In a lot of ways, the third basemen fraternity is just as deep as shortstop. While the criteria to make the top 10 as a third baseman isn’t as high, the deepness of the position creates some omissions that ruffle feathers. Some value defense at the position very little. Sure, being elite defensively can negate offensive deficiencies, but poor third base defense won’t hurt an elite bat as much.
Again, the position is deep. A couple of veterans saw injuries derail their 2021 campaigns, but how much weight does that truly carry over their track records? Another multiple-time All-Star bounced back from a pedestrian 2020 but didn’t return to their pre-COVID status. Are they just not as good or is it simply not a cause for concern? With those questions posed, it’s time to explore the top 10 MLB third basemen ahead of the 2022 season.
Check out the previous rankings: Catchers, First Base, Second Base, Shortstop
10. Josh Donaldson – New York Yankees
He’s still one of the best hitting third basemen in the league and is likely going to see an uptick again. What keeps Donaldson down is the sheer lack of knowledge on what the volume will be for him at third base this season. In reality, he’s probably best suited to be a designated hitter. However, the Yankees have Giancarlo Stanton manning that. Donaldson is going to have to play a lot of third base in 2022 and 2023.
It’s not fair to outright assume someone is going to get hurt. However, Donaldson’s track record has him with just one season over 1,000 innings at third base since 2017. Only two seasons since that year did he play more than 100 games at the position. If he can survive an entire season without getting hurt, he’s likely destined for the fifth- or sixth-best third baseman in the league this year. As stated earlier, the worry is a lack of volume, hence why he’s so low despite still being a fantastic hitter.
9. Jeimer Candelario – Detroit Tigers
Since the start of 2020, Candelario has come into his own for the Tigers. In 832 plate appearances, the switch-hitter has slashed .278/.356/.458 with a 123 wRC+. During that stretch, he’s seventh among qualifying third basemen in fWAR, seventh in slugging percentage, sixth in walk rate, and fourth in on-base percentage.
Defensively, he is nothing spectacular, posting -1 DRS since 2020. However, the bat has come around and he looks poised to be a key contributor in a Tigers lineup that’s hopeful of a postseason berth. Candelario’s ranking of ninth may be lower than his metrics suggest. However, upside-wise, it is likely as high as he can go considering who lies ahead of him.
8. Nolan Arenado – St. Louis Cardinals
Arenado has registered at least 4.0 fWAR every full season since 2015. However, he’s dropped to eighth on these rankings. While he’s still a wizard defensively, that bat has begun to lag. Last season, his wRC+ dropped to 113, the lowest it’s been since 2014. On top of that, his walk rate dipped below 8.0 percent for the first time since 2015. Not to mention his .312 xwOBA a season ago to couple his career-worst 37.1 percent hard-hit rate.
Across the board, Arenado’s expected stats were the worst they’ve been in the Statcast era. Couple that with the age of 31 creeping up, and he’s settled at No. 8.
7. Matt Chapman – Toronto Blue Jays
Not too long ago, Chapman was my pick for the best third baseman in the league. What changed that was his offensive production dropping pretty substantially. Since 2020, his 104 wRC+ ranks tied for ninth, his 33.1 strikeout rate is the worst, and his .306 OBP is 12th. Despite the latter being true, he still ranks third in walk rate among third basemen during that period.
Metrically, his defense is comfortably better than Arenado’s—15.7 DRS per 1,000 innings versus 12.9—thus, making him better. Also, Chapman is 28 whereas Arenado is soon-to-be 31, making it more reasonable to expect Chapman to improve. Lastly, the Blue Jays’ lineup is much more potent, creating plenty more opportunities for Chapman to do damage by avoiding Vladimir Guerrero Jr., George Springer, or Bo Bichette.
6. Austin Riley – Atlanta Braves
Riley put it all together for the Braves in their Cinderella run to a World Series championship, slashing .303/.367/.531 with a .364 xwOBA and a 135 wRC+. After being a replacement-level player in his first 131 career games, he amassed 4.2 fWAR and 6.1 rWAR in 160 games in 2021.
Riley stays at No. 6 for now because it was the kind of breakout that makes you wonder if it was a fluke. Riley was one of the game’s most exciting prospects when he came up, so there’s coveted talent in him. However, to go from a -9 DRS third baseman for two years to a +13 is grounds for skepticism. Moreover, he overperformed his expected stats at the plate in 2021. There was a 24-point difference between actual and expected average, 22 points between actual and expected slugging, and 15 points between actual and expected wOBA. The No. 6 slot is mildly deceiving; he has the potential to move up during the season.
5. Alex Bregman – Houston Astros
Bregman has had injuries galore the past three seasons, but his production took a serious hit since 2020. Still, he remains one of the most proficient at taking Ball 4 while also being the second-hardest third basemen to strike out (minimum 500 plate appearances since 2020). Defensively, he’s still above average. He’s a more-than-capable glove at third, but his bat is concerning. He blossomed at the plate in 2018, emerging as an MVP candidate for that year and in 2019. Since then, his xwOBA is in the .330s and his wRC+ went from 157 and 167 those two years, down to 117 since 2020.
The concerns are valid, just not enough to knock him out of the top five.
4. Rafael Devers – Boston Red Sox
This man has MVP hopeful written all over him for 2022. The Red Sox’ 25-year-old third baseman is coming off a career-high in home runs, wRC+, and xwOBA—the latter being .392, which led all third basemen in 2021. His glove still lacks, as he gets erratic throwing the baseball from time to time. Outside of 2019, which feels like an anomaly with 17 outs above average, Devers hasn’t popped with the glove. Even when he was a 17 OAA third baseman, he still was a -5 DRS defender.
Devers is the poster child for “I don’t care about defense at the position.” If I did, he’d likely have a similar ranking as his teammate, Xander Bogaerts. However, power plays at the hot corner. If Devers can consistently produce in the first month of the season (151 wRC+ in March and April last season, 96 in 2018 and 2019) he could be a perennial 150 wRC+ bat. He hasn’t done it yet, but he’s still getting better at the big league level.
3. Manny Machado – San Diego Padres
Machado can flat out hammer the baseball and is still considerably above average defensively at third base. Thus, he ranks as the No. 3 third baseman ahead of 2022. His Savant page is mesmerizing. Last season, he was in the 96th percentile for average exit velocity, 100th in maximum exit velocity, 93rd in hard-hit rate, 91st in xwOBA, 94th in xBA, 90th in xSLG, 83rd in barrel rate, and 81st in strikeout rate.
Perhaps not having turned 30 plays a role in this, but nobody talks about how Machado looks like a 10-plus-year commitment free of concern. By his standards, 2019 was a mediocre season. However, he’s posted elite numbers since. Undoubtedly, the big-name third baseman is among the top few at his position.
2. Anthony Rendon – Los Angeles Angels
Dear Baseball Gods, please keep Rendon healthy in 2022. Throw 2021 out the window; it never happened. The former Washington Nationals phenom is still an elite-level hitter with, at the very least, average defense at third base. The 2020 season may have only been 60 games, but that was his fourth-straight qualifying season posting a wRC+ of 140 or better. He was on pace for the highest fWAR of his career and his fifth 6.3 fWAR or better season (fourth consecutive).
Rendon can still play. Until he proves he can’t hack it as he could as recently as 2020, he’s in the top two for third basemen, third at worst.
1. Jose Ramirez – Cleveland Guardians
Not to repeat the explanation for Fernando Tatis Jr. in my shortstop list … but need I go on? Ramirez is the clear-cut best third baseman in the league. In 2021, he had a 1.6 fWAR lead on Rafael Devers for first at the position. Since 2020, his lead jumps to 2.8 over second.
Ramirez hits at a high-130s wRC+ seemingly every season, plus is an elite defensive third baseman. He’s also the best baserunner at the position, posting 6.3 BsR (base runs) in 2021. That mark ranks 10th in all of baseball. He’s elite in all three facets of the game and is the cremé of the crop as far as third basemen go. Plain and simple.
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