Yesterday, the 2018 class of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum was announced, and to the surprise of nobody, Chipper Jones was inducted on the first ballot. And deservedly so—the career-long Atlanta Braves third baseman (although he came up as a shortstop and played two seasons in left field, he made 82.8% of his career appearances at the hot corner) is now the fifth-best player at his position by Wins Above Replacement in the Hall—Jones trails only Mike Schmidt, Eddie Mathews, Wade Boggs, and George Brett.
Similarly to little surprise, Scott Rolen did not make the Hall. Rolen, who began his career with the Philadelphia Phillies before spending parts of six seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, received just 10.2%, enough to remain on the ballot for 2019. And while Scott Rolen probably has a worse resume for induction than his fellow first-timer on the ballot (Chipper Jones, in addition to a 15 WAR lead, has an MVP and has a material edge in nearly every offensive category), Rolen appears to have been lost in the shuffle. He isn’t the first third baseman to have experienced this fate.
Currently (not yet counting Chipper), there are twelve players in the Hall of Fame who played third base in over 50% of their MLB games. It is the position with the fewest Hall of Famers. Pitchers have by far the most inductees, as they should, since they’ve typically comprised at least 40% of rosters throughout history, but even relative to other positions which are equally common, third basemen fall short.
- Catchers: 14 inductees (median WAR: 57.6)
- First Basemen: 18 inductees (median WAR: 62.95)
- Second Basemen: 19 inductees (median WAR: 61.5)
- Shortstops: 21 inductees (median WAR: 66.4)
- Third Basemen: 12 inductees (median WAR: 66.6)
- Left Fielders: 19 inductees (median WAR: 62.9)
- Center Fielders: 17 inductees (median WAR: 63.3)
- Right Fielders: 20 inductees (median WAR: 59.45)
The only position with which third base is particularly competitive in terms of total numbers of inductees is catcher, but while catcher has the lowest median WAR among those inducted (there is a separate question about whether the Baseball Reference and FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement models accurately capture catcher defense, but let’s table that until 2026 when Yadier Molina comes into the discussion), third base has the highest. With Chipper Jones inducted, the new median WAR will be 70.4, which was attained by longtime Chicago Cubs third baseman Ron Santo, who had to wait until 38 years after his retirement and two years after his death to be enshrined.
Forty-seven third basemen have come and gone on Hall of Fame ballots without being inducted who have more career WAR than Freddie Lindstrom, the weakest Hall of Fame third baseman (who came courtesy of the Veterans Committee). The only reason this is worth bringing up is that it shows that even when the Hall of Fame does induct third basemen, it often inducts undeserving ones.
If we were to start a Hall of Fame from scratch under the assumption that we must still have elected twelve of them before yesterday (there is a case to be made in favor of “the Small Hall” as a more aesthetically pleasing way to immortalize players, but since we aren’t actually able to start from scratch, it’s probably not worth worrying too much about—like it or not, we’re kind of stuck with this Hall). Of the top 12 in career bWAR who have been retired for more than five years (excluding Jones and Rolen for a moment, though both also would have cracked this list), the third base list goes, in order, Mike Schmidt, Eddie Mathews, Wade Boggs, George Brett, Brooks Robinson, Ron Santo, Graig Nettles, Buddy Bell, Ken Boyer, Frank “Home Run” Baker, Sal Bando, and Darrell Evans.
Five of these players are not in the Hall (Nettles, Bell, Boyer, Bando, Evans). Nettles lasted four years on the ballot, never exceeding the 8.3% he garnered in his first year. Bell received 1.7% of the vote in his first and only year on the ballot. The former Cardinal Boyer was given heavy consideration, for fifteen election cycles, but peaked at 25.5% in 1988). Bando dropped off after receiving just 0.7% of the vote in 1987. And Evans, like Bell, got 1.7% in year one and fell off.
A big part of why these players were so overlooked—none are necessarily obvious Hall of Famers, but only Boyer seemed to receive any real consideration—is that defense was a major part of their games. Nettles and Bell were both Gold Glovers at the hot corner and rank in the top five in Defensive WAR among third basemen. Boyer isn’t quite as highly regarded by modern defensive statistics, but he was still a Gold Glove-winning third baseman who ranks as firmly above-average at the position. Sal Bando didn’t necessarily look the part of a slick fielder but he too was above-average by the numbers. And even Evans, the least heralded defensively of the group, was the best fielding third baseman in the National League by Defensive WAR in 1974 after finishing second in 1973.
Graig Nettles and Buddy Bell not making the Hall of Fame isn’t a grand injustice, but that they never stood a chance is a reflection of voters not taking defense seriously. Hall of Fame voters still aren’t totally sure how to evaluate defense, particularly at a “non-premium” position (players like Omar Vizquel can still receive attention despite a lack of offensive prowess), and Scott Rolen is the latest example of this. Rolen stands a better chance because of his era, and may have a chance to slowly build support along the lines of Tim Raines. Unfortunately, for now, the Hall of Fame has decided something with which millions of fans who saw him play would adamantly disagree—that Scott Rolen is not a Hall of Famer.