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Braves Offense Position-By-Position Breakdown: 3rd Base

Howdy, folks. We're back with part 5 of my look at the Braves' offense. Here are the links to Part 1: catchers, Part 2 : 1st basemen, and Part 3: 2nd basemen, and Part 4: shortstops.

Since 1995, Braves fans haven't had to worry about who their starting 3rd baseman would be*. Sure, for the past 6 or 7 years, they've had to worry about the health of that 3rd baseman, but that is still a great deal of comfort for one player to provide a fanbase. Every year, there's Chipper Jones, a little older but still wielding a dangerous bat and an unparalleled knowledge of hitting.

* Not counting the two-year Castilla Interregnum, in which Chipper was exiled to left field for some reason. Seeing as how that made no sense, I'm ignoring those years. I suggest you do the same.

This pleasant era will end one of these years, but thankfully that year won't be 2012. Chipper had another good year in 2011, and so long as he keeps having good years, he's going to keep playing, I'd imagine.

The graphic below shows the offensive performance of the Braves' 3rd basemen (Chipper, plus Julio Lugo and Diory Hernandez) relative to the rest of the NL. It uses Weighted Runs Created, or wRC, which is like RBIs except that it takes into account everything a hitter does, not just how many he drives in.


To sum up: if Chipper had managed to stay healthy all year, he would have been ~20 runs better than the average 3rd baseman. But Chipper only got 512 PAs, and Hernandez (2 wRC in 35 PAs) and especially Lugo (0 wRC in 48 PAs) brought the Braves' numbers down quite a bit in limited time**. Still, the Braves ranked 3rd in the league in wRC per 700 PAs from the position.

** Thankfully, neither Lugo nor Hernandez figures into the Braves' plans going forward. As things stand now, Martin Prado will most likely continue fill in for Chipper during days off and short absences. (Prado's numbers aren't included in the graph above; we'll talk about him when we get to the left fielders.) We'll probably see Drew Sutton or another non-roster invitee at the hot corner at some point, too, though it's hard to expect much from such players.

It was a weak year for 3rd basemen in the NL. So many of the best players missed a lot of time with injuries (David Wright, Pablo Sandoval, Ryan Zimmerman, Chase Headley) that only two NL third basemen managed to accrue more than 560 plate appearances. One of those, Casey McGehee, was terrible (the other was Aramis Ramirez).

Even if we judge on a rate basis, though, only Ramirez and Sandoval hit noticeably better than Chipper when they played. And get this: only 4 NL 3rd basemen played more than Chipper in 2011 (Ramirez, McGehee, Ryan Roberts, and Placido Polanco). He may be old and creaky, but Chipper managed to stay on the field more than many of his younger rivals last season, and hit just as well as most of them, too.

One oddity about Chipper's 2011 season is that he walked just 10% of the time. That's above average, but it still represented a career-low for him. It's also a big drop from his 3 previous seasons, all of which featured walk rates of at least 16%. Several projection systems think that Chipper's walk rate will bounce back in 2012, which they think will help him offset a decline in power.

Bill James thinks that Chipper will post a .278 / .378 / .460 line that would actually be a bit better than his 2011. James only projects Chipper to reach 413 PAs, though, which limits his wRC to just 61, 8 runs lower than in 2011. That works out to a fantastic rate of 103 wRC per 700 PAs.

Another projection available on FanGraphs, by RotoChamp, more or less concurs with James. It projects Chipper to be worth 57 runs in 406 PAs (98 wRC/700). The Fan Projections are a bit more optimistic about playing time, projecting Chipper to get 507 PAs, about the same as in 2011. The Fans also think he'll hit about as well as last year, with a projection of 69 wRC (95 wRC/700).

One dissenting opinion is that of ZiPS, which projects Chipper to hit just .260 / .343 / .438 with a PA total in the low 400s. That'd be worth around 53-55 wRC. Personally, I think the ZiPS projection is probably the most reasonable. At Chipper's age, we should expect a slight decline. He'd still be a good player, but just a little less good. It's possible that he'll do better, but it's also possible that he'll have a steeper decline or suffer a serious injury.

Regardless, I'm just glad to have Chipper around for one more year. He's kind of like an old t-shirt that you've been wearing for 18 years. It may be a bit threadworn, but it still gets the job done, and damn if it isn't comfortable.

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