As I write this early in the 2021 season, the best Dodger third baseman ever is almost universally assumed to be 6x All-Star and 1981 World Series co-MVP Ron Cey. If career WAR is your thing, limited to time as a Dodger, the Penguin stands head and shoulders above the competition.
Looking again at WAR, this time by single season, Cey has six of the top eleven seasons ever by a Dodger third baseman (minimum 70% of games at the position).
Looking at counting stats, Cey leads all Dodger third basemen in games, at bats, hits, doubles, home runs, runs batted in, and walks–in most cases by a sizeable margin. Throw out the 1800s and Cey takes runs also.
I already mentioned that Ron Cey was a six-time All-Star at the position, good for three Topps cards sporting the banner.
Three other Dodger third sackers have made the All-Star team at least twice at third base, topped by a name unfamiliar to many modern day fans.
- 4 – Cookie Lavagetto (1938-41)
- 2 – Junior Gilliam (1956, 1959)
- 2 – Pedro Guerrero (1983, 1987)
Arky Vaughan, Mike Sharperson, and Justin Turner are each one-time All-Stars with the Dodgers.
Just for fun, we can also look at the team’s starting third baseman in each of our seven World Series titles. Here, Cey stands out as having been MVP but is otherwise overshadowed by Junior Gilliam.
- 1955 – Jackie Robinson
- 1959 – Junior Gilliam
- 1963 – Junior Gilliam
- 1965 – Junior Gilliam
- 1981 – Ron Cey (MVP)
- 1988 – Jeff Hamilton
- 2020 – Justin Turner
Taking all of this into account, there isn’t really a question as to whether the Penguin is the best ever. The real question is whether Justin Turner just might take over the top spot before all is said and done.
If career WAR is your definitive metric, Turner’s chances are slim. He sits nearly 20 WAR below Cey, the equivalent of about 4-5 All-Star seasons, and he’s already 36 years old. Perhaps the best Turner might hope for is to end up at least in the ballpark. With Cey at 47.7, Turner probably needs to end up at 40 to be in the conversation. Even then, however, he would need to edge out Cey in other important areas to compensate for the shortfall in WAR.
One area where he might be successful is in winning more championships. While rings tend to be a primary metric for greatness in basketball and football, they seem to carry less weight in baseball. Still, a second or third Dodger championship with Turner at the hot corner definitely adds value to Turner’s overall resume.
Another area where Turner currently outshines Cey (and all others) is in the rate statistics of batting average, on-base percentage, slugging average, and OPS. Among Dodger third basemen with at least 3000 plate appearances, Turner tops all four categories, with only Lavagetto offering slight competition in OBP. (In fact Turner is fifth all-time in OPS among Dodgers at any position with 3000 PA, trailing only Mike Piazza, Babe Herman, Duke Snider, and Pedro Guerrero.)
With Turner so far ahead of Cey in each of these categories, one might wonder how he ended up so far back in WAR. A quick look at the left hand side of the table reveals that Cey accumulated his numbers in nearly twice the plate appearances that Turner has had. (Fielding perhaps plays a role as well, though I tend to think of Cey and Turner as comparable glove men.)
Were one to pro-rate Turner’s numbers against Cey’s plate appearances, Turner would top Cey in every one of those counting stats previously mentioned except RBI and BB. Turner would also beat out Cey in WAR by nearly 10. Of course, that’s not how baseball numbers generally work. In considering the best Dodger third baseman ever, being good for a long time should be valued higher than being a little better but for barely half as long.
Ultimately, I suspect Turner will need to produce three more All-Star quality seasons to be viewed by most Dodger fans as our greatest third baseman in history. This feels unlikely given his age, but his hot start to 2021 is certainly a sign at least that Father Time hasn’t completely caught up with him yet.
As a kid I loved the Penguin, and as a much older kid I love Justin. No matter how Turner’s career finishes out at this point, two things are certain. One is that our greatest third baseman ever wore number ten. The other is that our second best third baseman wore the same and was absolutely in the conversation.