Hot, hot corner: Third-base production at historic high

Could this be the toughest All-Star ballot ever for third basemen?

May 9th, 2016

Good luck making a choice when casting your Esurance MLB All-Star Game Ballot for third base this year, baseball fans. You're going to need it.

Consider this: David Wright, by any measure, has had a tremendous start to 2016. After a career-worst 2014 and a '15 marred by months missed while dealing with the terrifying-sounding spinal stenosis, Wright's Statcast™exit velocity had jumped from 89.5 mph to 94.4 mph through Monday, and his 136 Weighted Runs Created Plus mark was a close match to what it was in 2007, when he hit 33 homers and finished seventh in the National League MVP Award voting.

• Cast your Esurance All-Star ballot for Wright and other #ASGWorthy players

Wright is a big name playing well in a huge market for a first-place team that just reached the World Series, and his place atop the position ought to be assured … and yet there's a considerable argument to be made that Wright may not even be one of the top 10 third basemen in the game today.

Perhaps that's a shocking statement, and your mileage may vary on it. But then you think about Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant, Matt Carpenter, Kyle Seager, Mike Moustakas, Adrian Beltre and a litany of others, and you realize that has a whole lot less to do with Wright and a whole lot more to do with how historically stacked third base is right now. In a hypothetical Top 10 at the position, you'd have a hard time squeezing Todd Frazier, Anthony Rendon, Evan Longoria or Justin Turner on, either. There are just so many choices.

Gif: Nolan Arenado ASG Worthy

"Historically" isn't a word we're going to toss around lightly without anything to back it up, so let's do exactly that. We'll use the aforementioned wRC+, which is an advanced offensive stat that sets league average at 100 -- so Wright's 136 can be read as "36 percentage points above average" -- and is adjusted for ballpark and era, so it can be used to compare today's lower-offense environment to players of previous generations. (It does not account for defense, which we'll get into in a minute.)

Since Jackie Robinson integrated the game in 1947, the only five seasons in which Major League third basemen combined for a wRC+ mark of 105 or higher had all come between 1948-66, seasons populated by some of the hot corner's historic legends, names like Eddie Mathews, Ron Santo, Harmon Killebrew, etc. None of those seasons was higher than 107.

But through Sunday, third basemen have a wRC+ mark of 109 in 2016, on track for a record:

Now, what we've seen in the season's first six weeks or so is hardly guaranteed to sustain throughout the rest of the year, and even the great Machado can't be expected to keep up the scorching pace he's set in the early going. Then again, the position is actually being dragged down somewhat by subpar starts from players with past records of success like Chase Headley, Maikel Franco, Matt Duffy, Rendon and Frazier, so there could be some amount of evening out.

And as that image shows, this isn't just a one-year blip. This is a continuation of a rebirth we've seen at the position over the past few years, ever since third base had its most recent bottoming-out in 2011, when the collective 92 wRC+ mark was the second lowest on record and only Beltre and Longoria had truly great years. As veterans like Miguel Cabrera, Alex Rodriguez, Headley, Pablo Sandoval, Aramis Ramirez and others have declined, retired or shifted off the position, a new generation of third base stars -- led by Arenado, Bryant and Machado -- has stepped up.

Nowhere is that more clear than when we re-run that same chart, but just for third basemen in their 20s. For 2016, that slices off Donaldson, Frazier, Longoria and Carpenter -- all 30 -- as well as Beltre and Wright, focusing more on the already-mentioned stars as well as relative newcomers like Travis Shaw, Jake Lamb and Nick Castellanos. Even without Donaldson included, the young third basemen this year are dominating, and this could look even better as 29-year-old Jung Ho Kang returns to game action.

Of course, we've focused only on offense, and there's no question that players like Machado and Arenado are elite-level defenders as well. (As evidenced by the fact Machado has slid over to play shortstop while J.J. Hardy is out with an injury.) It's difficult enough to compare today's defenders, much less to do so with players from decades ago. But for what it's worth, taking a look at Wins Above Replacement (which does include defense) does help the argument that what we're seeing isn't just a fluke. Take a look at seasons with the most 4-WAR (i.e., star-level) seasons by third basemen 29 or younger:

Seasons with most 4-WAR third basemen 29 or younger, Since 1947 (minimum 120 games at third base)

1. 2015 -- eight (Arenado, Bryant, Donaldson, Duffy, Frazier, Machado, Moustakas, Seager)

2 (tie). 1971, 2001, 2006 -- seven 

We already saw an integration-era record for most young star-level third basemen last season, and 2016 is off to an even better start. Even if the names aren't 100 percent identical this season, it shows that what we're seeing now is a continuation, not a beginning. For a position that has routinely been underrepresented in Hall of Fame balloting, it's a nice spotlight to have, even if Cooperstown is extremely far away.

It's still early in the season, of course. A lot can and will happen over the next few months, including the promotion of young players who aren't as highly touted, though it should be noted that through Sunday, third basemen had been responsible for a higher percentage of overall Runs Created than at any point in baseball history -- 12.8 percent.

So while 2016's great start is impressive, this isn't just about what we've seen over the first six weeks of the season. It's about what we saw building over the last few years, and about the incredible feats we've seen from players like Arenado, Bryant and Machado, none older than 25. Whether it's truly a "Golden Age" of third basemen is probably open for debate, really. But the production we're seeing isn't. Third base, always in the midst of an up-or-down cycle, is very up these days.