Moving on to better things, I ran across an excellent blog post over on the ESPN blog spot by David Shoenfield about Chipper’s rank amongst MLB third basemen all-time. You can read the entire post here. . Reading his post got me to thinking how I would rate Chipper versus the best in the Hall Of Fame.
In what may be a surprise to some, third base is really a position that has a dearth of truly elite, first-ballot Hall-Of-Fame type players. I suppose a good deal of this is due to the nature of the beast. Third base is usually looked to for power, yet it is a demanding position defensively. As such, a typical career path might start at third base (or maybe even shortstop as a kid), but in the early to mid thirties yield a shift to first base or DH. That seriously reduces the pool of players that make a career out of playing third. Do a search of 39 year old third basemen all-time at baseball reference and you’ll see that it’s an endangered species. To me, that makes what Chipper is continuing to do even more special.
This backdrop results in a “Group of Six” that most people seem to agree represent the best-of-the-best at the position:
Schoenfield’s article does an excellent job of looking at the rankings primarily from a quantitative perspective. I won’t rehash all the work he did, but I do think it’s safe to say that, at least offensively, both basic and advanced metrics rank Schmidt first and Robinson last. It’s much closer for 2-5, though. Although no stat is perfect and none transfer perfectly from era to era, in my opinion the best single stat for this kind of exercise is OPS+, or on-base percentage plus slugging percentage, indexed (100 being average) and adjusted for ballpark differences. This stat also excludes attempts at quantifying defensive prowess, which is a good thing in this context, I think. Without getting on a soapbox, in my opinion these defensive metrics are still crude and, to a large degree, introduce an implied and false degree of precision to something that is still mostly dependent on “the eye of the beholder”. When you take this and attempt to retroactively apply it to historical eras, it begins to reach the theater of the absurd, again in my opinion. So, I’ll concede that Brooks was a magician with the glove, then insist that Chipper is much better with the glove than he might appear at first or if you only see him play a few times.
So, what does OPS+ show? It has Schmidt first at 147, Captain Eddie next at 143, then Chipper third at 142, then Brett at 135, Boggs fifth at 130, and finally Brooks at 104. Obviously this is in alignment with the subjective consensus and puts 2-5 really close. So, where do I think Chipper fits? This is incredibly hard for me, as Eddie Mathews was my Dad’s favorite player so he automatically became mine as a little kid. Chipper has been my favorite Brave since the departure of Dale Murphy. I’ve met Chipper and really like him as a person. If I could, I think I’d call it a tie. Since I can’t do that, I give the slimmest of edges to Mathews. The numbers he put up as a kid were astounding, including 47 HR’s at 21 years old. He made up one-half of one of the best 1-2 punches in the history of baseball, along with Henry Aaron. Like Chipper, he was a better defender than he was often given credit for, as it was said that if he couldn’t catch it with his glove, he’d catch it with his nose! But if I’m giving the slight edge to Eddie, what two positions do I have them occupying?
Why, that would be 2 and 3, and within a respectable distance of Michael Jack Schmidt. If Chipper continues to play like he has for the past month, he’ll hit close to .300 this season with an OPS+ in the 130 range. That would be record setting territory for a third baseman of that age. If he puts up close to those numbers in 2012, I’ll change my vote and put him number two, where I know he’ll be trying harder :). Either way, I see him as a first ballot Hall-Of-Famer.
OK, that’s close to 800 words laying out my take on the issue. I’ll gladly settle for way less than that to hear what your take is!