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Boston Red Sox

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Who Were the Best Third Basemen of the '80s?

The short list includes Boggs, Brett and Schmidt. How about Molitor?

There are 319 members of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Do you know how many of them were third baseman?

Remarkably, the answer is just 16 -- and only seven of them were elected by the Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA).

From 1984-1998, a period of 15 years, just one full-time third baseman was enshrined in Cooperstown: Mike Schmidt.

Third base is such a demanding position that many players are eventually moved off the hot corner to a less challenging spot on the diamond.

I did some research into the best third baseman of the 1980s and was surprised by the dearth of talent. After Mike Schmidt (105.5 WAR), Wade Boggs (91.1 WAR) and George Brett (88.4 WAR), the quality really falls off.

According to the Subjective Baseball blog, Boggs was the best third baseman of the ‘80s. The writer makes a pretty good argument, which you can read here.

Paul Molitor (75.4 WAR) also makes many lists as one of the best third baseman of that era, which made sense to me. After all, he's a Hall of Famer.

However, Molitor played just 791 of his 1,495 career games at third.

While looking at Molitor’s career stats, something really jumped out at me: his numbers are relatively unimpressive for a Hall of Famer. He amassed over 3,000 career hits, so he always seemed like a no-brainer inductee… until I closely looked at his career.

Molitor played more than half of his 1,495 games at the hot corner and also DH’d quite a bit. Both are premium power spots in any lineup. Yet, Molitor had relatively little power, homering just 234 times over 21 seasons. That’s an average of 11 long balls per season. It’s not that his power faded as he got older either. HIs career high was 22 homers at age 36. His next best season was 19 HR at age 24.

However, power is just one facet of the game. Clearly, there are other important factors too.

But here’s where it gets really weird:

Over Molitor's 21 seasons, he scored 100 runs just five times; had 200 hits just four times; posted a .400 OBP just three times; had 40 doubles just twice; and drove in 100 runs just twice.

When I view Molitor’s numbers in sum total, his career was very good, but not elite. His greatest offensive asset was his batting average. Molitor posted a lifetime .336 average and batted at least .300 12 times, which is very impressive.

Molitor was a seven-time All Star and won four Silver Sluggers, which is nice. But he played 21 seasons, which suggests that he wasn’t often the best player at his position. Additionally, Molitor never won an MVP.

None of that seems like the stuff of a Hall of Famer.

But defense is really important too, right?

Here’s the clincher: Molitor never won a Gold Glove. In fact, in 1982, he led the AL with 29 errors at third. As a third baseman, he had four seasons in the top 10 for errors and as a second baseman he had two seasons in the top 10.

Molitor did win one World Series, with Toronto in 1993, and was the MVP.

Yet, the real reason Molitor made the Hall of Fame was longevity. He was a very good hitter, whose excellent batting average allowed him to stay in the game for an extended period (the average career of a Major League Baseball player is just 5.6 years).

The strength of Molitor’s HOF argument was this: he is one of just five players in major league history with at least 3,000 hits, a .300 lifetime batting average and 500 stolen bases. The other four are Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Eddie Collins and Ichiro Suzuki.

But get this: Molitor stole 40 bases just four times and had 10 seasons in which he stole 20 or less. He wasn't Rickey Henderson; he just exhibited consistency at base stealing over a very long career.

The conclusion is that Molitor is a borderline HOF candidate in every sense. Yet, I never knew that until I carefully analyzed his numbers.

That means there were even fewer truly great third baseman in the ‘80s than I had realized.

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