KANSAS CITY – There is a statue outside Kauffman Stadium of George Brett, the greatest-ever Kansas City Royal and the all-time RBI leader among players whose primary position was third base. Brett is featured everywhere this week in K.C., where he’s not as popular as barbeque, but pretty close.
Chipper Jones, in town for Tuesday night’s All-Star game, needs just three RBIs to surpass Brett (1,596). Perhaps there will be a statue outside Turner Field someday of Jones, to go with those of Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn, Phil Niekro and Ty Cobb, who didn’t play for Atlanta but was the “Georgia Peach.”
Like Brett, Jones has played for about two decades, his entire major league career, in one city. Each is synonymous with that city. But who was better? The question for today, as Jones prepares to play for the first and presumably only time in Kansas City: Where do he and Brett rank all-time among major league third basemen?
Actually, the question is which of them ranks second and which ranks third on the list behind Mike Schmidt, the great Philadelphia Phillies slugger widely regarded as the gold standard for third basemen.
“When I was growing up, George and Mike Schmidt were the best players in the league,” Jones said Monday during All-Star media day. “Perennial MVP candidates, perennial All-Stars. I was a shortstop, so I didn’t pay as much attention to them as I did, say, Cal Ripken or Barry Larkin. But then once you become a third baseman and you’re a student of the game and you learn the history of the position, you realize how good those two guys were.”
Brett, who served as manager of the United States team in Sunday’s Futures Game, has long admired Jones and said he’s never seen him play in person except in spring training.
“I’m excited to see him,” said Brett, a fixture in Kansas City who never moved away from the city after retiring in 1993. “I’m glad he’s on the All-Star team. He’s never played in Kansas City. I think the Kansas City people are going to give him a thunderous ovation.”
Asked his thoughts on Jones’ career, Brett was succinct: “Unbelievable. Hall of Famer. I’ll see him in Cooperstown in five years.”
Some argue that others belong in the conversation about top third basemen, including former Brave Eddie Mathews, who had 512 homers and a superior WAR rating; Brooks Robinson, who won 15 consecutive Gold Gloves, and Alex Rodriguez, who has three MVP awards and is still adding to his 642 homers and 1,931 RBIs.
But Robinson didn’t hit enough to be included with the others on the list, and Rodriguez still hasn’t played as many games at third base as he did at shortstop (plus, there’s the steroid matter). The best case for inclusion in the top three belongs to Mathews, who had four 40-homer seasons in the 1950s and led his league in RBIs four times.
Mathews just didn’t have quite longevity of the three at the top of our list. He was outstanding during an 11-year window, compared to the 15 or more years of each of those in our Holy Trinity of third basemen. For excellence over a longer period, and what they meant to their franchises, and their postseason success, we’re going with Jones and Brett — or is it Brett and Jones? — in the two spots behind Schmidt.
Schmidt, a 12-time All-Star, 10-time Gold Glove winner and three-time National League MVP, finished with 548 homers and 1,595 RBIs. That’s one more RBI than Jones (1,594), an eight-time All-Star and one-time MVP who has 460 homers.
Jones has a .934 on-base-plus-slugging percentage that’s better than either Schmidt (.908) or Brett (.857), who tailed off sharply during his last three seasons at ages 38-40.
Jones, who played 2-1/2 seasons in left field in the middle of his career and 49 games at shortstop, has never won a Gold Glove. Brett, who won one Gold Glove at third base, played one-fifth of his career at first base, while Schmidt played more than 2,200 of his 2,404 games at third base.
Jones kept producing despite six knee surgeries. He moved to the outfield in his prime for the sake of the team, then moved back to third base without missing a beat.
Jones has a .304 career average and .402 on-base percentage, with 2,670 hits in 2,436 games over 19 seasons. Brett had a .305 average, .369 OPB and 3,154 hits in 2,707 games over 21 years. Brett was at his best in the Royals heyday from 1976 to 1985, finishing in the top three in the American League MVP balloting four times including his lone MVP award in 1980.
“Many times [Braves president and former general manager] John Schuerholz, who used to be here in Kansas City, has told me how much I remind him of George back in the day,” Jones said. “I take that as the ultimate compliment for a third baseman. He was a gritty, gutty ballplayer. He was the toast of the town here in Kansas City. And bottom line, he helped them win ballgames day in and day out. Anytime I can draw a comparison to someone like that, I’m honored.”
In postseason play, Jones has a .288 average and .411 OBP with 13 homers in 92 games. Brett hit a robust .337 with a 1.023 OPS and 10 homers in 43 postseason games.
Brett won the last of his three batting titles at age 37, hitting .329 in 1990. He batted over .290 only one other time in his final eight seasons, and hit .266 with career-low .312 OBP at age 40 in his final season in 1993.
Jones at 40 is hitting .318 with a .396 OBP, albeit in only 49 games due to two stints on the disabled list and other rest days. He’s probably going to hit over .295 for a fifth time in his final eight seasons and could possibly hit .320 or higher for the fourth time in his final seven seasons.
Oh, by the way, he leads the majors with .532 OBP when leading off innings, ahead of Minnesota’s Joe Mauer (.521) and Baltimore’s Nick Markakis (.486).
He’s gimpy at times, but still plays at a high level.
An All-Star at 40.
And the second-best third baseman of all time, in our view. By a nose over Brett.
NL All-Star lineup
(Matt Cain is starting pitcher)
AL All-Star lineup
(Juster Verlander is starting pitcher)