The 5 best third basemen in Yankee history

7 04 2016

This continues a series on the best Yankees at different positionsToday: third base.

1, Alex Rodriguez

When I ranked the Yankees’ best 50 starting pitchers, I decided that use of performance-enhancing drugs wouldn’t be a major factor. I would rank players based on their performance as Yankees, and if two players were even in that ranking, the player who wasn’t tainted by drug use would get the nod. But I wouldn’t totally discount a player based on PED use. So Roger Clemens ranked 16th among Yankee starters.

I’m taking the same approach with position players. I love Graig Nettles and I don’t like Alex Rodriguez. But I’m ranking them by performance as Yankees. Each has played 11 years for the Yankees (Nettles played more games at third base, but A-Rod has played over 1,000 games there). Rodriguez has better Yankee stats in virtually every offensive category. He won two MVP awards as a Yankee, both at third, and Nettles’ best showing in MVP voting was fifth place in 1977. A-Rod’s a seven-time All-Star as a Yankee, Nettles five.

As a Yankee, A-Rod led the league in homers twice, RBI once, runs scored twice, slugging three times and OPS once. Nettles led the league in homers once.

A-Rod’s post-season hitting has been awful most of the time, but Nettles wasn’t a great post-season hitter most of the time either. Nettles was a better fielder, but A-Rod has to rank first here.

2, Graig Nettles

Of course Nettles ranks second. I’ve noted before that he belongs in the Hall of Fame. He would have a few more than his two Gold Gloves if he hadn’t had the misfortune to start playing when Brooks Robinson won that award every single year. Nettles’ Game Three defensive performance in the 1978 World Series was as good a post-season game as any fielder ever had.

Despite overall weak hitting in the post-season, Nettles sizzled in the 1981 American League Championship Series, going 6-for-12 with 9 RBI in just three games and being named MVP. He was a defensive, offensive and leadership anchor for the Yankees’ 1976-81 run that included two world championships, two more A.L. championships and a fifth division title. He’s an easy choice for No. 2 here.

And, if I were going to discount A-Rod’s achievements because he’s a drug cheat, I’d need to discount Nettles for loading his bat with Super Balls.

3, Red Rolfe

Red Rolfe baseball card image from Wikimedia

Red Rolfe was an All-Star four of his 10 seasons (all with the Yankees), winning five World Series. He led the league with 213 hits, 139 runs and 46 doubles in 1939, his best season and the Yankees’ fourth straight as champions.

He topped .300 four seasons as a Yankee and hit a solid .284 in six World Series, emerging as champions in five of them.

The Yankees have done alright with Ivy League players. Lou Gehrig went to Columbia, Rolfe to Dartmouth. Rolfe also coached at Dartmouth and in the professional Basketball Association of America. He managed the Tigers for parts of three seasons (including a second-place finish behind the Yankees in 1950) and part of a fourth.

4, Wade Boggs

Wade Boggs played his best years in Boston, but was an All-Star and .300 hitter the first four of his five seasons as a Yankee. The last of those four All-Star seasons, 1996, Boggs won his only world championship, celebrating on horseback.

5, Scott Brosius

Scott Brosius gets the fifth spot on this list, based on four seasons that all ended in the World Series, three of them with victories and one with a Game-Seven, ninth-inning loss. He won an All-Star selection and a Gold Glove for the Yankees, and in the post-season he hit eight homers and drove in 30 runs. His two homers in Game Three of the 1998 World Series, including a three-run eighth-inning blast with the Yankees trailing 3-2, helped him win the World Series MVP.

The rest

Gil McGougald's autograph (along with Hank Bauer's, Ed Lopat and Eddie Madjeski.

Gil McGougald’s autograph (along with Hank Bauer’s, Ed Lopat and Eddie Madjeski.

As I mentioned in my post on second basemen, Gil McDougald would rank ahead of some of these players on a list of all-time best Yankees. But he kept switching positions. He was Rookie of the Year (in 1951) and an All-Star (in 1952) playing primarily at third. But he played more games at second (599) than at third (508). That’s almost as many games as Brosius played at third for the Yankees, but Brosius was better in the World Series, hitting .314 to just .237 for McDougald.

Joe Sewell is actually in the Hall of Fame, but that’s primarily for his decade at shortstop for the Indians, not for his final three years, playing third base for the Yankees, 1931-33. The same is true of Wade Boggs (except that he stayed at third base), but he played longer for the Yankees and was stronger at that stage of his career than Sewell.

Hall of Famer Frank “Home Run” Baker finished his career for the Yankees, after earning his Dead-Ball-Era nickname for the Philadelphia A’s, leading the league four straight years in homers, without ever hitting more than a dozen. He started only four years for the Yankees and, in an age of inflated batting stats, topped .300 only once for the Yankees. And he never led the league in any batting category for the Yankees.

Robin Ventura played only one full season, 2002, with the Yankees, but he was an All-Star, hitting 27 homers and driving in 93 runs.

I really liked Clete Boyer when I was young, and he’d have won some Gold Gloves except that he played third base in the American League in the era of Brooks Robinson (he did win one after being traded to the Braves). He played longer for the Yankees (eight years, seven as a starter) than Brosius or Boggs, but they were better hitters by far.

Joe Dugan hit better than Boyer in his seven years with the 1920s Yankees, but I still rank Boggs and Brosius higher.

It does seem odd not to have any Yankees from the 1920s, ’50s or ’60s on this list, but I think I have the right top 5.

Aaron Boone had a better special moment than any Yankee third baseman, but didn’t even play a full season for the Yankees. And even in the post-season, he hit just .170. But one of those hits will live forever in Yankee fans’ memories.

Which team has been best at third?

We don’t have a clear winner for the team with the best tradition at third base.

The Red Sox (Boggs and Jimmy Collins) and Orioles (Robinson and Cal Ripken Jr., who played 675 games at third) are the only teams that were the primary teams for two Hall of Fame third basemen. The Pirates have Hall of Famer Pie Traynor and Bill Madlock, a four-time batting champ. The Cubs had Hall of Famer Ron Santo and Madlock. The Braves had Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews, certain Hall of Famer Chipper Jones and MVPs Bob Elliott and Terry Pendleton.

Without researching the other third basemen on any of these teams, I’d guess the Braves probably have the strongest tradition. But the Yankees are a contender and probably no worse than third or fourth.

Ranking criteria

I explained my criteria in the post on first basemen, so if this seems familiar, it’s because I cut and pasted that explanation here, then adapted it for third basemen.

If a player is in the Hall of Fame (Boggs), belongs there (Nettles) or would be a Hall of Famer if not for scandal (A-Rod), that carries considerable weight with me.

Boggs, Sewell and Baker joined the Yankees late in their Hall of Fame careers, but only Boggs was still playing at a Hall of Fame level (if in a bit of decline). Sewell and Baker weren’t nearly as good in their Yankee years.

If two players were dead even at a position for the Yankees, I would have moved the one with the better overall career ahead. I think Boggs was a bit ahead of Brosius as a Yankee, but his total career made that decision easier.

I value both peak performance and longevity, but peak performance more. A-Rod’s MVP’s and league crowns helped secure the top spot on the list.

I rank players primarily on their time with the team, but Rolfe is the only career Yankee on this list. Except if I needed a tie-breaker, I don’t count Boggs’ years with the Red Sox, Nettles’ with the Indians and Padres or A-Rod’s with the Mariners and Rangers.

Post-season play and championship contributions matter a lot to me. All the contenders for the fifth spot contributed to multiple champions, but Brosius played the best in the World Series. A-Rod’s poor post-season play might have dropped him to second place if Nettles had been closer in regular-season offensive performance.

Special moments matter, too. Nettles’ stellar defensive plays in the ’78 World Series and Brosius’ memorable 1998 homer helped seal their rankings. If Boone had played a few good years for the Yankees, his special moment would have pushed him onto the list.

Who was the best?

Rankings of Yankees by position

Starting pitchers

Catchers

First base

Second base

Shortstop

Left field

Center field

Right field

Designated hitter

Relief pitcher

Manager

Other rankings of top Yankee third basemen

Uncle Mike’s Musings

Bleacher Report’s Harold Friend

ChristopherJ

Source note

Unless noted otherwise, statistics cited here come from Baseball-Reference.com.

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