Kris Bryant could be one of the best third basemen of all time.
There are two ways to interpret that sentence: Kris Bryant has the potential to become one of the best third basemen ever; or Kris Bryant, the current player, is performing at one of the highest levels of any third baseman ever. Off to another hot start, Bryant certainly has the ability to distinguish himself in the latter way, and according to Baseball Prospectus’s WARP, he has already submitted a nine-win season to the record books (2016). However, with three full seasons under his belt, and with his age-26 season just beginning, I think it’s time to size up Bryant next to the greatest third basemen in major-league history.
In three full(ish) major-league seasons, Bryant has hit a robust .288/.388/.527 with 94 homers and 274 RBI. Over those three years, Bryant ranks seventh in OBP, 16th in slugging, 20th in walk rate, 16th in home runs, 18th in RBI—you get the picture. That’s also considering Bryant’s slightly-below-MVP performance in his rookie season; the numbers look even better over Bryant’s last two years in the bigs, as he’s hit for more power, struck out less, and walked more. All things considered, Bryant is a top-five player in the game right now, and he might still be getting better (you can see how locked in he looks this season already, as he’s OPS’d nearly 1.100).
That’s it for the Bryant-fawning, at least in the absolute. This is a piece about comparisons, that time-honored cornerstone of bleacher, bar, family, and friend chat. How does Kris Bryant stack up against his peers, and against those who have come before him? To help answer this question, a chart:
|Age||bWAR (Avg.)||WARP (Avg.)|
|Kris Bryant||26||19.7 (6.6)||21.6 (7.2)|
|Nolan Arenado||27||27.5 (5.5)||28.7 (5.7)|
|Manny Machado||25||26.4 (5.3)||22.5 (4.5)|
One can see from the table above why this triumvirate of third sackers is vaunted, and why they have the best odds of putting up the 70-plus wins that would ensure Hall of Fame enshrinement. For context, I included Machado’s injury-shortened 2014, but omitted his partial rookie season. For Arenado and Bryant, I included all seasons. Other important context to remember: Bryant’s higher average WAR is partially due to his later debut than the other two, as Arenado and Bryant have very similar overall production since 2015; also, Machado’s uncharacteristic 2017 deflates his average seasonal WAR.
These are the three active third basemen (although Machado has moved to short for this season) who are performing at MVP levels and who have accumulated enough WAR at an early enough age to position themselves to make a run at Hall of Fame consideration. The state of the position is very healthy, and there are others who have varying degrees of opportunity to join this club, but they all come with warts. Josh Donaldson is too old and possibly declining; Justin Turner is too old; Adrian Beltre is already ticketed for Cooperstown; and Alex Bregman is more of an all-around very good player than an MVP candidate after one full season in the books. Anthony Rendon compares favorably in age and overall production to these three, and Jose Ramirez could enter this tier with one or two more seasons of peak performance, but there appears to be a consensus that the trio of Arenado, Bryant, and Machado could enter the “all-time great” echelon.
Now that we’ve compared these players to their contemporaries, we can move to the more fun work of comparing them to the best third basemen of all-time. Below, I’ve included WAR totals for eight third basemen in the Hall of Fame next to the numbers of Arenado, Bryant, and Machado. The first three columns are Baseball Prospectus WARP after their age 25, 26, and 27 seasons, and the final column is their career total. For the purposes of holistic comparison, I have not omitted partial seasons except 2018.
|Age 25||Age 26||Age 27||Career WARP|
Right away, quite a bit of interesting information jumps out. First, one can see which players had early peaks (Mathews, Santo, Brett), which were late bloomers with good longevity (Boggs, Jones, Robinson), and why Mike Schmidt is head and shoulders above the rest of the group. At their current ages, Arenado, Bryant, and Machado are squarely in the middle of this pack. This might give you some hope that one of these three could unseat Schmidt at the top of the list, or at least come close to Mathews, Brett, and Boggs for a top-five all-time ranking. And it should!
However… most of the third basemen who made the list reeled off many more seven- eight-, or even nine-WARP seasons in the years beyond their age-27 season. The exceptions are Santo, whose career was ended prematurely by complications due to diabetes; Jones, who maintained supernaturally consistent six-WARP production for almost another decade; and Boggs, whose final season with more than four WARP was at 31. Really, each of these players has unique career contours, different peaks and valleys, and skill sets that age differently.
What sets aside the top three of Schmidt, Brett, and Mathews are the remarkable beginnings to their careers, as they each totaled roughly twice as much WARP by 27 as our three active third basemen have as of the beginning of 2018. This is how they differentiated themselves from the others on the list, who—besides the aforementioned Santo and his specific circumstances—had slower starts to their careers. In order to poise themselves for entry into this top tier, our three would have to enter the 40-WARP territory by the end of their age-27 seasons.
Does Kris Bryant have that in him? Do Arenado or Machado? Well, most likely not. Arenado would need a 10-WARP season this year, Bryant would need two seasons averaging nine WARP, and Machado would need three seasons averaging six WARP.
This poses secondary set of questions. Do Arenado and Bryant have all-time great seasons in them? And can Machado find the consistency that he has so far lacked in his career?
Looking at each player’s peak season thus far in their career is likely a good indicator of their potential, and one could optimistically adjust a little higher to imagine a player’s best career season. In this case, Bryant takes the cake—his 2016 MVP season was a 9.1 WARP campaign, and it’s easy to imagine him doing this again, maybe even in 2018. That same year, Arenado posted a career-best 7.8 WARP, and he has consistently posted seven-WAR seasons since 2015. As noted above, Machado has had the most volatile career so far, in part because he is the youngest and has the most trouble reaching base often, but in 2015 the Orioles star put up a 7.3-win season. The problem with Machado is that he hasn’t posted another MVP-level year, as his second- and third-best seasons came in just below 6.0 WARP. The positive with him is that he is the youngest, and has defense and power to rival both of his peers.
On the flip side, there is no guarantee that any of these players will perform at this level for the next decade, that they will remain healthy enough to accumulate counting stats like WAR, or that they will make the necessary improvements to their game to age gracefully. Consider the following table, listing other modern third basemen (in order of active to longest-retired) who put up 20-plus WARP through their age-27 season.
|WARP, Age 27||WARP, Career|
There are a wide range of outcomes for third basemen who are similarly successful to Arenado, Bryant, and Machado: players like Glaus, Ventura, and Madlock never again reached the heights of their mid-20s production, and the previous generation of Longoria, Wright, and Zimmerman have shown how difficult it is to stay healthy enough to be productive into one’s mid-30s. Then, there are the Hall of Very Good players. Rolen, Evans, Bell, and Nettles all got off to good starts like our trio, but finished just short of all-time greatness (although, one could argue that Rolen is underrated in these discussions).
If I were a betting man, I would say that our three are most likely to land in this latter group. Bryant might have begun his career too late to enter the top tier, as all of those players debuted in their early-20s with the interesting exceptions of Schmidt and Boggs (more on that soon). Arenado could be a Rolen-type defensive star with better power, falling just short of a secure place in Cooperstown. Machado might simply never gain the consistency to accumulate enough numbers, or might not reach the peaks that Bryant and Arenado have already reached. There are good reasons to believe that these three third basemen won’t assail Boggs or Brett’s numbers even without considering the possibility of injury.
But they could enter that tier, if things break right for them, and the last exercise I’ll do here is a bit of wishful (and fun) thinking. What would it take for Kris Bryant to be a top-five third baseman? That means 80-plus WARP, a number to which Bryant is only one-quarter of the way. Conservatively, then, Bryant would need to average six WAR per season for a decade—not an easy thing to do, even if one stays completely healthy. In fact, only Schmidt averaged that level of production from ages 28-37, a period over which he accumulated an incredible 70 WARP. Brett, Mathews, and Boggs all averaged under five wins per season, even with each player putting up at least one more MVP-level year.
Bryant is at the beginning of his age-26 season, and he is off to a remarkable start, so there is a good chance the Cubs third baseman accumulates 15 WARP in the next two seasons, bringing him to about 35 total. That means he could maintain a more “normal” rate of production that isn’t Schmidt-level superhuman, needing only 4.5 wins per season from age 28 to 37. What would such a career contour look like for Bryant, compared to the top four third basemen?
A career curve like the one I sketched above is what Bryant will need in order to be a top-five third baseman. He’s going to need to put up at least two all-time great seasons and maintain a baseline of six or seven WARP for a decade to have a chance at cracking 80 career WARP, which—luckily for him—is a possibility, if not a probability. Boggs had four straight MVP-level seasons, Brett added three, and Schmidt was nothing short of the best player in baseball from the mid-’70s to the mid-‘80s; Mathews was basically a Hall of Famer by 29, so his latter production was less important.
Bryant doesn’t have the advantage of starting his major-league career at 20, or pocketing 40-plus wins before 27. He’ll need to be one of the three or four best position players in the league through his mid-30s if he’s going to make a big dent in our digital annals, and he’s going to have to take home some more shiny hardware to do it. The odds aren’t in his favor, but Bryant hasn’t disappointed at any level in his entire baseball life, and he continues to improve aspects of his game.
Could Kris Bryant be Mike Schmidt? No, but he could be Kris Bryant, and that’s enough.
Lead photo courtesy Benny Sieu—USA Today Sports