The death of legendary Baltimore Orioles third baseman Brooks Robinson this week has rekindled memories of the defensive wizardry he showed at the position over a stellar 23-year career. Robinson is, almost by acclimation, the greatest defensive player at the hot corner in baseball history.
But where does Robinson rank overall among the all-time greats at third base? It's a question worth considering, especially in light of the position's sparse membership in the Baseball Hall of Fame. And if "Mr. Oriole" isn't the game's ultimate third baseman, who is?
Let's take a closer look at the candidates, both past and present.
The early stars
Among the 270 former major league players enshrined in Cooperstown, only 15 played more than half of their games at third base. The list includes six who concluded their careers before the end of World War II.
Among those early stars, Pie Traynor of the Pittsburgh Pirates is generally considered to be the standard-bearer. Traynor was a career .320 hitter over 17 seasons with the Pirates who won a World Series ring in 1925 and finished among the top 10 in MVP voting six times.
Yet Traynor ranks 12th in Wins Above Replacement among Hall of Fame third basemen at 38.7, behind the likes of John "Home Run" Baker (who had 96 of them in his career from 1908-1922), Jimmy Collins and Deacon White.
Happy hot corner days
The 1950s gave rise to a new generation of third basemen. George Kell (37.7 career WAR) was just winding up his 15-year career when Robinson, Eddie Mathews (96 .0 WAR) and a little later Ron Santo (70.5 WAR) were arriving on the scene.
With the Milwaukee Braves, Mathews became the position's greatest slugger, eventually surpassing the 500-home run mark by the time he retired in 1968. Meanwhile, Robinson flourished in Baltimore, racking up 78.4 WAR, despite hitting only 268 home runs and posting a pedestrian .723 career OPS.
Perhaps the greatest era for third basemen arrived as Robinson's career was winding down in the 1970s.
The Philadelphia Phillies' Mike Schmidt and Kansas City Royals' George Brett combined for 25 All-Star appearances. Schmidt surpassed Mathews by hitting 548 home runs, while Brett won three batting crowns. Both became World Series champions -- as did the Yankees' Graig Nettles, whose defensive reputation was stellar, even though it couldn't carry him to Cooperstown.
Wade Boggs took Brett's hitting prowess to another level, winning five batting titles. Chipper Jones carried the mantle on his way to eight All-Star appearances and an MVP award in 1999. And Scott Rolen, just inducted into Cooperstown last summer, rounds out the group.
Who's the greatest third baseman?
Going by career WAR, here's how the Hall of Fame third basemen stack up (courtesy of Baseball-Reference's StatHead):
Mike Schmidt - 106.8
Eddie Mathews - 96.0
Wade Boggs - 91.4
George Brett - 88.6
Chipper Jones - 85.3
Brooks Robinson - 78.4
Robinson gets by far the most value from his defense. In fact, Robinson's 39.1 defensive WAR is third-highest in baseball history -- at any position -- behind shortstops Ozzie Smith at 44.2 and (Orioles teammate) Mark Belanger at 39.5. Robinson's 16 Gold Gloves rank second all-time to pitcher Greg Maddux's 18.
Brooks Robinson pulls off one of the most difficult plays at 3b I’ve ever seen….and it was in the World Series pic.twitter.com/wEcUIgoZ7o
— BaseballHistoryNut (@nut_history) October 1, 2022
Looking back at the list, Jones never won a Gold Glove. Brett won one. Boggs won two.
Schmidt, on the other hand, was perhaps Robinson's defensive equivalent in the National League. He won 10 NL Gold Gloves, nine of them coming consecutively from 1976-84. At the same time, Schmidt was perhaps the game's premier power hitter, winning eight NL home run titles and racking up three MVP awards.
In the end, Schmidt gets the nod as history's greatest all-around third baseman. Brett and Jones slide in ahead of Robinson because of their offensive superiority. Fun fact: All four of those all-time greats played their entire careers with one team.
Don't forget about ...
While it will be a good while before anyone challenges Schmidt's hot-corner superiority, there is one name conspicuously missing from the discussion so far: Adrian Beltre.
That's because Beltre just becomes eligible for Hall of Fame induction this year.
His credentials are impeccable: 477 home runs (third at the position), 93.5 WAR (also third) and his 3,166 career hits are the most ever by a third baseman (12 more than Brett).
In addition, Beltre is one of the best defenders of his era. He has five Gold Gloves and his 27 WAR on defense is second only to Robinson among third basemen -- and 15th all-time at any position.
Beltre definitely belongs in the discussion of the game's best at third base. He rounds out the top five, sneaking in just ahead of Robinson.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ranking MLB's greatest third basemen: Mike Schmidt or Brooks Robinson?