Kris Bryant, Josh Donaldson, and Manny Machado

Every offseason I do a top 100 MLB players list.  Around the new year is when I start to consider this list seriously, beginning by naming the best player at each position.  Usually, about half of the 10 positions (excluding DH) are close, and the other half are runaways.  This year there is a position that goes beyond even calling it close: third base.

The hot corner currently claims three of the probable top five players in baseball in 2016 NL MVP Kris Bryant, 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson, and three-time AL All-Star Manny Machado.  Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw would of course round out the top five, with players like Mookie Betts and Jose Altuve just missing.  Ranking all of the top players against each other, however, will be discussed in a later article.  For now the focus will stay on the three incredible third basemen.  On the top 100 prior to the 2016 season, Donaldson was the highest-ranked 3B, coming in at #2 overall behind only Trout.  Machado was close behind Donaldson at #9 overall, while Bryant was third at the position in the #18 slot.  But 2016 has now come and gone, and all three of these players had spectacular years.  Now how do they rank?

Let’s start with WAR over the last two seasons, since that’s how long Bryant has been in the league.  For purposes of being fair, we’ll use rWAR.

  1. Josh Donaldson 16.3
  2. Kris Bryant 14.3
  3. Manny Machado 13.5

Well, according to WAR, Donaldson is the clear champion of the position.  He has been worth far more than his competition over the past two seasons.  Just for the record, two players whom I am certain people will try to argue belong with this group in the comments, Adrian Beltre and Nolan Arenado, finish well behind Machado in rWAR.  As useful as WAR is in comparing players, it is not a be-all-and-end-all ranking.  How do the three title players of this article order in OPS+?  This will be the last two seasons as well.

  1. Donaldson 151
  2. Bryant 142
  3. Machado 130

Donaldson wins handily again.  Baseball is about more than just hitting.  How about baserunning?  I’ll rate by XBT% and BsR.

  1. Bryant 51% XBT%, 14.4 BsR
  2. Donaldson 39%, 4.2
  3. Machado 46%, 0.7

Here we go — a list that isn’t topped by Josh Donaldson.  Of course Kris Bryant is a very good baserunner, so this was to be expected.  What’s interesting to me is the edge Donaldson has over Machado despite taking the extra base 7% less of the time.  This can be attributed to Donaldson being on base more often.  Aside from hitting and baserunning, there is defense.  How are these three by the top metrics there?  DRS and UZR/150 should serve this purpose well, again using the past two seasons.

  1. Machado 21.0 UZR/150, 27 DRS
  2. Donaldson 15.5, 13
  3. Bryant 13.1, 7

Bryant is hurt in DRS by his flexibility in positions, but the UZR/150 makes up for that.  Machado is in another world when compared defensively to these competitors.  He is simply incredible on defense.  This, however, does not make up for his being behind both Bryant and Donaldson in hitting and baserunning.

It seems that Donaldson should place first in the position, with Bryant second and Machado third.  One thing is bothering me about this entire analysis, though.  The 2015 and 2016 seasons are being counted as the same in terms of importance.  That should not be.  I’ll re-rank the group by rWAR, weighting 2016 over 2015.  A weight of 1.75:1, or 7:4 in whole numbers.

  1. Donaldson 21.88
  2. Bryant 20.34
  3. Machado 18.50

Well, the order is the same as the original list using WAR, even if the two leaders are much closer.  How about using wRC+?  The weights will remain at 1.75:1.

  1. Donaldson 425.3
  2. Bryant 396.8
  3. Machado 359.8

Donaldson is still the best offensive player.  He still is the best at the position.  One factor is still not being taken into consideration: age.  Donaldson will be in his age-31 season in 2017, meaning he should be entering into a decline.  Bryant will enter his age-25 season, and Machado his age-24.  They should both be improving.  Steamer projections clearly buy into this improvement, at least for Machado, who is projected to have the highest WAR of the three.  Until this actually comes to fruition, however, Bryant’s superior numbers will keep him above Manny Machado.

How to handle the age factor?  In the WAR lists I included, Donaldson’s an average of 10.8% better than Bryant, and he’s 19.5% Machado’s superior.  It seems unlikely that a combined Donaldson decline and Bryant or Machado improvement would make up this gap.  Even if it was more likely, the numbers that have already occurred would take precedence over the numbers that may occur.  Donaldson is still the champion of the hot corner.  The top three third basemen in the MLB right now are:

  1. Josh Donaldson, Toronto Blue Jays
  2. Kris Bryant, Chicago Cubs
  3. Manny Machado, Baltimore Orioles





Sean is a student at Fordham University in Bronx, NY. He studies mathematics with a concentration in decision making and a minor in sports journalism. Occasionally, he submits articles to Fangraphs in the hopes that they aren't terrible. You can follow him on Twitter @srhkthew2.

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thetoddfather
Member
thetoddfather

The amount of talent at third base right now is pretty absurd. I will say that with most of the stats you are using here, Arenado is just a hair behind Machado, if not actually ahead of him (rWAR 18.5/17.2, wRC+ 360/336, DRS 27/38). And there is some significant evidence that the Coors adjustment is over-correcting for these offensive numbers. I think you could put either Manny or Nolan in the third spot and have a fair argument for both. Agree with the conclusion though – Donaldson should start declining soon but he’s the man to beat right now, and… Read more »

ryancc
Member
ryancc

Manny’s defensive numbers are actually being hurt by his time at SS. That 27 DRS is only his 3B number the past two years. He also added 2 DRS in 433 inn at SS. Those innings at 3B instead would have reasonably resulted in 32 DRS over the last 2 years. So while not as good as Arenado, definitely close enough that his offense puts him over the top. And I don’t think the Coors adjustments are over-correcting that much. Arenado’s away OPS was 73rd best in the MLB last year, at home it was 5th best in league. .200… Read more »

thetoddfather
Member
thetoddfather

Totally agree that Manny and Nolan are pretty equal defensively. I’m saying they are pretty equal overall, and should generally be ranked in total value almost identically. The data and analysis on Coors has developed way beyond simply looking at home/road splits. I remember another community article that broke down the Coors Park Factor and found that if you calculated the Park Factor with only their opponent’s stats, it would almost get cut in half (from around 1.20 to 1.10). I think most people agree that some type of Coors road disadvantage exists, but we are just figuring out how… Read more »

GG_huson
Member
GG_huson

I was about to say something similar, but you articulated it much better than I would have!