I believe his offensive output, particularly in the era he competed in, is borderline for the highest honor the sport endows his career WAR (70.1) outperforms the average third baseman in an underrepresented position.

Rob Biertempfel wrote basically the same thing in The Athletic the prior year. Mike Harrington wrote similarly in the Buffalo News that same year saying:

Among third basemen Rolen is 9th all-time in Wins Above Replacement (70.1).

You can find others as well. Evan Grant listed Rolen's WAR directly in the Dallas Daily News, for instance. it is good that bWAR (in particular) is shedding light on the defensive value third basemen provide, especially compared to the often honored shortstops and second basemen already in the Hall.

Defense is Crucial to Scott Rolen's Case

If WAR is crucial to Rolen's increased support we need to examine exactly why Rolen's value ranks 10th all time at the position. Rolen's 122 OPS+ is obviously quite good, but not necessarily the best all time at 2nd and third. Using the same methodology I used to examine Gary Sheffield's offensive value at his position I looked at Rolen's as well. Rolen only ranks 11th among Hall of Famers in obWAR JAWS, only ahead of Brooks Robinson and Pie Traynor. If we include some players who I would induct or believe will earn induction imminently (Ken Boyer, Sal Bando, Buddy Bell, Graig Nettles and Dick Allen) he falls to 15th. In short, while Rolen was a good offensive player he is not a good enough offensive player to earn induction at third, in my view, without good defense. Three others are above him in career obWAR who are not included as well: Stan Hack, Darrell Evans and Toby Harrah.

So the question must be asked: is Rolen's defensive value real? First, the players during his time clearly viewed Rolen as a superior defensive player winning eight Gold Gloves, with only Mike Schmidt and Brooks Robinson earning more. Baseball-Reference reckons Rolen added 175 runs defensively during his career. Fangraphs largely agrees giving him 180 runs. We only have one year of data for Rolen's defense from inside edge (2012) but the one year we have suggests he made 20% of plays he only had a Remote (1-10%) chance of making, 40% of Unlikely (10-40%) plays, 63.6% of Even (40-60%) plays, 70.8% of Likely plays (70-90%) and 96.7% of Routine (90-100%) plays. Overall the defensive statistics seem to back up his reputation.

One other note to make: unlike Gary Sheffield and Andruw Jones (where we are asked to believe two extremes), bWAR does not suggest that Rolen is the best third baseman of all time. Instead we are asked to believe that Rolen ranks 6th behind Robinson, Beltre, Nettles, Bell and Clete Boyer (who we have not discussed). This may be a touch high, but not so high as to damage his overall position as a solid hitting, superior defensively, player. Even if Rolen only ranks 10th or 11th all time defensively: he's still a Hall of Fame.

Conclusion

Scott Rolen's Hall of Fame case is less an individual discussion and more a candid reconsideration of how voters valued the position historically. I am quite confident that if Buddy Bell, Ken Boyer, & Graig Nettles were considered by the BBWAA today that all would stand an excellent chance at induction. Unfortunately the Veteran's Committee seems far less interested in honoring great two way third basemen, preferring to honor Dick Allen. Allen is also a qualified Hall of Famer and by my little obWAR tool ranks 5th all time among third basemen offensively. That being said, there is still a stigma against great two way players. The good news is perceptions are changing. I believe Rolen will get inducted in the next two years, which will help correct this issue going forward.

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