Pirates' Top 5 third basemen: Berry's take

April 13th, 2020

No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun and debate purposes only … if you don’t agree with the order, participate in the Twitter poll to vote for your favorite at this position.

Here is Adam Berry’s ranking of the top five third basemen in Pirates history. Next week: Shortstops.

Pirates' All-Time Around the Horn Team: C | 1B | 2B

1. , 1920-37
Key fact: Among Pirates’ top 10 all-time leaders in batting average, hits, doubles, triples, RBIs and games played

Harold Joseph Traynor, better known as “Pie,” spent his entire 17-year playing career with the Pirates and stayed on to manage the team until 1939. The Hall of Famer is regarded as one of the best third basemen in Major League history, a fine defender who retired with a .320 career batting average. Among third basemen, only Wade Boggs recorded a higher career average.

Traynor led Pittsburgh to a World Series championship in 1925 and another National League pennant in '27, accomplishing enough during his tenure to have his No. 20 uniform retired by the club in '72. During the '25 Fall Classic, Traynor went 9-for-26 with a home run, two triples and four RBIs in the Pirates’ seven-game triumph over the Washington Senators.

Traynor wasn’t a traditional power hitter, slugging only 58 home runs in his career, but the two-time All-Star finished his career with 2,416 hits, 371 doubles, 164 triples, 1,273 RBIs and 1,941 games played. He leads all Pirates third basemen with 37.3 Wins Above Replacement (per Baseball-Reference), a total that also ranks 15th in franchise history between Andrew McCutchen and the next player on this list.

2. Tommy Leach, 1900-12, '18
Key fact: 1909 World Series champ totaled 1,603 hits and 36.6 WAR for Pittsburgh

Placing Leach on these lists is somewhat complicated. By some metrics, he’s one of the Pirates’ most productive players ever. (FanGraphs’ calculation of Wins Above Replacement, for example, ranks him slightly ahead of Traynor.) But he only spent roughly half of his career at third base, eventually settling into the outfield.

Consider that Leach was the Pirates’ starting third baseman for all eight games of the 1903 World Series, when he had four triples among his nine hits, then six years later he started all seven games of the Fall Classic in center field and hit .360 with four doubles as the Pirates won it all. But for the purposes of this exercise, we’ll qualify Leach as a third baseman and place him behind Traynor.

Leach’s career, while not remembered among the franchise’s icons, was impressive. In 1902, he led the NL with six homers and the Majors with 22 triples. In '09, he scored a Major League-leading 126 runs. In 14 seasons with Pittsburgh, Leach batted .271 with 43 homers, 139 triples, 192 doubles, 625 RBIs and 271 stolen bases -- impressive numbers for a man listed at 5-foot-7 and 150 pounds.

3. Richie Hebner, 1968-76, '82-83
Key fact: One of 11 players in Pirates history with at least 1,000 hits and 100 home runs

This former first-round Draft pick was known as “The Gravedigger” because of his offseason job, well, digging graves. Sometimes it really is that simple.

Hebner played particularly well for the Pirates as they thrived from 1970-74, batting .285 with 90 homers, 114 doubles and 327 RBIs in those five seasons. He recorded the Pirates’ first hit (and scored the first run) at Three Rivers Stadium on July 16, 1970. He ranks fourth among Pirates third basemen with 23.0 WAR, having slashed .277/.350/.442 in 1,140 games during his Pittsburgh tenure.

As the starting third baseman for Pirates teams that won five NL East titles from 1970-75, Hebner was presented with plenty of opportunities in the postseason. He had four hits in six at-bats in the 1970 NL Championship Series and went 5-for-17 with two big homers in the '71 NLCS, then started in three games of the Pirates’ World Series victory over the Orioles in that October.

4. Bill Madlock, 1979-85
Key fact: 1979 World Series champ was a two-time All-Star and earned a pair of batting titles with the Pirates

“Mad Dog” won two of his four NL batting titles with the Pirates, and his arrival in June 1979 helped the Bucs surge to their most recent World Series championship. Madlock hit .328/.390/.469 with seven homers in 85 games for the Pirates in the second half of the '79 season, then hit .375 against the Orioles in the World Series.

In seven years with the Pirates, Madlock slashed .297/.357/.428 with 68 homers, 390 RBIs and 82 steals. He didn’t win the batting title in 1982, as he did in '81 and '83, but it might have been the best overall year of his career. In '82, Madlock hit .319/.368/.488 with a career-high 19 homers, 95 RBIs and 18 steals to go along with 33 doubles in 154 games.

Madlock is the only retired player to have won four batting titles in his career and not be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. (Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera, a future Hall of Famer, has also won four.)

5. , 1986-91
Key fact: Four-time All-Star and three-time Silver Slugger Award winner with the Pirates was among the top three vote-getters for NL MVP in his final two seasons in Pittsburgh

Bonilla might rank as high as third on this list, but he was primarily a right fielder for arguably his two best seasons in Pittsburgh. We won’t disagree with any argument that he should be higher than fifth, but his significant time in right field -- combined with his relatively brief career in Pittsburgh -- bumped him down this list, where we're prioritizing total contributions over shorter stints of stardom.

“Bobby-Bo” led the NL in extra-base hits (78) in 1990 and led the league in doubles (44) in '91. He slashed .284/.357/.481 with 114 homers, 191 doubles and 500 RBIs during his time with the Pirates while recording an adjusted OPS that was 34 percent better than league average. In only 843 games, he managed to rack up 20.4 WAR, the fifth-highest total among the Pirates' all-time third basemen.

Bonilla was manager Jim Leyland’s starting third baseman early on, but he committed 67 errors at third from 1988-89, spent nearly all of '90 in right field and played 104 games in right in '91. There, he rounded out an excellent outfield trio with Barry Bonds and Andy Van Slyke.

Honorable mention
Bob Elliott (1939-46) ranks third among Pirates third basemen in WAR, slotting between Leach and Hebner with a 23.4 mark, but he didn’t start playing third until the fourth season of his Pirates career. He spent all of the '42-44 seasons at third base then played more outfield in '45 and '46. That made it difficult to include him on this list -- even more so than Leach -- but he deserves a tip of the cap for hitting .292/.363/.419 with 633 RBIs and earning three All-Star nods during his time in Pittsburgh.