Saturday, November 8, 2008

2008 Positional MVP Picks: Third Basemen

The corners of the diamond tend to be where the top hitters lurk, and the hot corner was no exception to this rule in 2008. Although I found that narrowing down the third basemen list to seven names was as simple, if not simpler, than the process was for second basemen, determining actual rankings once I was down to seven finalists was extremely difficult. But difficult or no, I plugged away at the numbers until I was satisfied with my rankings and ready to bring you Installment #5: Third Basemen.

In 2008, there were basically three classes of third basemen: the top three, numbers four through seven, and everyone else. But I’ve tried to keep my positional MVP picks at five players, which meant two players had to be dropped from the short list.

The second honorable mention (7th place) was easy enough: Jorge Cantu, despite being a solid hitter (.277/.327/.481 with 29 HR for an OPS+ of 110), was a terrible fielder in ’08 (16th among twenty qualified ML third basemen in range factor [RF] at 2.51, dead last in zone rating [ZR] at .720, and 18th in revised zone rating [RZR] at .662). True, at least two of the third basemen who made the top five are below-average to terrible fielders, but they are also vastly superior hitters to Cantu.

The first honorable mention was much more difficult to determine. Troy Glaus had an outstanding season in his new St. Louis uniform, putting together a line of .270/.372/.483 with 27 homers and an OPS of .855 (OPS+ 124), and his VORP of 35.2 actually led my pick for #5 by .4 runs (though Glaus was nearly ten runs behind 4th place). But Glaus wasn’t as good with his glove as the first man on my list, and so will have to settle for an honorable mention.

As for the players who made the list, I’m actually very confident in my #1 pick, but there are legitimate arguments, with which I will engage later, against both #1 and #2 being ranked as high as they are. #2 and #3 were almost too close to call, #4 was all alone (he has no business being rated either higher or lower than fourth), and #5 is hanging on to his spot by the skin of his teeth (or, perhaps more appropriately, by the leather of his glove).

So without further qualification, I present the top five MLB third basemen of 2008:

5.) Evan Longoria started the year in the minors, landed on the DL with a broken wrist, and only played in 122 games, but still managed to put together an excellent season. Longoria’s first-year resume includes a batting line of .272/.343/.531, an OPS of .874 (OPS+ 125), 27 HR, .302 EqA, 20 total win shares (including 4.8 fielding win shares, higher than any other Major League third baseman), and a VORP of 34.8. Among qualifyied third basemen, he tied for sixth in the majors with a 2.72 RF, was seventh with a .797 ZR, and fourth with a .731 RZR.

Longoria should be the runaway winner of the American League Rookie of the Year award, particularly since he was such an important part of the Rays’ division title (and end-of-season award voters love playoff berths!). And although I think playoff berths are overrated with regards to individual awards (and am glad that, traditionally, the RotY has been much less linked to pennants than the MVP has), I use the word “should” with regards to Longoria’s expected RotY for two reasons: one, because I’m fairly certain that he will win the award, and two, because I believe he deserves it.

Longoria’s partial season was not strong enough for him to make it any higher than fifth on this list, but he is only 23 years old; give him another (hopefully full) season or two in the bigs, and he’ll be significantly higher on the short list of premier third basemen.

4.) Aramis Ramirez may be a statue at third, but my God can he ever crush a ball, and now that he’s taking more walks, Ramirez has become even more dangerous at the plate. Aramis’s 2008 stats include a batting line of .289/.380/.518, an OPS of .898 (OPS+ 128), 27 HR, a .297 EqA, 25 total win shares, and a VORP of 44.7 (solidly ahead of Glaus and Longoria, but nowhere near the top three).

Defensively, Ramirez is significantly worse at third than Longoria. His 2.16 RF was easily the lowest among qualified third basemen, and his .751 ZR and .659 RZR were 17th and 19th, respectively. But because offense is so much more important than defense, particularly at the corners, Ramirez gets the nod at #4.

There is no reason in heaven or on earth, by the way, that Aramis Ramirez should have won the NL Hank Aaron Award (see my previous post for a more detailed explanation), nor is there any reason for him to move into the top three on this list. But there is also no reason why Ramirez should be anything lower than #4.

3.) David Wright regressed slightly from his 2007 numbers, but still put together a monster year in ’08. Wright hit .302/.390/.534 with 33 HR for an OPS of .924 (OPS+ 141), an EqA of .319, 29 total win shares (tops among third basemen), and a VORP of 66.2.

And unlike Ramirez, Wright is a good fielder. Although his RF of 2.51 and ZR of .765 (both 15th among qualified third basemen) are hardly impressive, his RZR of .714 was good for 6th in the majors (and second only to Longoria among third basemen on this list).

Had Wright put up his 2007 numbers this year, he would easily have overtaken the next man on my list. Even in 2008, one could argue that Wright is worthy of the #2 spot. But in my estimation, Wright falls just short of the top two this year.

2.) Alex Rodriguez was once again the most valuable American League third baseman in 2008, though this year he’ll have to settle for second place on the overall list. Rodriguez had a bit of a down year in ’08 (which, in mere mortal terms, means “an amazing year”) thanks to a stint on the DL that limited him to 138 games, but his numbers were still obscene: .302/.392/.573 with 35 HR, a .965 OPS (OPS+ 150), .323 EqA, 25 total win shares, and a VORP of 65.6.

A-Rod was respectable in the field, beating out Wright with a 2.59 RF and .786 ZR, but lagging behind the Mets third baseman with a .703 RZR. Of course, defense is not and has never been the reason that Rodriguez is one of the most valuable players in all of baseball, let alone at his own position.

Which brings me to a topic that, surprisingly, I haven’t seen many writers address: Alex Rodriguez is a legitimate MVP candidate. In a year in which the Yankees were devastated by injuries to catcher Jorge Posada, pitcher Chien-Ming Wang, and outfielder Hideki Matsui, and disappointed by serious regressions from their young talent (Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera) as well as their veterans (Derek Jeter), A-Rod led the American League in VORP and SLG, was second in EqA and OPS (and OPS+), third in HR, and top five in a slew of other offensive categories, all while keeping the Yankees competitive in arguably the toughest division in baseball (it’s easy to forget that the Yankees would have won the AL Central or the NL West, and been only one game out in the NL Wild Card despite playing so many games against the Rays, Red Sox, and Blue Jays). In fact, if I had a vote, I’d almost certainly cast it for A-Rod this year.

As for this list, the A-Rod vs. Wright debate comes down to qualitative vs. quantitative statistics. Wright played in 160 games; A-rod played in 138. Wright’s countable statistics (VORP and win shares, for example—though notably, not HR) were higher than Rodriguez’s in 2008. But A-Rod’s averages (EqA, OBP, SLG, OPS, and OPS+) were all higher than Wright’s.

I chose to go with qualitative statistics, but the choice is certainly arguable, particularly within an MVP-type context; after all, one might argue, isn’t the player who plays more games, even at a lower level, likely to be more valuable to a team? The answer is almost certainly “yes,” and A-Rod’s and Wright’s VORPs support such an answer. But because Wright was unable to convincingly pull away from A-Rod despite 22 extra games (Wright’s VORP was only .6 runs higher than Rodriguez’s), I went with the better player over fewer games.

1.) Yes, he cooled off after the All-Star break. Yes, he played in only 128 games due to a lingering thigh injury. But Chipper Jones was the most valuable third baseman in the Major Leagues in 2008. The Braves third baseman hit .364/.470(tops in the majors)/.574 for an OPS of 1.144 (OPS+ 174) with 22 HR, a .362 EqA (second only to Pujols), 24 total win shares, and a VORP of 75.4 (easily tops at third base, and third overall in the majors).

Jones isn’t a terrible fielder (his 2.73 RF and .820 ZR were fifth and second in the majors, respectively, though his .695 RZR—14th among qualified third basemen—tells a different story), but with the year he had at the plate in 2008, he could have trotted to the hot corner with a cinderblock strapped to his left hand and still been a fantastic everyday third baseman.

Like with A-Rod, the fact that Jones didn’t play everyday is really the only strong argument against him at #1. But whereas such an argument could potentially unseat Rodriguez from the #2 spot, it doesn’t work as well against Jones. Jones outperformed Wright so dramatically in qualitative statistics like EqA (.362 to .319), BA/OBP/SLG (.364/.470/.574 to .302/.390/.534), and OPS+ (174 to 141), as well as in arguably the best quantitative offensive statistic for comparisons of players within the same year/league/position (VORP, 75.4 to 66.2) despite playing in 32 (!) fewer games, that losing out to Wright in home runs (22 to 33) and total win shares (24 to 29) does little to refute Jones’s claim to the #1 spot.

Chipper Jones won’t sniff the NL MVP award (Pujols or, God forbid, Ryan Howard has that trophy locked down), but despite playing in only 128 games, he was far and away the best (and most valuable) third baseman of 2008.


  1. While I agree with you about Chipper having a great season and deserving the acclaim, I can't agree with placing Ramirez over Longoria. Longoria led in EqA and while he did have a lower OBP I think his fielding places him above Ramirez.

  2. I'll admit it; I'm biased against Longoria because of his .343 OBP (vs. .380 for Ramirez). I just keep coming back to that number, which (based on the responses I'm getting) is NOT an issue for a lot of folks.

    Longoria's a much, Much, MUCH better fielder than Ramirez. Given a full season or a higher OBP, I'd have moved Longoria to #4 in a heartbeat. And I certainly overstated Ramirez's lead over Longoria (a very subjective lead, even by my reckoning).

    But Longoria's glove and 0.05 lead in EqA just wasn't enough to convince me. Perhaps it should have been, but although I'd rather have Longoria on my team, I still think Ramirez had the better year in '08.