Third base isn't getting any easier to master
Rangers' Beltre stellar, but hot corner play is down across MLB
More and more at a position with such high, hybrid demands, Texas' Adrian Beltre and his type of player stand alone.
Here's how you become the best at the hot corner: hit almost as well as a first baseman and field almost as well as a shortstop. There's a reason there are fewer third basemen in the Hall of Fame than any other position.
But Beltre, being the rare talent he is, cleaned up this awards season, winning both the American League Silver Slugger Award as well as the Gold Glove Award. He's won each honor three times now, including the Silver Slugger Award for two years straight.
"It means a lot," Beltre said after the Gold Glove announcement. "Obviously I'm proud of my defense. It's part of my game that I take pride in. To be chosen as one of the best in the league is quite an accomplishment. Defense is not easy, and there is a lot of competition out there."
There was a time not too long ago when the competition at the plate was just as staunch for third basemen. Power was not hard to come by.
In 2011, it was, and health appears to be the biggest reason.
There are two ways to assess stats at the position. First, you can look broadly at the total numbers a regular third baseman puts together during a season -- including days he may have played first base or designated hitter. A regular third baseman is defined as someone who played at least 50 percent of their games there.
Beltre, for example, hit six of his 32 home runs as a DH last season, but those would count. So, too, would the 13 home runs Mark Reynolds hit while at first base. He had 37 on the year.
Then, you can look narrowly at the numbers accrued only when playing third base. In this case, both methods paint the same picture, but let's look at the broad outlook first.
Regular third basemen combined for 469 home runs, regardless of where they played. However, just five regulars cracked 20 home runs -- not 30, 20. In 2008, there were 16 regulars with at least 20 homers.
The narrower view bears the same results. There were 464 home runs hit last season by those who were specifically playing the hot corner at the time. That's 103 fewer than in 2010, 124 fewer than '09, and 175 fewer than '08. Offense is down around the game, but not that drastically.
So power is clearly down, but why?
Two possible explanations jump out. First, the trade-off is defense. Hitting's down, so glovework should be up, right? Second is health -- baseball's version of a plague hit the hot corner.
The first theory doesn't hold much water.
Though somewhat antiquated, fielding percentage doesn't show third basemen did any better last season compared to the previous few years. In 2011, there was a .954 fielding percentage at third, compared to a .957 mark in both '09 and '08. There were more chances per nine innings in '09 and '08, too.
Using more advanced stats from FanGraphs.com doesn't make much of a case, either. Balls hit in a third baseman's zone were handled better last season than in 2008, but worse than in '09 and '10. The ability to handle plays out of one's zone, meanwhile, saw a big drop-off this year -- more than 300 fewer above-and-beyond plays were made at the hot corner than '10, and nearly 500 fewer than in '09.
But, again, it's not an easy position, and defensive stats aren't perfect.
"Playing the third base is pretty much of a gamble," said Hall of Fame second baseman Johnny Evers in September 1911, according to The Pittsburgh Press. "If the ball happens to be hit right at you, then you get it. Otherwise there is nothing doing."
Health issues, on the other hand, are glaring.
Not one player had more than 147 games at third base in 2011. That's the equivalent of every third baseman around the league going on the 15-day disabled list once. Just four had 130 games or more there.
In 2010, 15 players had at least 130 games at third base, and six had 150. The injuries were plentiful.
Chase Headley led Major League third basemen with 158 games at the position in 2010. This year, he was held to 107 because of a broken finger.