One of Bill James' books -- I think it was one of the Historical Baseball Abstracts, but I'm not positive -- talks about a sudden shift in the way baseball people perceived the third base position. In the game's early-ish days, third base was looked at as a defense-first position, a lot more like second base is now -- and if anything, second was the more offense-minded position of the two.
James (or one of his assistants; something tells me it was Jim Baker) credited the eventual perception shift on the little-remembered Harlond Clift, a star of the terrible Browns teams of the 1930s and 1940s. Clift's offensive numbers don't look like much today, but he really was the first power-hitting third baseman. Two 3Bs between the beginning of time and 1940 hit more than thirty homers in a season: one was Mel Ott, only barely a third baseman (and for only that one season), and the other was Clift. There were ten seasons by third basemen in that span where even twenty homers were hit: one was Ott; one was Ned Williamson, who took advantage of a rule change and a ridiculous ballpark to hit a record 27 of them in 1884; and four of the remaining eight were by Clift. And Clift, in his twenties, was a complete hitter, keeping his average near .300 and drawing plenty of walks. Clift really was a relevation; you can look back through history from now and see Alex Rodriguez and Mike Schmidt and George Brett and Eddie Mathews and Chipper Jones and Evan Longoria, and Clift doesn't look like much. Looking back from 1940, though, there was pretty much only Clift. So then came Mathews et al., and Clift had kicked off this big change in the way people looked at the position; it was another second base, and suddenly became another first base. Post-Clift, your third baseman was supposed to be one of the anchors of your offense.
Here's the punchline, though: I think that shift in the way third base was perceived was wrong. Or, at least, much, much too drastic.
Baseball Reference carries league-wide splits by position going back to 1950. Here's a look at the approximate average OPS+ for the so-called "corner" positions for each of the six decades from 1950-2009 (I just added them together for each decade and divided by 10, ignoring the little differences in plate appearances):
One of these things is not like the others. Third base hasn't been the middle infield or anything -- especially not in those dark days of the 1970s and 1980s, when managers and front offices apparently looked at knowledge of which end of the bat to hold as irrefutable evidence of an inability to play shortstop in the big leagues -- but it's no more fair to lump it in with the other "corner" spots, either. Actually, offensively, the average third baseman has historically fallen right in between the average second baseman (not pictured, but at right around a 96 OPS+ for the six decades) and the average corner outfielder.
You may have noticed that third basemen are kind of underrated, and are certainly underrepresented in the Hall of Fame. Of around 150 MLB position players to make the Hall as players, only ten were primarily third basemen -- about half of what you'd expect given an even distribution across the eight positions. And the above, I think, is basically why.
Third base is a really hard position to play, and a really important one. In the positional adjustments that are worked into both the FanGraphs and Baseball Reference versions of WAR, third base is treated as equivalent to second base and center field, worth ten runs a year more than playing left or right, and fifteen runs a year more than playing first.
And for good reason. The average offensive line has historically been lower at second because of what for a long time was (in my opinion) an overemphasis on defense at that position, but third base really does fall right in line with second and center field. You get a lot more plays at second base, but let's face it -- most of those plays are easy. The third baseman probably sees half as many chances, but the average of them might be twice as difficult. I think people know this -- that's why it's referred to as the "hot corner" -- but when it comes time for things like the Hall of Fame (or to a lesser extent the MVP) and the guy doesn't have Mike Schmidt's hitting line, they forget.
It's easy to dump third basemen in with other "corner" infielders and outfielders, but its being easy doesn't make it right. Great hitters -- like Clift was, for a while -- certainly come along at third base now and then, but it's not and never has been a requirement, even to be among the best to play the position, because the position itself is just too damn hard to play. Good offense and good D -- or even merely passable offense and great D, a la Buddy Bell -- is more than enough there, just as it always has been at second and short.
So I have a feeling that on this January 9, we'll learn that Ron Santo has finally been tabbed for the Hall. It's 30 years late for common sense, and a year too late to avoid leaving a huge black mark on the institution, but hey, it's something. And there will be more: Chipper's going in, as (eventually) is A-Rod.
But as of right now, Scott Rolen is set up to take over for Santo as the new most egregious snub, Graig Nettles, Sal Bando, Ken Boyer, Robin Ventura, Buddy Bell and Darrell Evans all deserve consideration that they're not getting, and Adrian Beltre is going to have to have a couple more MVP-caliber seasons or continue his march right to 3,000 hits to have a reasonable chance. More people see the value in these guys than ever have before, I think, but there's a long, long way to go.