I will make a list of the 10 best defensive Third Basemen in the history of MLB. Unlike offense, many historians are all over the map defensively. It's time to set it straight.
All 10 Third Basemen are obviously an A + defensively. But I will letter grade each of them offensively, so you know where they stand in that category, the way I see it.
Other than the Starting Pitcher and Relief Pitcher, the Third Base position is probably the fourth most important defensive position on the field--after Catcher, Shortstop and Second Base.
Here it is. History unblurred. The way it really was:
10. Gary Gaetti (1990s) B offensively
Hands down, the best defensive Third Baseman of the 1990s. Guys like Terry Pendleton and Robin Ventura were also great at the position defensively, but Gaetti was a bit better than them. The cherry on top, Gaetti was also a solid offensive player.
11-20. Here are 10 more Third Basemen that were in serious contention of taking this 10th spot away from Gary Gaetti. I will list them in order from oldest to newest: Ed Williamson (1880s), Bernie Friberg (1920s), Willie Kamm (1920s), Brooks Robinson (1960s), Buddy Bell (1980s), Tim Wallach (1980s), Jeff Cirillo (2000s), Pedro Feliz (2000s), Brandon Inge (2000s) and Scott Rolen (2000s)
9. Mark Christman (1940s) F offensively
A defensive expert, by far the best defensive Third Baseman from the 1940s. Unfortunately, he was a failure offensively.
8. Heinie Groh (1920s) B offensively
Fielding Averages can be misleading, but sometimes they do tell the correct tale. Groh still holds the NL FA record with a .983 in 1924. In this case, the FA tells the correct tale. It's an amazing fact, a player of the 1920s still holds the NL Third Base FA single season record.
We all know it's amazing because FA keeps going up and up and up as time goes on. All the more amazing that the NL FA single season record is from 1924.
A cherry on top for Groh also, he was a solid offensive player.
7. Billy Clingman (1890s) F offensively
The best defensive Third Baseman from the first 30 seasons of MLB (1870s, 1880s and 1890s). The best from the 1800s, there were other great defensive Third Basemen from the 1800s—notably, Lave Cross (1890s), Billy Nash (1890s), Billy Shindle (1890s) and Ed Williamson (1880s)--but Clingman takes the cake, he's the one.
Unfortunately, he was a failure offensively.
6. Art Devlin (1900s) B + offensively
Devln was a fiery tempered Third Baseman that did the job as well as any Third Baseman in history, defensively. His temper seemed to fit right in, playing for the legendary John McGraw on the Giants.
Devlin was also a heck of an offensive player.
5. Ossie Vitt (1910s) D - offensively
Vitt was obviously and apparently the best defensive Third Baseman from the 1910s. Though there were other good ones, like Charlie Deal. But Vitt was better defensively.
Vitt wasn't a failure offensively, but he was dern close, unfortunately.
4. Jimmy Collins (1900s) A offensively
An "A" grade offensively makes him one of the 20 best "overall" Third Basemen in the history of MLB, in my opinion. That's why he's in the HOF where he belongs.
"He completely revolutionized Third Base play...he had the agility of a cat."--Edward Barrow
"He had a great knack of coming up with the ball between hops."--HOF Manager Connie Mack
"I select Jimmy Collins for his general excellence as a fielder...he was the real pioneer of the modern style of playing Third Base."--HOF Manager/Third Baseman John McGraw
What else can I say, Collins was the real deal—offensively and defensively.
3. Mike Schmidt (1980s) A + offensively
Was he better offensively or defensively? That is the question. One of the best ever at each, in my opinion. I guess he's one of the best ever "overall". I would say that he is the best overall Third Baseman in the history of MLB, other than John McGraw.
McGraw is the best offensive Third Baseman in history and he's a "B" grade defensively.
But Schmidt is the ONLY Third Baseman in the history of MLB that is an "A +" grade offensively AND defensively. What else can I say, Schmidt is on my "all time" team at Third Base with John McGraw.
2. Lee Tannehill (1900s) F offensively
Absolutely one of the best defensive Third Basemen that the game has ever seen (or ever will).
Unfortunately, he was a failure offensively. Not only a failure—he's the worst offensive Third Baseman in the history of MLB that played in at least 800 games, in my opinion.
Ironic, the second best defensive Third Baseman in history—the worst offensive Third Baseman in history.
1. Clete Boyer (1960s) D offensively
"Brooks Robinson got established a year or two before Clete Boyer...so Brooks got the Gold Gloves, but Clete Boyer was every bit as good at Third. Boyer would dive for a ball, knock it down, then throw the runner out at first from his knees. I've seen other people do it, but Clete did it all the time.
"He could throw from his knees as well as anybody else could throw standing up."--The godfather of the modern rating system/ saber metrics/respected baseball historian Bill James
Clete Boyer was not a failure offensively, but he was certainly below average. His brother Ken Boyer was a better "overall" Third Baseman from the same era. Ken Boyer was an "A +" grade offensively and an "A -" grade defensively.
Other than Eddie Mathews and Ron Santo, Ken Boyer was the best "overall" Third Baseman from the 1960s. It's why many historians complain that Santo and Ken Boyer are not in the HOF—and they both had nice long careers.
But Clete—the best the game has ever seen at Third Base defensively.
There it is. History Unblurred. The way it really is.