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The Golden Age of third basemen in the AL East

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to 2015 and Beyond

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Webster-Dictionary.org defines "Hot Corner" as "not found in the Dictionary" and "Please try the words separately."

While scholars, online dictionaries, and online dictionary scholars will spend centuries debating the true definition of "Hot Corner", there should be little debate that we are entering a Golden Age of Third Basemen in the AL East.

Beginning in 2015, Evan Longoria, Manny Machado, Pablo Sandoval, Josh Donaldson, and Chase Headley, could be ushering a half-decade of transcendent and damn entertaining third base play, thanks to their respective ages and contract statuses. Each player is expected to be a fixture in the middle of their team's lineups, with at least two (Longoria and Donaldson) and possibly a third (Machado) being their team's best overall player.

The two division stalwarts (Longoria and Machado) will be joined by two Bay Area transplants (Sandoval and Donaldson) and another player (Headley) predicted to do big things by none other than Ken Tremendous :

Screen Shot 2015-03-18 at 7.11.09 PM.png

Since 2008, these five All-Stars have combined for two Silver Slugger awards, four Gold Gloves, seven All-Star Game appearances, and eight Top-10 MVP finishes.

Historical Context

Clearly, the division has not had so many quality players at the position since since the wispy mustachioed early 1990's days of Kelly Gruber, Leo Gomez, and Charlie Hayes.. Actually, you know what, upon closer examination, we might be able to find a more recent and superior collection of talent.

In 2010, Longoria, Adrian Beltre , Alex Rodriguez, Edwin Encarnacion, and Miguel Tejada combined for 273 extra base hits and were worth just under 20 combined wins. While 2015 might not be as top heavy as 2010 with Longoria (7.6 fWAR) and Beltre (6.6 fWAR), it is a better group, top to bottom.

Also, unlike 2010, this appears to be a group with longer term staying power. Beltre was playing on a one year deal with the Red Sox, and would depart via free agency to the Texas Ranger and a likely spot in Cooperstown. Tejada, whom the Orioles traded to the Padres at the deadline, was nearing the end of his career. Encarnacion would move across the diamond, splitting his time between first base and DH. Rodriguez, after his 2009 admission of PED use, avoided any further controversy and is being rooted on by fans and sportswriters across America as he closes in on the all-time home run record.*

But this group should be different. Longoria, Sandoval, Donaldson, and Headley are all age 28-30, and Machado is 22. All five are under their team's control through at least 2018, with Longoria signed through 2023.

So, of this group, who is surrounded by the best lineup? Who is projected to have the best 2015? Who has the most upside over the next half-decade? How many more questions can I raise before you skip this part of the article?

The Division Veterans

Photo Credit: Kim Clement-USA Today

Evan Longoria

2014: 162 games, 49 extra-base hits,  .253/.320/.404, 8.1 BB%, 19.0 K%, 3.4 fWAR

2015 PECOTA Projections: 645 plate appearances, 25 home runs, .261/.344/.453, 4.6 WARP

Evan Longoria, at just 29, is the grizzled AL East veteran of this group. He is also, likely, the most crucial to his team's success. In fact, it is difficult to imagine the Rays making the playoffs without Longoria at pre-2014 production, perhaps more so than any of the other third basemen,

In 2014, Longoria posted the worst strikeout and walk percentages since his rookie season, as well as the worst full season fWAR, OPS, ISO, Batting Average, home run to fly ball ratio, and extra-base hit totals of his career. In short, Longoria hit for less power and reached base with less frequency than any season in his career. As this site has covered extensively, 2015 could go a long way towards determining whether last season was an aberration or the beginning of a decline.

However, despite those struggles, Longoria posted career bests in total line drives and line-drive percentage (20.4%). Additionally, Longoria's .285 BABIP was more than 15 points below his career average. When analyzed together, it is possible Longoria was the victim of bad luck that could correct itself in 2015.

Defensively, Longoria might have lost a step from 2009-2010 when he saved 30 defensive runs over two seasons, but he is still a plus defender.

PECOTA predicts Longoria to bounce-back from the worst full season of his career, with a 60th percentile projection of 5.1 WARP, a typically stringent projection. A 5.0-6.0 win season could vault him not only to the top of this group, but into the AL MVP race.

Manny Machado

2014: 82 games. 26 extra-base hits, .278/.324/.431, 5.6 BB%, 19.2 K%, 2.5 fWAR

2015 PECOTA Projections: 585 plate appearances, 14 home runs, .269/.310/.416, 3.7 WARP

Longoria might be the most crucial to his team's success, but Manny Machado has the most upside, both in 2015 and over the next half-decade.

Machado, amazingly, will turn just 23 in July. He is not arbitration eligible until next season, and he will not be eligible for free agnecy until 2019. In 2013, his one full season, he was a six win player (6.3 fWAR), took home a Gold Glove, and finished ninth in the AL MVP voting. That year, Machado was not only named the league's best defensive third baseman by the Fielding Bible, but he saved a third-base record 35 defensive runs.

To this point in his career, Machado has been an undisciplined hitter, as evidenced by his career 4.6% walk percentage and .313 on-base percentage. Before 2014's season-ending injury, though, Machado had demonstrated some progress. In 354 plate appearances, he posted a 5.6% walk percentage and .324 on-base percentage.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Machado has struggled mightily against breaking pitches. In three seasons, he has been excellent against hard  pitches (.281 AVG and .438 SLG) and offspeed  pitches (.306 AVG and .483 SLG), but breaking stuff is a different story entirely:

Year

% Breaking Pitches Seen

AVG

SLG

2012

29.6%

.268

.493

2013

26.4%

.260

.388

2014

29.1%

.220

.340

Career

27.7%

.251

.395

The best season of his career by fWAR (2013 - 6.3) came when he saw the fewest breaking pitches, as you can see in the graph above.

If and when Machado proves he can stay healthy and hit breaking pitches, his production and team control means every other third baseman in the division, if not baseball, will be battling for second best.

Chase Headley

2014 (with Padres and Yankees): 135 games, 34 extra-base hits, .243/.328/.372, 9.6 BB%, 23.0 BB%, 4.4 fWAR

2015 PECOTA Projections: 620 plate appearances, 17 home runs, .258/.338/.404, 1.8 WARP

He might not be the biggest name of this list, but from 2008-2014, Headley was the third best (23.4 fWAR) third baseman in the NL, one spot ahead of Sandoval.

Like Sandoval, Headley has spent his career on the West Coast. Unlike Sandoval, though, Headley has not had the spotlight of primetime postseason games to raise his profile. But at four years, $52 million, or about $40 million less than Sandoval, Headley could be a bargain.

True, Headley has not matched his outstanding 2012 season, before or since, in which he had 64 extra base hits, a line of .286/.376/.498, and 7.2 fWAR. He led the NL with 115 RBI's, despite playing for a Padres team that finished eleventh in runs scored and twelfth in team OPS.

If I had rephrased the above as the question "What team did the 2012 NL RBI leader play for?", how many teams would you name before arriving at the Padres?

Since that time, Headley continues to be valuable, posting at least a 3.6 fWAR in three other seasons, including a 4.4 last season. And one thing to keep in mind as we project Headley's contract is the disparity in his home and road splits, which can be expected for a player who has spent his career at Petco Park.


XBH

AVG

OBP

SLG

OPS

wRC+

BABIP

Home

137

.245

.335

.376

.711

109

.312

Away

163

.285

.359

.440

.799

118

.348

Above are his career numbers. If 2014 was any indication, Headley will benefit from hitting at Yankee Stadium. In 35 games in the Bronx, Headley slugged five home runs and posted a line of .265/.390/.434.

The Newcomers

Photo Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA Today

Pablo Sandoval

2014 (with Giants): 157 games, 45 extra-base hits, .279/.324/.415, 6.1 BB%, 13.3 K%, 3.0 fWAR

2015 PECOTA Projections: 588 plate appearances, 17 home runs, .281/.336/.441, 2.4 WARP

Obviously, of the group, Sandoval owns the best postseason credentials. In 167 career playoff plate appearances, the three time World Series champion and 2012 World Series MVP, has 19 extra-base hits and a line of .344/.389/.545. He is less than five months removed from posting a 1.002 OPS in the World Series.

Based on a cursory look at the numbers, though, it is possible to make a case that Sandoval is a player in decline.

Since 2011, he has seen a steady decrease in his on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, and home run to fly ball ratio. No major league third baseman has swung at more pitches outside of the strike zone (45.7%) since he debuted for the Giants in 2008. And after being the second best NL third baseman, by fWAR, from 2009-2011 (12.0 fWAR), Sandoval was just the eleventh best from 2012-2014 (7.9 fWAR).

However, during that same period, his walk percentage, strikeout percentage, line drive percentage, and fly ball percentage have remained steady, with no substantial decline.

Additionally. Sandoval has transitioned across the country to should be a vastly superior lineup. PECOTA projects the Red Sox to lead all of baseball in runs scored in 2015. The Giants, however, are projected to finish fourth in runs scored in their own division, and tenth overall in the NL.

At age 29, the move to a better lineup and hitter's park could serve to mitigate further immediate drop-off.

Sandoval's greatest weakness? Due to the plethora of Red Sox games on ESPN, FOX, and TBS each season, we are likely in for five seasons of grown men and women referring to another adult as "Kung Fu Panda" in front of a national television audience.

Josh Donaldson

2014 (with Athletics): 158 games, 62 extra-base hits,  .255/.342/.456, 10.9 BB%, 18.7 K%, 6.4 fWAR

2015 PECOTA Projections: 604 plate appearances, 25 home runs, .264/.342/.465, 4.2 WARP

Donaldson, like Sandoval, is surrounded by what should be an impressive lineup. PECOTA projects the Blue Jays to score the second most runs in baseball, with Donaldson joining Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion to form a formidable power-hitting trio. In 39 career plate appearances at the Rogers Centre, Donaldson has a .788 OPS and 95 OPS+.

In the 2013-2014 seasons, Donaldson earned $992,500, while bringing $73.6 million worth of production (cumulative 14.1 fWAR) to the A's, according to Fangraphs. That is some NFL-level thievery by the organization. I had to copy off friends to pass AP Accounting in high school, and even I know that is considered some solid return on investment.

Donaldson, like Machado, also has an outstanding glove. In 2014, Donaldson led all third baseman with 20 Defensive Runs Saved. Despite not winning the Gold Glove, he was named the game's best third baseman by the Fielding Bible, unseating Machado.

However, despite producing the fourth best fWAR in the AL last season, Donaldson's OPS decreased by 85 points from 2013. This decline can be attributed partly to his severe drop-off in production against sinkers from 2013 to 2014. In both seasons, Donaldson saw sinkers third most of any pitch after four-seam fastballs and sliders:


% of 2-seam Pitches Seen

K

Extra-Base Hits

AVG

SLG

BABIP

2013

18.3%

10

11

.338

.533

.369

2014

16.9%

9

4

.244

.317

.264

Improved performance against sinkers could have Donaldson close to his 2013 147 wRC+, and along with his exceptional defense, likely make him the best third baseman in the AL East in 2015.

Best In 2015

You can make a reasonable case for all five players.

Headley has produced steadily, and will now play half his games in Yankees Stadium. Machado's career is just beginning, and he should only get better as a hitter. Donaldson and Sandoval have moved to better lineups and hitter's parks. Longoria is predicted to rebound and could put the team on his back, which the Rays will need to survive this division.

Who would you want for 2015 and beyond ? The games begin April 5, but the debate should rage for a half-decade.

*A portion, or entirety, of this sentence may not be entirely accurate.