All Time Top Ten: Center Fielders

1. Willie Mays 1951-1973 2992G, 660HR, 1903RBIs, .302BA, 156 OPS+

See my entry for Honus Wagner under the shortstop article. There’s not a whole lot I can say about Mays that hasn’t already been said.  Mays of course is the all time leader in games played in center field.  Guess who’s second?  Steve Finley.  Can you believe that?  Actually it’s Ty Cobb but they didn’t divvy up the outfield positions in box scores before 1916.  Steve Finley is not on this top ten list by the way.

2. Ty Cobb 1905-1929 3034G, 117HR. 1938 RBIs, .366BA, 168 OPS+

Ty Cobb probably has more anecdotes told about him than any other player except Babe Ruth.  My favorite is this one:  One day a reporter was apparently giving Cobb a hard time about Ruth being a better hitter than Cobb because he hit tons of home runs.  Cobb of course took offense and claimed that any yahoo could hit home runs… but it took real skill to hit for a high average, that there was more art to it.  To support his claim Cobb went out and hit three home runs in one game, then went out the next day and hit two more. “See”, Cobb said.  “Anyone can do it”.   Now my problem with this story is there is no way a player of Cobb’s ability couldn’t see the value of the home run, and had he been able to, surely he would have hit plenty more.  Only an idiot would think a single is worth more than a home run.  In any case while the story might be false or exaggerated the games actually occurred.  On May 5 and 6, 1925 in St. Louis against the Browns Cobb went 9-12 with 5 homers (4.27% of his lifetime total) , 11 RBIs and 6 runs scored.  Possibly the most devastating two game performance in baseball history.  He was 38 years old at the time. As for why I rank him below Mays, well Willie’s power is a big factor.  But mostly I like to think it would irritate Cobb to no end.

3. Ken Griffey Jr.  1989-2010 2671G, 630HR, 1836 RBIs, .284BA, 136 OPS+

For a while there it looked like Griffey would own the all-time home run record..  put it in a lockbox.. and have it for the rest of eternity.  The same was also said of Alex Rodriguez.  But while Rodriguez ran into the PED monster Griffey just simply had too many injuries.  The last ten years he was a shadow of his former self.

4. Mickey Mantle 1951-1968 2401G, 536 HR, 1509 RBIs, .298BA, 172 OPS+

I suppose you could switch Mantle and Griffey.. but Griffey was a better fielder and well, I just like him better.  I’ll just go ahead and state it:  Mickey Mantle was the most naturally talented athlete to ever play the game of baseball.  He was one of, if not the fastest men in the league, and strong as an ox.  While visiting the hall of fame one time there was a candid photo of Mantle in the locker room without his shirt on one of the walls.  I’ll tell you… Mr. Universe would not have been out of the question for Mantle if he had so chosen.  But you know… honestly Mantle has always left me cold.  He wasn’t a very nice person in many ways, and of course that’s partly or even mostly due to the drinking.  But that excuse only goes so far.  Despite everything he accomplished on the field you just think there was a little more… just more overall he could have done.  With most players who didn’t live up to potential you blame fate.. like Tony Conigliaro for instance.. and you feel bad.  With Mantle you just have to blame Mantle. In many ways one of the sadder men in baseball history.

5. Tris Speaker 1907-1928 2789G, 117 HR, 1531 RBIs, .345 BA, 157 OPS+

Tris Speaker isn’t thought of as much these days, mostly because he’s seen as a lesser version of Cobb, and it was so long ago.  But his career closely paralleled Cobb’s and he really wasn’t that much worse. He interrupted Cobb’s streak of batting titles in 1916, as many knowledgeable baseball people know, but most probably think he was robbed of a lot more titles by Cobb. In fact Cobb never took a single title from Speaker.  He finished second in batting average just two seasons:1920 to George Sisler, and 1925 to Harry Heilmann.  Speaker did finish third seven times however.

6. Joe Dimaggio 1936-1951 1736G, 361HR, 1537 RBI, ..325BA, 155 OPS+

Dimaggio only really deserved one of his three MVP awards, the 1939 one.  His other two should have gone to Ted Williams.  Dimaggio however was a better baserunner and fielder than Williams.  So you could at least make a case that when healthy he wasn’t THAT much worse a player.

7. Duke Snider 1947-1964 2143G, 407 HR, 1333 RBIs, .295BA, 140 OPS+

Duke Snider was actually much younger than he looked.  He prematurely greyed and was only 37 when he retired.  For the five year period between 1953-1957 he was an absolute monster, topping 40 home runs all five years, leading the league in runs three straight years, making the all star team all five years and finishing in the top ten in MVP voting four of those years.  In 1955 he finished second to Roy Campanella even though he had a distinctly better year (Willie Mays really should have won it however.) After 1957 it was difficult for him to stay healthy and productive and thus his career stats don’t quite measure up to many all time greats (Maybe he was allergic to Los Angeles)

8. Richie Ashburn 1948-1962 2189G, 29 HR, 586 RBIs, .308 BA, 111 OPS+

If Richie Ashburn had any power at all he might rank higher.  He hit for a good average, drew plenty of walks.. and that combo let him lead the league in on base percentage four times.  He won two batting titles, and was an excellent fielder.  The 1940s and 50s were really spoiled when it came to center fielders.

9. Earl Averill 1929-1941 1669G, 238 HR, 1164 RBIs, .318BA, 133 OPS+

I have Ashburn ahead of Averill because Averill had a much shorter career (and Ashburn’s was semi-short), he didn’t run as well, and wasn’t as good a fielder.  Nonetheless Averill was considered one of the most dangerous hitters of the 1930s.  He didn’t make the majors until age 27,  playing in the PCL before (and after) his career.  Had somewhere in the neighborhood of 3500 hits and 400 home runs if you count semi-pro ball, which I guess I just did.

10. Kirby Puckett 1984-1995 1783G, 207 HR, 1085 RBIs, .318 BA, 124 OPS+

I would never have guessed Puckett would have made the top ten, but here we are. I couldn’t think of another player better really.  Could pump out staggering numbers of hits. Had power, some speed. Won six gold gloves.  His major flaw is that he just couldn’t draw a walk to save his life. Really there’s a big drop off after Duke Snider and you can put the last three in any order you choose, or even pick someone else.. it doesn’t matter.

Honorable Mention (and why I didn’t pick them)

Larry Doby –  Played fewer games than anyone else.. but not just because of the color line.. he still broke in when he was 23..  If you ranked on peak ability would .be right behind Snider in the eighth position.

Billy Hamilton – 18th century…

Fred Lynn – Surprisingly close to making the list.  People forget what a marvel Lynn was in the late 70s.  He won the MVP, ROY, gold glove and was an all star his rookie season in 1975.  He hit .314 in 1976 and hit 22/82/.298 in 1978.  Then at the age of 27 he had his best year leading the league in batting average, OBP and SLG.  He probably should have won his second MVP but finished fourth.  After 1979 though Fred Lynn kind of settled into a .280 average, 23 home run kind of season year in, year out . I think people started taking him for granted or ignoring him.  Partly this was also due to him missing 40-50 games a season.  His 23 home runs a year were really around 32 Remarkably consistent his home run totals from 1982-88 were 21,22,23,23,23,23,25.   The only other player in history to hit the same total four straight years I know of is Adam Dunn who hit 40 from 2005-2008.  Fred Lynn was a much better player than Dunn though.  I guess what I’m saying is that with fewer injuries and one or two more big seasons Lynn would be in the hall of fame.

Andruw Jones – Andruw might have made the top ten.. if he had felt like it.  His indifference on the field leads to mine in making this list.

Oscar Charleston – Ok I know I said I wouldn’t really bring up negro league players since ranking them with major league players is way too subjective for my taste, but by all accounts Charleston was the real deal.  Willie Mays before Willie Mays.  Just pure utter guessing , but if I had to I’d put Charleston maybe 4th between Griffey and Mantle.  I just wish there were more complete statistics, film, something to judge those players on.

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