Chances are, just about every baseball fan has heard about the special crop of young shortstops flooding the major leagues. The turn of the century marked the pinnacle of great shortstops in Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Nomar Garciaparra. But there’s a new group in town: Carlos Correa, Addison Russell, Francisco Lindor, and Corey Seager. The hype is certainly warranted, and we could very well be entering the new golden era for shortstops. But that doesn’t mean the fans should be overlooking another exciting group…the elite third baseman.
Nobody’s saying we’re in the era of the third baseman just yet, but Nolan Arenado, Manny Machado, and Kris Bryant have already made their mark in baseball after a historic 2015. Just 24, 23, and 24 years old respectively, these young players are already becoming superstars. It’s hard to go wrong with the three, all bringing a freakish combination of great offense and defense. Still, baseball fans love to have favorites, so who is baseball’s best young third baseman?
Arenado, Machado, and Bryant are all special talents, so it’s not easy to directly compare the three and choose a clear winner. There’s not one player that stands above the rest, thanks to each of them excelling in different areas. But let’s try to find the best of each category to uncover the most valuable player. This isn’t very easy to do, considering that last year was all of these players’ first true elite season. To start, we’ll look at their hitting abilities, sans power. The three of them were relatively close batting average-wise, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Despite having the lowest average, Kris Bryant has the best on base percentage. On the other hand, Nolan Arenado has the highest average, yet the lowest on base percentage. Machado is in the middle on both measures. You can see how hard it is to declare a winner among these three, but let’s dive into more advanced metrics.
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Now for the fun part…power. This category is especially hard to decipher. All of these hitters flash elite power, and two of them may not have even reached their ceilings yet.At the risk of oversimplifying things through using just a single year of data, we can glean from this table a few interesting insights into each hitter. Despite Arenado’s high contact rate and batting average, he doesn’t take enough walks to surpass the other two at the plate. Bryant walks at an excellent rate, which will allow his on base percentage to be near the top despite a lower batting average. Speaking of batting average, a low contact rate, high 2015 BABIP, and alarmingly high strikeout rate could lead to Bryant becoming the weakest link in batting average. Machado is near the top in just about every category, if not at the top, making his bat likely the best of the group.
Baserunning generally isn’t the third baseman’s most important tool, but it’s still an important factor in the game of baseball. Based on baserunning value (BsR), which takes into account stolen bases and baserunning in general, Bryant wins. He comes in at 7.1, easily ahead of Machado’s 1.1 and Arenado’s -0.9. The baserunning stat takes into account stolen bases, but it’s important to keep in mind that Arenado stole just two bases, with Bryant at 13, and Machado at a surprising 20. In addition, Machado’s success rate was 71.4 percent and Bryant’s was 76.5 percent. Looking even deeper into metrics, we can get a speed score for each player: Bryant’s 5.4 mark is better than Machado’s 4.2 and Arenado’s 3.5. This is a really tough call—overall Bryant is the better baserunner, but it’s hard to discount the 20 stolen bases from Machado. We’ll give it to Bryant, but Machado isn’t far behind.On paper, Arenado wins this battle. The Rockie had significantly more home runs than the others, and his rate of home runs exceeded the other two as well. His slugging percentage was also highest, and even with all the home runs, Arenado notched the most extra-base hits. His hard contact rate wasn’t the highest, but it was very close. It doesn’t really look like a competition based on statistics. But, there’s a few things to keep in mind. The first is the Coors Field factor for Arenado. Some may argue that playing in Colorado (basically, the moon) pads Arenado’s power numbers, but the home/road splits are nearly equal. Machado’s one of the best power hitters in the league, but his numbers just aren’t at Arenado’s and his track record isn’t like Bryant’s. In terms of Bryant, it’s important to remember that last year was his rookie season and he hit 43 home runs in the high minors in 2014. A lot can happen over the next few years, with Bryant possibly taking a step forward in power numbers and Arenado taking a step back, but rather surprisingly it seems that Arenado takes the crown for power for now.
Next up is defense, of which all these players excel at. Objectively comparing players on defense is a challenge, given the various present biases and constant struggle to procure an effective defensive metric. The best out there right now is likely FRAA, so we’ll use that. It’s very close between Nolan Arenado (22.6 FRAA) and Manny Machado (20.9 FRAA), while Kris Bryant is left in the dust with a -2.5 mark. For reference, 0 is average and anything above 10 is considered excellent. Despite the slight lead that Arenado gets, the issues with defensive sabermetrics means that another source should be used. Based on past scouting reports scouts have favored Machado’s glove and arm to Arenado’s, earning him the title of best defender.
All in all, this is a close competition. All of these players have the lead in at least one category, and come very close in the other two. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but one player does stand out from the rest. But first, let’s look at a summary of the three player and where they ranked in each category.[table “” not found /]
Before determining the winner, it’s worth remembering that Bryant is at a bit of a disadvantage as 2015 was his first season in the big leagues. He hasn’t reached his upside yet, and once he does there’s a chance he’s the best of this group. But, we can only project so much, and the other two third baseman are ahead of him…for now. Arenado is probably the safest of the group, as his injury risk is less than Machado and his knees, and his performance risk is lowest than Bryant. Even with these caveats, the winner is Manny Machado. It was incredibly close, and I truly didn’t have a player in mind until I was done writing this article. But even with Machado being declared the best, all three of these players are absolutely dominant stars in today’s game, and there’s a good chance that the three flip back and forth as the best third baseman in baseball for years to come.