Third base is one of those odd positions. Steve Treder has called it "The Crossroads" due to its place smack dab in the center of the defensive spectrum. Few great players make a name for themselves as third basemen, but most of the men on the following list did:
What a surprise. Mike Schmidt dominates the NL spot from 1974 to 1987. In 1985, the one year he didn't top the league, he was deployed primarily at first base. While he didn't top the majors each year, there's no denying Schmidt was the most productive third baseman ever to play the game.
The NL was generally the superior league for hot cornermen up through the Schmidt era. Eddie Mathews dominated the decade between 1954 and 1963, but Ken Boyer occasionally gave him a run for his money. Ron Santo inherited Mathews' throne in the mid-'60s, and Tony Perez and Dick Allen show up in the same time frame. All of them either are or (in my opinion) should be in the Hall of Fame (though Boyer is debatable). We get three sub-greatness guys (Joe Torre, Richie Hebner, Darrell Evans) right before the Schmidt era begins.
I once read an internet discussion where someone claimed that the only reason Brooks Robinson had such a lofty reputation was because the American League hadn't seen any truly great third basemen in a while when he came along. Indeed, I never would've guessed that Ray Boone was the AL's best third baseman three years straight, or that Frank Malzone or Eddie Yost ever claimed the title. It's interesting to note that Brooks was never far and away the best at his position during the '60s. Clete Boyer, Pete Ward, Ed Charles and Harmon Killebrew all either bested or tied him at various points. At least Clete's great 1961 season means there's one year in this database where two brothers held the top spot at the same position in each league.
Sal Bando was pretty much Robinson's successor in the AL, though good years from Tommy Harper and Graig Nettles kept him from a stranglehold on the title. Speaking of Nettles, that 1971 tie is the only season where he shows up at the top. He is, however, pretty consistently in the top one-third of qualifying third basemen during his peak years. I don't support the Hall of Fame case put forth by some biased Yankee fans, but he's a clear Very Gooder.
After a brief detour (Eric Soderholm? Really?), George Brett takes his place as Bando's AL successor. He only has four years at the top, but they come in a five-year span, a peak to be proud of in a strong era for third basemen. Buddy Bell and Doug DeCinces each peek through twice before Wade Boggs takes the title five years straight (the middle of a seven-in-nine-years run).
How about that Edgar Martinez? Three straight years topping the AL! Just imagine if he'd been able to stay there his whole career! He'd be a no-brainer Hall of Famer next year instead of a debatable one. Robin Ventura, one of my favorites, gets a year in after Martinez, then Boggs shows up for the eighth and final time.
Over in the NL we see Matt Williams three times, Ken Caminiti twice and blips from guys like Bobby Bonilla, Howard Johnson, Terry Pendleton and Gary Sheffield. Of course, that's just the ten years post-Schmidt.
Edgardo Alfonzo, better known as a second baseman, takes it in 1997. Over in the AL we see Jim Thome, better known as a first baseman, take it in 1995 and 1996. Tony Fernandez, better known as a shortstop, takes it in 1999. Funny. You could construct an entire infield out of these '90s toppers.
After Alfonzo, Chipper Jones has a nice three-year run. He won't be back until 2008. I don't think anyone (including myself) has ever considered Scott Brosius anything other than a role player, but he was in fact twice the AL's best third baseman. Who would've thunk it? Of course, Jeff Cirillo's numbers are better than Brosius' in 1998. If the Brewers hadn't moved to the NL that year he might've topped the AL two straight seasons.
The NL this decade has been pretty much up-for-grabs. Scott Rolen takes it twice (including 2002, the year he was traded to St. Louis), and the rest of the picture is populated with flashes-in-the-pan like Phil Nevin, Adrian Beltre and Morgan Ensberg. In fairness to Beltre though, he did do it again in the AL with much less impressive stats than in his incredible 2004 season. Two bright young stars, Miguel Cabrera and David Wright, show up in 2006 and 2007.
The AL this decade has been more consistent. Troy Glaus gets a year in at the top, but the next four years belong to Eric Chavez and Corey Koskie. Chavez I could believe, since he had the reputation, but Koskie surprised me. I didn't realize baseball was losing such a good player when Koskie's career prematurely ended.
Of course, Alex Rodriguez has dominated the position since moving to third, right? Well, not quite. In 2004, his first year at third, he lost out to Chavez. In 2005 he took it, but next year he finished just behind a two-way tie between the aforementioned Beltre and (I'm not making this up) Mark Teahen. In 2007 and 2008 he took it again. Is A-Rod a tad overrated? I'm inclined to say yes, though he's obviously still one of the greats.
Overall, the Braves lead the NL with four league-toppers, while the Athletics and Yankees share AL leadership with four each.
Next time it's the "6" position, the most important on the field, the shortstop. So uh, yeah, that should be fun. See you then.