Ranking Chipper Jones and MLB's Top 20 Third Basemen of the 1990s
In the weeks to come, we'll be taking a position-by-position look at the best MLB players of the 1990s. Who's ready for some nostalgia?
Up next, the third base position. Was an impressive second half of the decade from Chipper Jones enough to steal the No. 1 spot from guys like Matt Williams, Robin Ventura and Wade Boggs?
A player's peak performance, his full statistical body of work during the 1990s and his postseason production were all taken into account when determining the final rankings.
While no single stat was the end-all, be-all in this conversation, OPS+ and WAR/500 are two important ones to know.
OPS+ is a hitter's on-base percentage plus slugging percentage, adjusted to take into account the ballparks in which he is hitting. An OPS+ of 100 is league-average, while each number above 100 represents one percentage point better than the league average.
WAR/500 is a stat of my own creation. It's a hitter's WAR total divided by his total plate appearances and then multiplied by 500, thus giving us his WAR per 500 plate appearances. The idea is to make it easier to contextualize WAR totals across different sample sizes.
Let's kick things off with some honorable mentions.
These players received serious consideration for the final list but came up short:
- Steve Buechele
- Scott Cooper
- Leo Gomez
- Charlie Hayes
- Howard Johnson
- Dave Magadan
- Tim Naehring
- Ed Sprague
- Tim Wallach
Note: Edgar Martinez played more games as a designated hitter (776) than he did at third base (477), so he will be included on the DH list.
20. Jeff King
Stats: 4,569 PA, .259/.327/.429 (100 OPS+), 149 HR, 690 RBI, 16.2 WAR
Postseason: 40 PA, .205/.225/.308, 0 HR, 2 RBI
The No. 1 overall pick in the 1986 draft, Jeff King never lived up to the hype that comes with that draft slot, but he put together a solid 11-year MLB career.
His best seasons came at the end of the decade as a first baseman with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals. He averaged 27 home runs and 105 RBI during the three-year span from 1996 through 1998, including a 30-homer season in '96.
While he may be best remembered as a first baseman, he actually played more games at third base (573 to 442) during the decade, so he earns a spot among the hot corner standouts.
19. Chris Sabo
Stats: 2,796 PA, .268/.330/.458 (111 OPS+), 99 HR, 353 RBI, 11.4 WAR
Postseason: 42 PA, .368/.405/.632, 3 HR, 8 RBI, one-time World Series winner
Chris Sabo edged out Mark Grace for 1988 NL Rookie of the Year honors, and at the start of the 1990s, he was one of the best all-around third basemen in baseball.
He was one of just four third basemen to post a 20-20 season during the decade with 25 home runs and 25 steals in 1990, joining Chipper Jones (twice), Howard Johnson (twice) and Fernando Tatis.
During the Cincinnati Reds' run to a title in 1990, he went 9-for-16 with two home runs and five RBI in the World Series.
He followed up a 4.2-WAR season in 1990 with a 5.0-WAR season in 1991, earning an All-Star selection both seasons, before injuries limited him to 96 games in 1992 and his production dropped off significantly.
18. Kevin Seitzer
Stats: 3,863 PA, .290/.365/.402 (105 OPS+), 48 HR, 411 RBI, 15.7 WAR
Postseason: 30 PA, .192/.276/.231, 0 HR, 4 RBI
Kevin Seitzer arrived with a bang in 1987. He led the AL in hits (207) while batting .323/.399/.470 for a 128 OPS+ with 33 doubles, 15 home runs and 83 RBI to finish runner-up in AL Rookie of the Year voting and earn a spot on the All-Star team.
He never again hit more than 13 home runs in a season, and he settled in as a second-tier starter and a roughly league-average offensive performer during the 1990s.
He was an All-Star again in 1995 when he hit .311/.395/.421 with 33 doubles in 132 games with the Milwaukee Brewers. The following season, the Brewers traded him to the Cleveland Indians at the deadline in the deal that brought slugger Jeromy Burnitz to Milwaukee.
He hit .386/.480/.542 in 98 plate appearances down the stretch that year with the Indians and then played one more season before retiring with 1,557 career hits over 12 seasons.
17. Dave Hollins
Stats: 3,886 PA, .261/.359/.422 (107 OPS+), 112 HR, 482 RBI, 17.9 WAR
Postseason: 54 PA, .233/.389/.419, 2 HR, 6 RBI
Dave Hollins made his MLB debut in 1990, and he broke out during the 1992 season when he replaced Charlie Hayes as the Philadelphia Phillies' starting third baseman.
He hit .270/.369/.469 with 28 doubles, 27 home runs and 93 RBI, and his 6.1 WAR trailed only catcher Darren Daulton (6.9) for the team lead.
The following year, he hit .273/.372/.442 for a 120 OPS+ with 30 doubles, 18 home runs and 93 RBI, earning his lone All-Star selection while helping the Phillies claim the NL pennant.
His production dipped in the years that followed, but that two-year peak is enough to land him a spot in these rankings.
16. Gary Gaetti
Stats: 4,972 PA, .251/.305/.423 (92 OPS+), 175 HR, 667 RBI, 17.9 WAR
Postseason: 48 PA, .196/.213/.326, 2 HR, 7 RBI
Gary Gaetti was at his best during the 1980s, hitting 185 of his 360 career home runs while capturing four Gold Glove Awards, earning two All-Star selections and winning a World Series title with the Minnesota Twins in 1987.
He spent the 1990s bouncing around, playing for the Twins, California Angels, Kansas City Royals, St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs.
In his age-36 season in 1995, he launched a career-high 35 home runs for the Royals, finishing 10th in AL MVP voting and taking home his only Silver Slugger Award.
The Cardinals released him late in the 1998 season, and he caught on a few days later with the Cubs, hitting .320/.397/.594 with eight home runs and 27 RBI in 37 games down the stretch to help them reach the postseason for the first time in almost a decade.
His 175 home runs were good for ninth among third basemen during the decade.
15. Todd Zeile
Stats: 6,004 PA, .268/.347/.432 (108 OPS+), 182 HR, 797 RBI, 15.9 WAR
Postseason: 66 PA, .283/.348/.450, 3 HR, 5 RBI
The No. 7 prospect in baseball at the start of the 1990 season according to Baseball America, Todd Zeile broke into the big leagues as a catcher.
He shifted to third base for the 1991 season after finishing sixth in NL Rookie of the Year voting. He was a consistent and durable middle-of-the-order producer throughout the decade, averaging 144 games with 18 home runs and 80 RBI per season.
He was a key deadline pickup for the Baltimore Orioles in 1996 when he went 8-for-22 with three home runs during the ALCS. The following season, he posted a 121 OPS+ with a career-high 31 home runs for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
All told, he suited up for seven different teams during the 1990s and 11 total over the course of a 16-year career that wrapped up in 2004.
14. Edgardo Alfonzo
Stats: 2,718 PA, .290/.356/.429 (106 OPS+), 62 HR, 339 RBI, 16.6 WAR
Postseason: 48 PA, .233/.298/.558, 3 HR, 7 RBI
Edgardo Alfonzo bounced between second base (256 games) and third base (381 games) over the first five seasons of his MLB career, and that edge in games played at the hot corner lands him on this list.
After a forgettable first two seasons, he broke out in 1997 when he hit .315/.391/.432 with 39 extra-base hits and 11 steals while tallying more walks (63) than strikeouts (56) in a 6.2-WAR season.
He had a similarly impressive season in 1999 when he batted .304/.385/.502 for a 125 OPS+ with 41 doubles, 27 home runs and 108 RBI en route to 6.0 WAR, Silver Slugger honors and an eighth-place finish in NL MVP voting.
He continued to play at a high level at the start of the 2000s. Had his career not been so evenly split between decades, he would have ranked significantly higher.
13. Dean Palmer
Stats: 4,532 PA, .255/.326/.484 (110 OPS+), 235 HR, 700 RBI, 13.1 WAR
Postseason: 19 PA, .211/.211/.421, 1 HR, 2 RBI
With 235 home runs during the 1990s, Dean Palmer trailed only Matt Williams (300) among third basemen and ranked 23rd among all players for the decade.
He had four 30-homer seasons and won Silver Slugger honors in 1998 and 1999. He earned his lone All-Star selection in 1998 as a member of the Kansas City Royals.
So why doesn't he rank higher?
His 1,082 strikeouts were also the 10th-highest total during the decade, and he was a poor defender at the hot corner who probably would have fit better across the diamond at first base.
Still, his impressive power numbers are enough to put him in the second tier of these rankings.
12. Scott Brosius
Stats: 3,359 PA, .257/.324/.426 (97 OPS+), 112 HR, 418 RBI, 14.0 WAR
Postseason: 98 PA, .319/.337/.571, 6 HR, 20 RBI, two-time World Series winner
Scott Brosius took over as the Oakland Athletics' starting third baseman in 1996 after spending the first five seasons of his career in a utility role.
He hit .304/.393/.516 for a 127 OPS+ with 22 home runs and 71 RBI in a 5.3-WAR 1996 season, but he slumped badly the following year with a 53 OPS+ and minus-0.1 WAR in 129 games.
On the heels of that down season, the A's traded him to the New York Yankees in exchange for veteran left-hander Kenny Rogers, and he replaced Charlie Hayes as the team's starting third baseman.
The Yankees' decision to buy low paid off as he rebounded with a .300/.371/.472 line that included 34 doubles, 19 home runs and 98 RBI to earn his lone All-Star selection. He hit .383 with four home runs and 15 RBI in 13 games during the postseason and took home World Series MVP honors.
He closed out the decade with a Gold Glove Award and another solid season of contributing to a World Series champion.
11. Vinny Castilla
Stats: 3,805 PA, .298/.342/.528 (106 OPS+), 203 HR, 611 RBI, 14.6 WAR
Postseason: 16 PA, .467/.500/1.133, 3 HR, 6 RBI
The Colorado Rockies selected Vinny Castilla in the 1992 expansion draft, and he served as the team's primary shortstop during its inaugural season.
He spent the following season on the bench after the team signed Walt Weiss before breaking out as the everyday third baseman in 1995 with a 32-homer, 90-RBI campaign that earned him his first All-Star selection and Silver Slugger honors.
During the five-year stretch from 1995 to 1999, he was one of the most productive sluggers in baseball, hitting .302/.348/.545 for a 110 OPS+ while averaging 38 home runs and 112 RBI. He made a pair of All-Star teams and won three Silver Slugger Awards during that span.
So why doesn't he rank higher on this list?
He hit .338 with 117 home runs at Coors Field during that prolific five-year window, compared to .264 with 74 home runs on the road, so his numbers received some padding from playing at altitude.
10. Jeff Cirillo
Stats: 3,218 PA, .307/.384/.453 (115 OPS+), 66 HR, 372 RBI, 23.2 WAR
One of the most underrated players of the 1990s, Jeff Cirillo closed out the decade with four straight seasons of at least 4.5 WAR.
During that four-year stretch, he hit .315/.390/.459 for a 118 OPS+ while averaging 40 doubles, 14 home runs and 80 RBI playing for some mediocre Milwaukee Brewers teams.
He earned his first career All-Star selection in 1997, and he finished among the top 10 in the NL in batting average in 1998 (.321, eighth) and 1999 (.326, fifth).
On top of his offensive game, he was a rock-solid defender at third base. His 6.2 dWAR for the decade trailed only Robin Ventura (15.4), Matt Williams (9.5), Travis Fryman (7.3) and Gary Gaetti (7.1) at the position.
9. Scott Rolen
Stats: 2,011 PA, .280/.376/.500 (124 OPS+), 82 HR, 297 RBI, 15.5 WAR
Scott Rolen checked in at No. 5 on our recent list of the best third basemen since 2000, and the bulk of his career came after the 1990s had already wrapped up.
That said, he put together three elite seasons during the decade.
He won NL Rookie of the Year honors in 1997 when he posted a 121 OPS+ with 35 doubles, 21 home runs and 92 RBI, claiming the award unanimously over Livan Hernandez, Matt Morris and others.
The following season, he hit .290/.391/.532 for a 139 OPS+ with 45 doubles, 31 home runs, 110 RBI and 120 runs scored, finishing 20th in NL MVP voting while also taking home his first Gold Glove Award.
He closed out the decade with a 28-double, 26-homer season while eclipsing 4.5 WAR for the third year in a row, and he was still just 24 years old.
Similar to Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter on our shortstops list, Rolen was undoubtedly one of the top-tier performers at the position. He just didn't have a complete enough body of work to rank higher.
8. Terry Pendleton
Stats: 4,377 PA, .275/.318/.413 (95 OPS+), 102 HR, 562 RBI, 13.4 WAR
Postseason: 165 PA, .255/.285/.389, 3 HR, 14 RBI
Terry Pendleton spent the 1990 season with the St. Louis Cardinals, hitting .230/.277/.324 with six home runs and 58 RBI in a 0.1-WAR season.
Despite that middling performance, the Atlanta Braves took a chance, signing him to a four-year, $10.2 million contract that would go down as one of the most significant moves in franchise history.
In his first season with the team, the Braves reached the World Series for the first time since 1958, and Pendleton took home NL MVP honors. He hit .319 to win the NL batting title while posting a 139 OPS+ with 34 doubles, 22 home runs and 86 RBI.
He was similarly impressive the following season, leading the NL in hits (199) while batting .311/.345/.473 with 39 doubles, 21 home runs and 105 RBI to finish runner-up in MVP balloting.
His production tailed off from there, but his role in helping launch the Braves' run as perennial contenders makes him one of the most significant players of the decade.
7. Travis Fryman
Stats: 5,750 PA, .274/.333/.449 (105 OPS+), 187 HR, 823 RBI, 30.9 WAR
Postseason: 61 PA, .196/.311/.275, 1 HR, 4 RBI
Travis Fryman earned the first two All-Star selections of his career in 1992 and 1993 while playing primarily shortstop for the Detroit Tigers. He then slid over to the hot corner in 1994 and earned a third straight All-Star nod.
From his first full season in 1991 through the 1998 campaign, he was one of the most consistent players in baseball, hitting .274/.334/.450 for a 106 OPS+ while averaging 31 doubles, 21 home runs, 94 RBI and 3.5 WAR.
The Tigers traded him to the Arizona Diamondbacks following the 1997 season, who in turn flipped him to the Cleveland Indians in exchange for fellow 1990s standout Matt Williams.
Fryman hit a career-high 28 home runs in his first season with the Indians in 1998. He went on to play five seasons in Cleveland, wrapping up his 13-year career with 223 home runs and 1,022 RBI.
6. Ken Caminiti
Stats: 5,517 PA, .279/.354/.461 (122 OPS+), 195 HR, 795 RBI, 28.8 WAR
Postseason: 90 PA, .273/.367/.597, 8 HR, 16 RBI
Ken Caminiti spent the first five seasons of the decade playing for the Houston Astros, hitting .265/.326/.398 for a 102 OPS+ while averaging 28 doubles, 12 home runs, 69 RBI and 2.0 WAR.
He became an All-Star for the first time in 1994, and the Astros traded him to the San Diego Padres that offseason in a massive 12-player deal that also involved outfielders Steve Finley and Derek Bell.
The change of scenery took his career to another level.
In his four seasons with the Padres, he hit .295/.384/.540 for a 147 OPS+ while averaging 32 doubles, 30 home runs and 4.4 WAR.
He won three Gold Glove Awards during that stretch and was a two-time All-Star. His peak came in 1996 when he hit .326/.408/.621 for a 174 OPS+ with 40 home runs and 130 RBI to win NL MVP honors in a 7.6-WAR campaign.
Despite his admitted steroid use, Caminiti still nabs a spot inside the top 10 thanks to his offensive and defensive productivity prior to his MVP season.
5. Wade Boggs
Stats: 5,369 PA, .304/.387/.407 (112 OPS+), 54 HR, 491 RBI, 31.2 WAR
Postseason: 86 PA, .263/.306/.400, 2 HR, 8 RBI, one-time World Series winner
Wade Boggs won all five of his AL batting titles during the 1980s, and he had already tallied 60.2 of his 91.4 career WAR before the 1990 season arrived.
That said, he was still one of the best pure hitters of the 1990s.
He was an AL All-Star in each of the first seven seasons of the decade, winning three Silver Slugger Awards and a pair of Gold Gloves during that stretch while hitting .308/.394/.411 for a 116 OPS+.
The longtime Boston Red Sox standout joined the rival New York Yankees in 1993 and won his lone World Series title in New York during the 1996 season.
After a five-year run with the Yankees, he signed with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for their expansion season. He recorded his 3,000th hit on Aug. 7, 1999, and he batted .301/.377/.377 in 334 plate appearances that year at the age of 41 in his final MLB season.
4. Jim Thome
Stats: 3,782 PA, .287/.412/.547 (146 OPS+), 196 HR, 579 RBI, 29.7 WAR
Postseason: 195 PA, .237/.335/.538, 16 HR, 35 RBI
Jim Thome spent the bulk of his Hall of Fame career as a power-hitting first baseman and designated hitter, but he got his start as a third baseman.
He was the Cleveland Indians' everyday starter at the hot corner in 1995 and 1996, and he finished the decade with more games played at third base (492) than at first base (373).
Regardless of where he lined up defensively, his bat made him a star.
After a 20-homer season in 1994 and 25 homers in 1995, Thome emerged as a bona fide slugger during the 1996 campaign when he hit .311/.450/.612 for a 167 OPS+ with 38 home runs and 116 RBI.
Over the final four seasons of the decade, starting with that breakout '96 campaign, he hit .292/.429/.579 for a 155 OPS+ while averaging 35 home runs and 103 RBI.
That was just the start of a career that ended with 612 home runs and Cooperstown enshrinement, and it's enough for him to earn a spot inside the top five of these rankings.
3. Robin Ventura
Stats: 5,923 PA, .278/.367/.452 (119 OPS+), 203 HR, 854 RBI, 46.1 WAR
Postseason: 72 PA, .169/.306/.271, 1 HR, 7 RBI
Robin Ventura was the No. 10 overall pick in the 1988 draft after a standout collegiate career at Oklahoma State that included a 58-game hitting streak during his sophomore season and Golden Spikes Award honors as a junior.
He made his MLB debut in 1989 and took over as the Chicago White Sox's starting third baseman for the 1990 season.
A six-time Gold Glove winner during the decade, he also tallied six seasons of at least 20 home runs, including a 32-homer, 120-RBI performance with the New York Mets in 1999 that earned him a sixth-place finish in MVP voting.
His 46.1 WAR led all third basemen during the decade. While he earned just one All-Star nod in the '90s, there is no question he belongs in the conversation about the decade's best third basemen.
2. Matt Williams
Stats: 5,621 PA, .278/.326/.508 (122 OPS+), 300 HR, 960 RBI, 41.2 WAR
Postseason: 96 PA, .305/.406/.427, 2 HR, 8 RBI
A five-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glove winner during the 1990s, Matt Williams led all third basemen with 300 home runs for the decade.
He hit at least 20 home runs each year during the decade, including a career-high 43 long balls in 112 games during the strike-shortened 1994 season when he finished runner-up in NL MVP voting.
He also finished third in MVP balloting in 1999 while playing for the upstart Arizona Diamondbacks when he hit .303/.344/.536 for a 118 OPS+ with 37 doubles, 35 home runs and a career-high 142 RBI.
While he spent much of the decade playing in the shadows of Will Clark and Barry Bonds, Williams was a legitimate star in his own right and a strong contender for the No. 1 spot in these rankings.
1. Chipper Jones
Stats: 3,386 PA, .301/.394/.529 (137 OPS+), 153 HR, 524 RBI, 27.0 WAR
Postseason: 278 PA, .308/.430/.480, 8 HR, 29 RBI, one-time World Series winner
Despite the fact that he didn't make his MLB debut until Sept. 11, 1993, Chipper Jones is the choice as the top third baseman of the 1990s.
He was runner-up to Hideo Nomo for NL Rookie of the Year honors in 1995.
The following year, he hit .309/.393/.530 with 30 home runs and 110 RBI to finish fourth in NL MVP voting and earn his first of three All-Star selections during the decade.
His steady rise to stardom culminated with NL MVP honors in 1999 when he hit .319/.441/.633 for a 169 OPS+ with 41 doubles, 45 home runs, 110 RBI, 116 runs scored and 25 steals in a 6.9-WAR season.
He won a World Series title in his first full MLB season and was a standout during the postseason throughout his career.
The Hall of Famer goes down as one of the best switch-hitters in MLB history and one of the top third basemen to ever play the game.