All-Time All-Mariner Roster: Third Base
I wanted Edgar, I really did. I was prepared to refute my own Olerud-Davis arguments on playing time and argue that Edgar’s 140-some games at third in 1991 were so good offensively they overcame any defensive edge.
But I can’t have Edgar at DH and at 3B, which means that I have to pick. And the gap between Edgar at DH and the second-best DH is much greater than he gap between Edgar 1991/1992 and Beltre 07.
There are other reasonable candidates here if you’re looking just at raw offensive stats. Purely on offense, I’d rate the non-Edgars as
Presley 85, .275/.324/.484
Beltre 07, .276/.319/.484
Blowers 93, .280/.357/.475
There’s maybe ten runs of difference between those. And I see Beltre’s defensive advantage easily making up the slight gap between him and Presley, leaving Blowers way back.
It’s interesting as I look at my giant sheet of Mariner position-seasons… Besides Edgar, Adrian has two of the top four Mariner 3B-seasons (06,07) and his 05 isn’t quite top ten. Even with Edgar, he gets in the top ten twice. And it’s not as if he’s set the team on fire, as much as I’ve been a fan. It’s that unlike, say, shortstop, where you get to pick Alex and there’s some nice Omar seasons in there too, or centerfield where we got Griffey Jr. and some wildly (and previously discussed) underappreciated Mike Cameron seasons, third base has really been weak for the M’s historically. You get a few years of Mostly Edgar and then what? Besides Beltre, the third basemen the M’s have had for more than a season or two are few: Jim Presley, Blowers, Russ Davis, Dave Elder, Bill Stein…
Anyway. Beltre 07.
Since I like to talk about defense a lot, this gives me a chance to do it again, so I’m taking it.
Even though we’re not going to consider Edgar here because he’s got the DH spot locked up, let’s compare 1992 Edgar (his best offensive season at 3B) to 2007 Beltre.
1992 Edgar hit .343/.404/.544 in 592 plate appearances. Obviously, it was a pretty awesome season – he won a batting title, was 5th in the league in OBP, and 2nd in the league in SLG. He was a great hitter, and his offensive contributions were worth about 47 runs over an average hitter that year. That’s a lot of runs.
2007 Beltre hit .276/.319/.482 in 639 plate appearances. It wasn’t nearly as impressive of an offensive season. He didn’t finish anywhere near the league lead in BA, OBP, or SLG, and he was only a slightly better than average hitter. His offensive contributions were worth about 9 runs over an average hitter. That’s not that many.
So, the offensive difference between 1992 Edgar and 2007 Beltre was about 38 runs or so. That’s a big gap.
However, clearly ,the two weren’t equal caliber defensively. We know that the boundaries of defensive value generally fall in the +20 to -20 range, where teams will almost always take a guy who is worse than -20 runs at a position and move him to an easier spot, and very few players get miscast defensively at a position where they can put up a better than +20 mark. We know Beltre’s good with the glove, and the advanced defensive metrics we have now tell us that his defense is worth something like 10 runs a year, which sounds about right since he’s good but not the absolute best. So, let’s say we give ’07 Beltre a +10 credit for his defense.
What do we do with 1992 Edgar’s defense? We don’t have good defensive data for way back when, and as we discussed in the Olerud/Davis argument, even the proxies such as playing time and such don’t really give us an idea for how well a player handled the position. However, I think we all watched Edgar play the field and would agree that it’s pretty likely that he didn’t do particularly well at helping his pitchers. I love Edgar, but he wasn’t much to write home about defensively.
So, just for sake of argument, lets say that Edgar was the Manny Ramirez of third baseman in 1992 – a guy who should have been DH’ing and had no real business playing the field. If we give him the -20 penalty, then combined with Beltre’s +10, we’d have closed almost the entire gap between their offensive seasons. If that assumption was true, the “disappointment” that everyone likes to write about as an underachiever would be nearly as valuable as the guy who was the 3rd best hitter in the league.
I’m not saying Edgar was that bad, but I wanted to highlight again just how much defense can effect value. A really good hitter who plays really terrible defense is worth about the same as an average hitter who plays good defense. Repeat this to yourself until you believe it, because it’s a vitally important concept to understand.
So, yea, ’07 Beltre gets the nod here. Edgar will get his time when we do the DH post, and the rest of the candidates can’t hold a candle to Beltre’s value. Just like with Mike Cameron, I’m afraid that Beltre’s always going to be unappreciated until he’s gone, because people just don’t value the things he does well correctly.
I understand why more fans don’t evaluate defense enough to appreciate the contributions of a Beltre, though. For one, it’s almost never covered, and when it is, it’s covered badly. When Richie Sexson is described as being a good or even solid defensive first baseman, what does it mean to say that Beltre’s outstanding?
Moreover, we’re constantly given information about a hitter’s triple-crown stats. Every time they’re up, you get at least their average, and so everyone understands a .200 batting average is bad and a .300 is good, and so on, and the stat itself is easily comprehendable. Even OBP makes sense (I actually find that when I explain batting average to baseball newcomers, people are sometimes surprised to find it doesn’t include walks).
So it’s easy for a casual fan to evaluate the relative hitting value of players, while defensively you have to work a lot harder, and unlike with hitting statistics, you can’t work backwards.
Take UZR, for instance. You can’t reverse-engineer it, and it’s too complicated for easy explanation. To use it, you wind up saying “Ichiro is ten runs better in right field than the average player over a full season” and leaving it at that.
So Beltre’s 07 is predictably underappreciated: his counting stats didn’t look that great, he’s punished as a RH in Safeco Field, and while his defense is acknowledged as good, everyone’s fed the same line about every other player.
I don’t know that there’s an easy solution to this. Do you remember at one of the feeds, someone asked if there was a stat that incorporated defense into hitting statistics? We ended up pointing them towards some of the overall player measures, but I really wish in cases like this that there was some readily accepted shorthand we could use, like
“Beltre hit x/y/z, which is about n runs better than an average third baseman, and he took away n hits with the glove, so credit those to his line and you can think of him as a total a/b/c player.”
And a large part of this problem comes from almost all games being broadcast by baseball teams themselves acting as PR for the franchise, which in turn means that educating the fan base on how much worse Betancourt is getting defensively each year won’t ever be done.
I do wish though that among all the chatter we could at least get some of that commentary on the standout players. All Dave Sims has to say after a nice Beltre play (and he won’t have to wait long) is “You know, people who study this, the serious statheads, they figure that Beltre saves ten, twenty runs a season with his glove over an average third baseman.”
And then Blowers can say “No question about it, Beltre is one of the best defensive third basemen in the game right now…” or whatever.
Anyway, I’ve gone off on a tangent. I agree with you entirely: Beltre’s defense puts him at the top.