Comparing the A.L. East third basemen

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

Comparing Manny Machado with Will Middlebrooks, Evan Longoria, Brett Lawrie, and Kelly Johnson.

We end this week with a ranking of the third basemen in the AL East. The hot corner is an interesting position. It's not as important as second base or shortstop and yet you can't get away with stone hands like you can in left field. No one expects you to hit like Babe Ruth, but you can't hit like Brendan Ryan, either. You're caught in between. Perhaps this is why your chances of getting into the Hall of Fame are slim; only 15 third sackers have been inducted, the fewest at any position and only five more than the number of umpires. Sheesh, twice as many executives have been enshrined!

The AL East in 2014 will be home to some interesting players. There's a surefire star, a couple of young hopefuls, and one guy who's just kind of been stuck there out of necessity. You know their names; the following are their stats covering the 2012-2013 seasons:

Name PA HR BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ WAR
Evan Longoria 1005 49 10.2% 22.2% .232 .313 .275 .351 .507 .366 137 9.3
Manny Machado 912 21 4.2% 16.6% .156 .316 .279 .309 .435 .323 100 7.5
Brett Lawrie 978 22 6.4% 15.7% .136 .297 .265 .320 .401 .317 97 3.8
Will Middlebrooks 660 32 5.0% 25.5% .208 .295 .254 .294 .462 .324 100 2.3
Kelly Johnson 988 32 9.8% 26.1% .155 .285 .225 .310 .384 .305 91 1.6

Let the rankings begin!

Manny Machado, Baltimore Orioles

Did you know that Machado just had the greatest age-20 season of any third baseman in history? The top five:

  1. Machado, 6.2 fWAR (2013)
  2. Rogers Hornsby, 5.3 fWAR (1916)
  3. Adrian Beltre, 3.4 fWAR (1999)
  4. Freddie Lindstrom, 3.1 fWAR (1961)
  5. Buddy Lewis, 2.9 fWAR (1937)

Eddie Matthews and Cap Anson are next on the list. That's some good company; however, Machado's the only one on this list who accrued his value primarily with the glove. The fact that defensive statistics are still somewhat of a mystery, and can fluctuate year-to-year with seemingly no warning, gives me some pause for 2014. He's also coming off that gruesome knee injury; while he's taking grounders now, he hasn't played in a game and probably won't start the regular season. Finally, it's a difficult pill to swallow but one that you must: when you do so well one year, it's reasonable to expect some regression to occur the next.

So don't expect him to repeat his 6.2 fWAR season ... unless he learns some patience. His career walk rate of 4.2% leaves much to be desired. But there's pop in his bat (.435 SLG) and it all adds up to a 100 wRC+ during his time in the majors. Keeping in mind that he's 21, that's a significant achievement.

Will Middlebrooks, Boston Red Sox

Middlebrooks had a great rookie campaign in 2012. He notched a 122 wRC+ (.288/.325/.509) but underneath it was a sky-high BABIP of .335 and an HR/FB of 21.4%. Regression bit hard; although Middlebrooks walked more frequently and hit the ball well, his BABIP regressed to .265 and his HR/FB slipped to a great-but-not-elite 17.5%. He also missed a few games with a strained lower back.

As a result, he played only 94 games in 2013 and lost some of the shine he carried into the big leagues. After going 4-23 in the posteason, he was benched in favor of Xander Bogaerts for games 5 and 6 of the ALCS and didn't start in the World Series. He did, however, manage to obstruct Allen Craig at the end of Game 3 of the Series, giving the Cardinals the game and the Internet an occasion to pore over the official baseball rules.

Middlebrooks is still young (25), displays good power, and is probably due for some positive BABIP regression in 2014. However, he strikes out a lot and hardly walks at all (5% MLB career walk rate, career OBP of .294). Additionally, he's a below-average defender at the hot corner. He's not a threat to be great this year unless he has some hidden tricks up his sleeve.

According to baseball-reference.com, Middlebrooks right now is most similar to Frank Thomas. No, not that Frank Thomas ... the Frank Thomas who accumulated just 16.6 fWAR from 1951-1966.

Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay Rays

Longoria is the total package. An on-base machine (.357 career OBP) and power threat (.512 SLG), he's put up 5.5 fWAR every year except his injury-shortened 2012 season, and even then he notched 2.5 fWAR in 74 games. DRS rates him as the second-best AL third baseman since 2008; UZR rates him as the best. And get this, he will play his age-28 season in 2014.

The fact that he'll make just $7.5 million in 2014 is absurd and a testament to Andrew Friedman's Darth Vader-esque powers. Longoria could easily make $25 million a year on the open market and would have a strong case for $30 million. Instead, the highest salary he can attain on his contract will be $19.5 million in 2022, and by then inflation will eat away at some of the value. He and Ben Zobrist are the poster children for surplus value and are the two reasons why Tampa Bay is a contender on a shoestring budget.

OK, enough hagiography. Can we leave it at I'm jealous?

Brett Lawrie, Toronto Blue Jays

Like Middlebrooks, Lawrie made a great impression in his first major-league campaign. In 2011 he put up an astounding 157 wRC+ (.293/.373/.580, 9 HR) in just 43 games. Also like Middlebrooks, Lawrie struggled to live up to that hype in the following years. His HR/FB rate dropped from 17% to 9%; meanwhile, his flyball rate plummeted from 45% to 30% (before inching up to 35%). As a result he hit just 11 homers each in 2012 and 2013. That's not what you'd expect from someone who hit nine in 43 games his first year. He has been victimized by several injuries, but was his power a mirage?

Despite the power outage, he gets on base far more often than Middlebrooks (.328 OBP) and strikes out much less often (16.1% K rate). He's over a year younger than Middlebrooks and has more major league experience. Finally, DRS and UZR both rate Lawrie highly, whereas neither stat favors Middlebrooks.

Kelly Johnson, New York Yankees

With Alex Rodriguez out for the year, the Yankees named Johnson their starting third baseman. Johnson's good, but he is overshadowed by the youth and talent on the other teams. He's the old man of the group at 32 and rates as an average defender, although he's played just 118 innings at the hot corner. He hits dingers, at least 15 a year, but he strikes out more than Middlebrooks does without bringing the same amount of power. The result is a wRC+ of 104, which is Machado territory. Since both of these comps are younger than him and each have a more defined skillset, Johnson can't compete.

Rankings

The lowdown:

  1. Evan Longoria is the clear favorite here. He's been consistently excellent for six years now.
  2. Manny Machado ranks second. A league-average hitter with superlative defense at age 21? Count me in.
  3. Brett Lawrie ranks third. Injuries seem to be holding him back.
  4. Will Middlebrooks slides to fourth place. If he struggles in 2014, he may see Pawtucket again.
  5. Kelly Johnson brings up the rear in the AL East. Again, he's a good player, but he's outmatched in this division.
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