This is the seventh in a series of articles dealing with baseball’s greatest players, position by position, culminating in an overall list of the greatest players. This volume covers Center Field. Who are the greatest in MLB History? Continue reading to find out.
First, a brief description of what this series of articles will be – for the most part, they will be top ten type lists; though they may be shorter (if there aren’t enough “great” players) or longer (if there’s a log jam of “great” players). I will say if the player is in the HOF, list any major awards the player won and provide their key stats. All stats and awards were obtained from Baseball-Reference. This series was originally published on Informative Sports in 2009, however, they have been edited for publication here - some players added, some rankings adjusted etc.
A couple of notes about the stats – they will include their total offensive numbers, not just stats for their main position (for example, Yogi Berra’s stats include his batting stats when he played LF or 1B) and any stats in italics mean they were the leader in that category out of the players in the list. Also, players will be ranked where they were best known at (Ernie Banks at SS for example) or where they played the most games (Pete Rose played the most games at 1B as a single position but he played more total games in the outfield and of those at LF, so that’s where he ended up getting ranked). To see how I evaluate/use stats, click here for a breakdown of hitting stats. At the end, I will then describe any reasoning behind my choices and why I ranked them where I did.
Only three caveats to my lists:
1 – the players have to actually be retired. They cannot be unsigned players who haven’t officially retired yet
2 - sorry, but no Negro League players will be on these lists unless they had long-term MLB service (any records or stats from the Negro Leagues are “questionable” at best due to the record keeping; i.e. Josh Gibson’s HR totals etc)
3- no confirmed or heavily-suspected PED users. This includes anyone who admitted to using steroids knowingly or unknowingly (so guys like Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Gary Sheffield are not on these lists) and guys where the evidence is very strong that they used (Roger Clemens for example)
We covered the greatest catchers, greatest first basemen, greatest second basemen, greatest shortstops , greatest third basemen and the greatest left fielders already. This week we move to the deepest position (not counting starting pitchers) in all of baseball history – Center Field. Before we move on to the rankings, let’s get this party started with the best baseball related song in all of history and the recent Baseball Hall of Fame inductee; John Fogerty!
#1 – Willie Mays: HOF, 2 MVPs, (and 7 other top-5 finishes), 1 ROY, 20 time All-Star, 12 Gold Gloves, 2992 Games, .302 batting average, .384 OBP, .557 Slugging %, .941 OPS, 155 OPS+, 660 HRs, 1903 RBIs, 3283 Hits, 1464 BBs and 1526 Ks.
#2 – Ty Cobb: HOF, 1 MVP, 3035 Games, .366 batting average, .433 OBP, .512 Slugging %, .945 OPS, 168 OPS+, 117 HRs, 1937 RBIs, 4189 Hits, 1249 BBs and 357 Ks.
#3 – Joe Dimaggio: HOF, 3 MVPs (and 3 other top-5 finishes), 13 time All-Star, 1736 Games, .325 batting average, .398 OBP, .579 Slugging %, .977 OPS, 155 OPS+, 361 HRs, 1537 RBIs, 2214 Hits, 790 BBs and 369 Ks.
#4 – Mickey Mantle: HOF, 3 MVPs (and 5 other top-5 finishes), 1 MLB Batting Triple Crown, 16 time All-Star, 1 Gold Glove, 2401 Games, .298 batting average, .421 OBP, .557 Slugging %, .977 OPS, 172 OPS+, 536 HRs, 1509 RBIs, 2415 Hits, 1733 BBs and 1710 Ks.
#5 – Tris Speaker: HOF, 1 MVP (and 1 other top-5 finish), 2789 Games, .345 batting average, .428 OBP, .500 Slugging %, .928 OPS, 157 OPS+, 117 HRs, 1529 RBIs, 3514 Hits, 1381 BBs and 220 Ks.
#6 – Ken Griffey Jr: 1 MVP (and 4 other top-5 finishes), 13 time All-Star, 10 Gold Gloves, 7 Silver Sluggers, 2671 Games, .284 batting average, .370 OBP, .538 Slugging %, .907 OPS, 135 OPS+, 630 HRs, 1836 RBIs, 2781 Hits, 1312 BBs and 1779 Ks.
#7 – Duke Snider: HOF, 3 top-5 MVP finishes, 8 time All-Star, 2143 Games, .295 batting average, .380 OBP, .540 Slugging %, .919 OPS, 140 OPS+, 407 HRs, 1333 RBIs, 2116 Hits, 971 BBs and 1237 Ks.
#8 – Andre Dawson: 1 MVP (and 1 other top-5 finish), 1 ROY, 8 time All-Star, 8 Gold Gloves, 4 Silver Sluggers, 2627 Games, .279 batting average, .323 OBP, .482 Slugging %, .806 OPS, 119 OPS+, 438 HRs, 1591 RBIs, 2774 Hits, 589 BBs and 1509 Ks.
#9 – Dale Murphy: 2 MVPs, 7 time All-Star, 5 Gold Gloves, 4 Silver Sluggers, 2180 Games, .265 batting average, .346 OBP, .469 Slugging %, .815 OPS, 121 OPS+, 398 HRs, 1266 RBIs, 2111 Hits, 986 BBs and 1748 Ks.
Honorable Mention: Richie Ashburn, Kirby Puckett and Hack Wilson
Will/may be on this list someday: Now that Ken Griffey Jr retired and was finally able to be ranked on this list, I just don’t see any active Center Fielders that will crack this list – sorry to the fans of Torii Hunter, Curtis Granderson or Jacoby Ellsbury etc, but those players are not in the same discussion as the ones ranked above. Every other position has at least two active players that have a shot at making this list, however, this list is just too tough to crack unless you’re at a Hall of Fame level immediately in your career (i.e. Pujols or Griffey).
Where to begin? Center field is the most “top heavy” position (not counting starting pitchers) in baseball history. The top seven in this list all could have the case made for them to be number one. You have two of the greatest five-tool players ever in Mays and Cobb. You have one of the greatest pure hitters the game’s ever seen in Dimaggio and you have the greatest switch-hitter in Mantle. You have a great overall hitter and defender in Speaker and in Griffey Jr; you have arguably the greatest overall player in baseball from the late 80s through today.
The best center fielders, first and foremost have to be good to great defenders. Mays, Cobb, Dimaggio, Mantle, Speaker and Griffey were all above average in this regard. They also hit for average, hit for power or a combination of both. Even “non-power” hitters for like Cobb and Speaker had slugging percentages over .500.
So, why did I rank the players in the order I did? That’s a great question and I’ll do my best to answer it because I could look at these players tomorrow and come up with a different list! I’ll try to keep it to a minimum; I could spend days writing about the greatness of the players in this list.
Mays’ overall combination of power and speed with outstanding defense and a great bat earned him the number one spot. Cobb’s five-tool abilities edged Dimaggio for the number two spot, barely. Mantle had better power numbers, but Dimaggio’s overall ability as a hitter and the fact that he put up similar RBI and hits totals with 700 less games earned “Joltin’ Joe” the number three spot. Speaker has a case for top four; however, Mantle’s power numbers and overall ability barely beat Tris’ advantage in batting average and total hits; so Mantle finished at fourth. Ken Griffey Jr was on track to be better overall than Mays, but injuries derailed that so I ended up putting him 6th. Snider fell short of Griffey’s overall career, so he rounds out the top seven. Spots eight and nine could have gone to Ashburn or Wilson, instead, I decided to go a little “newer” with Dawson and Murphy. Dawson may be a little “overrated” in history and Murphy is probably a little “underrated”. Dawson’s HOF credentials are hotly debated (low OBP for example), while Murphy never received the HOF consideration due to “low” batting average etc. However, in the early 80s, Dawson and Murphy were two of the best center fielders in the game.
If you think Cobb should be number one because he wasn’t expected to hit homeruns thus his power numbers aren’t fair in comparison, you wouldn’t be wrong. Or, if you believe Dimaggio’s three missed seasons due to military service need to be accounted for more or the fact that he was a right-handed hitter in Yankee Stadium (the place where any ball hit to left-center basically was destined to be a double) affected his numbers, you would be right as well. If you wanted to knock Murphy and Dawson down to honorable mentions and move up any combination of Ashburn, Puckett and Wilson to spots eight and nine, you wouldn’t get too much of an argument from me.
Out of all the positions, this is the one position that has more than two players that have a legitimate argument at being number one all time for the position; other positions you might have a third player that can be considered for number one, but upon closer examination, the argument falls short. As I mentioned above, the top seven Center Fielders all have legitimate arguments to be the number one Center Fielder of all time.
All baseball fans have their own feelings regarding the greatest center fielder ever. Depending when you grew up, you may favor Mantle over Dimaggio. If you were a Dodgers fan, you’ll always believe Snider was better than Mantle. Or, if you prefer straight stats, Mays’ numbers just can’t be denied. If you became a fan of baseball in 1989 through the 1990s, Griffey’s your guy.
So, what do you think? Do you have a problem with the order? Did I leave someone off? If so, let me know. Don’t just say “you left off so-and-so” — give me a good explanation of why they belong and where in the order they belong. If you present a good enough case, I just might add them to the list. Come back next week when we finish up the positional players with Right Field.