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Third Base 2011 Playoffs Edition: Worst In A Decade?

Third base has been rather unspectacular in 2011, in both fantasy baseball and spikes-on-the-ground baseball. With the playoffs just a few days away, I remarked to a colleague just how terrible third base looks for two of the six teams that we know will be in the post-season and how it’s a testament to the talent that surrounds them. Those two teams are the Milwaukee Brewers and the Detroit Tigers, but their third base situations aren’t quite the same.

Just how bad are their respective third basemen? What follows is a quick history of ineptitude at the hot corner for playoff-bound teams and a brief fantasy analysis for 2012.

Looking back a decade at every team making the playoffs, there aren’t examples of truly awful production at third base every year. David Bell didn’t necessarily get one’s heart racing with his bat in 2001 with the Seattle Mariners, but he did enough with the glove to finish at 3.2 WAR on the season. The worst third baseman on a playoff bound team that season was probably Travis Fryman, dinged up as he was, playing nearly 100 games at third, producing a triple slash of .263/.327/.335 amounting to a .294 wOBA and just 76 wRC+. That .294 wOBA was even bested by sluggers Joe Randa and Ron Coomer. And while Russell Branyan filled in nicely at the dish for Fryman, his defensive issues still left the Indians in the negative at WAR at third base.

In 2002, the Atlanta Braves signed free agent Vinny Castilla to a two-year, $8 million dollar contract, and managed to win 101 games despite the fact that Castilla posted a .232/.268/.348 line. His wOBA was .268 and wRC+ just 58, good for worst (by far) in the league for qualified third basemen. Worse than Jeff Cirillo‘s first season with the Seattle Mariners. Yeah, that kind of bad.

It wasn’t until 2005 when the San Diego Padres won their division with 82 games and Sean Burroughs‘ star started to seriously fade that we had a lack of production on the level of Vinny Castilla’s 2002. Burroughs hit .250/.318/.299 (not a typo) for a wOBA of .280 and a wRC+ of just 73. He still had a decent glove, but the club was so fed up with his bat that they traded for Joe Randa at the deadline to help them with their stretch run. Randa managed a .256/.303/.395 but was still below league average in runs created.

How bad were things at third base for the Padres? In November, after getting swept by the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Division Series, they traded for none other than Vinny Castilla, who made them wish they had Sean Burroughs back. As bad as Castilla was in 2002, he was worse in San Diego. He hit .232/.260/.319 with just four home runs in nearly 300 at-bats. His wOBA was .253 and wRC+ was 53. By July, Castilla was released and the Padres put Mark Bellhorn out there only to see him hit .190 and strike out in a third of his at bats. It wasn’t until the club traded Evan Meek to the Tampa Bay (then) Devil Rays for Russell Branyan that they got any production from third as he hit so much snot out of the ball in just 27 games, that he put up almost a full win above replacement.

Skip ahead two seasons (although, honorable mention goes to Abraham Nunez in 2007 and his .234/.318/.282 line, but since he only started 51 games for the Philadelphia Phillies, he doesn’t count) and we had a Milwaukee Brewers club that made the playoffs for the first time since they had someone named Buck Rodgers as manager. They won 90 games, thanks in very little part to Bill Hall who hit .225/.293/.396 with 15 home runs and 55 RBI. His ability to hit the long ball became just about his only redeeming quality and his wRC+ of 76 was second to last in baseball at his position. He’d find himself in Seattle Mariner blue within a year, where all third basemen go to retire.

The 2009 St. Louis Cardinals deserve a mention as the plan was to have Troy Glaus play third and then (shocker) he got hurt and didn’t appear in a game until September. They limped by with Joe Thurston‘s .225/.316/.330 until they traded for Mark DeRosa on June 27th where he looked a lot like Joe Thurston with more pop, posting a .228/.291/.405 line, good for an 84 wRC+. On the whole, the Cardinals played six players at third base that season.

This brings us to the Milwaukee Brewers and Detroit Tigers of 2011, both teams that will easily win their divisions and both teams with a serious dearth of production at third base, and it also brings us a couple relevant fantasy baseball questions.

First thing is first, however – and that’s the who. Casey McGehee, after having a pretty terrific 2010, has posted a .224/.281/.346 triple slash line, earning him the distinction of having the lowest wOBA at .272 and the lowest wRC+ of 68 among all qualified third basemen. After showing signs of life in August, McGehee absolutely fell apart at the plate in September, hitting .127/.203/.286. and has recently found himself riding pine in favor of Jerry Hairston.

Leaping over Lake Michigan, the Tigers thought they had solved their third base issue after they traded for Wilson Betemit on July 20th. Betemit has been substandard defensively, but has managed a .281/.328/.474 line in his 38 games with Detroit. Prior to that, they had relied mostly on Brandon Inge — and in between his injuries, Don Kelly. Inge’s 2011 line isn’t pretty: .198/.266/.284 and a .248 wOBA. On the whole, it might be the worst offensive performance at third base for a playoff team in the last decade, but it might not be fair to give him that badge with just 100 games played. Don Kelly’s .244/.288/.382 is certainly better, but his .294 wOBA still ranks among the bottom feeders at third base. With Betemit’s knees giving him trouble, the Tigers may be faced with Inge or Kelly as their starting third basement when the playoffs start.

For fantasy baseball purposes in 2012, relative to McGehee and Betemit, I would consider McGehee to be an intriguing bounce back candidate while Betemit to be pretty risky. McGehee has had some bad luck with the batted balls as his BABIP is just .249 while his xBABIP is an even .300, much more in line with his career number of .290. His swinging strike rate is right his career average, he’s not flailing at more balls outside the strike zone, and he’s not making contact any less frequently than he has in the past. His power has just rather evaporated, and while that might have something to do with rotten luck on fly balls (8.7% HR/FB vs. 11.4% career), he has also become increasingly a ground-ball hitter, with better than 50% of batted balls put on the turf. While I do think he’s a bounce back candidate, it’s likely not bouncing up to 2010 levels, but perhaps about 80% of that production – somewhere in the .285/.330/.450 range with 18 home runs and 80 RBI. This, of course, is predicated on playing time and you might see Taylor Green give him a run for his money in Spring.

Betemit will be arbitration eligible and depending on his landing spot, his playing time will be in question in 2012. In a full time role, Betemit is capable of double digit home runs but he hasn’t played in more than 100 games since 2007. Betemit is a high-strikeout, high-BABIP and that always raises red flags for fantasy owners because if some lucky bounces start finding gloves, he could be back into the low .200’s as we’ve seen with the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Yankees. His BABIP since the trade to the Tigers is a robust .418 while his xBABIP is exactly his career mark of .341.

The 2011 playoffs are certainly going to be exciting – but for the Tigers and Brewers, they’ll likely be trotting out some of the most substandard offensive third basemen in the last decade. But the statistics get set back to zero when the playoffs start, and even if you’ve been a goat all season long, baseball seems to have that unique ability to make heroes out of the most unlikely candidates. We will see if Casey McGehee and Brandon Inge can channel their inner Aaron Boone.