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The Best Third Baseman of All Time?

Since FanGraphs introduced sortable Major League Leaderboards that cover multiple positions and seasons, it’s been much easier to compare players who played in different eras. It’s also useful for settling debates, such as “who is the greatest _____ of all time.” All you have to do is look up the position and set the years, and you’ve won bragging rights over all your baseball friends. Well, if you’ve spent some time looking at the leaderboards lately, you may have noticed a significant change, particularly at third base. Very recently, Alex Rodriguez passed Mike Schmidt in career WAR; meaning you could make the argument that A-Rod is now the best third baseman of all time. Rodriguez is one of the more polarizing athletes in the sport, so let’s explore whether he deserves this title.

There are two main issues up for debate when discussing A-Rod’s candidacy for best third baseman of all time. (I’m sure there are plenty more, but these are the two that immediately come to mind).

First off, what do we make of Rodriguez’s mid-career positional change? Rodriguez came up as a shortstop, and accumulated more than half of his WAR at that position (63.8 compared to 110.8). While the fielding metrics rated A-Rod as an uneven shortstop, his defense hit a wall once he shifted to third base. As a shortstop, A-Rod not only managed to produce at a ridiculous offensive rate, but his defense seemed to be more of an asset, as well.

Then, the trade happened. A-Rod agreed to a trade that would send him to the New York Yankees to play third base. Despite all he had accomplished at shortstop, A-Rod thought it was time to make the switch.

I don’t see it as a big deal at all. I look at it as a new challenge. I won two Gold Gloves and an MVP at shortstop. I thought I achieved just about everything personally at shortstop. Now it’s time to win. I’ve always thought of myself as a team player. Playing third base is the ultimate team move

While it would seem A-Rod broke his arm patting himself on the back with that quote, many analysts viewed his shift to third as selfless at the time. Say what you will about A-Rod, but he gave up a legitimate chance to go down as the greatest shortstop in history to move to third. He did this even though many argued he was a much better defender at the position than Derek Jeter.

Due to issue number two, it’s become tough to define any decision made by A-Rod as “selfless.” In February 2009, A-Rod admitted to taking PEDs at certain points during his career. PEDs are a difficult subject to cover; as most people have already taken a side in the debate. You either believe using PEDs and steroids is a violation of the game, and would never support a known PED user, or you are willing to look past the PED/steroids issue. Either way, this affects the way people will view A-Rod’s legacy.

On one hand, A-Rod is clearly one of the greatest players of all-time regardless of position. It wouldn’t have mattered where he played on the field, A-Rod would have produced like a Hall of Famer. While he accumulated much of his value playing another position, A-Rod moved to third to help his team and still proved to be a tremendous player after the position switch. Perhaps it’s more impressive that A-Rod excelled at a tougher defensive position before making the switch to third?

On the other hand, A-Rod isn’t a third baseman in the way Mike Schmidt, Eddie Mathews and Brooks Robinson are considered third baseman. They played their entire careers at the position and accumulated all of their value at the hot corner. A-Rod is also an admitted PED user, and that is not looked upon kindly in the baseball world.

I’m not sure there’s a right answer either way, but with A-Rod there’s sure to be some interesting opinions.

*Big hat tip to my good friend Monty, who first alerted me that A-Rod was the career leader in WAR at third base.