Welcome to another edition of Top Ten! This week, we slide over from left to center and reveal our Top Ten Center Fielders of All-Time. If you’re interested in any of the other positions we’ve covered to date, you can find them and a lot of other great content in the archive. Below is some background on how we compiled the list if you are new to this segment.
Several types of WAR formed the core of the evaluation, including ratings from Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs, which calculate it differently. We rely heavily on WAR as it is difficult to compare players of different eras to each other, given how the game has changed over the years. WAR measures players versus their contemporaries, thus putting players on as level a playing field as possible. We always do our best to balance the rankings between longevity and dominance to get a good cross-section. Therefore, in addition to career WAR, we look at WAR7 (seven best seasons), WAR/162 (Avg WAR per season), and the number of seasons the player was among the WAR leaders in the league.
Traditional offensive stats such as hits, BA, OPS, HRs, RBI, etc., were fused with wOBA, wRC+, and OPS+ to develop an overall offensive rating. We also considered All-Star game appearances, MVP awards, and seasons where the player finished in the top ten in MVP voting, though not as heavily as these awards didn’t exist in the early years. As many outfielders shifted between left, right, and center during their careers, we tried to build the three positions with the Top Thirty outfielders of all time. To do so, we had to move players around a bit, but each was only eligible at an outfield position he played for a significant portion of his career.
Without further ado, let’s dive in with our tenth best center fielder of all time:
10. Duke Snider
The Giants had Willie, the Yankees had Mickey, and the Dodgers had the Duke. Edwin Donald “Duke” Snider was one of the faces of the 1950s Dodgers, who went to six World Series during his time with the team. Duke broke in with Brooklyn in 1947 but bounced between the majors and minors his first two years. In 1949, the 22-year-old finally established himself as the everyday center fielder. The following season, he was an All-Star. Duke would play in the Midsummer Classic every summer from 1950 to 1956.
Snider emerged as one of the great power hitters of the day, slugging 40 or more homers for five consecutive seasons from 1953 to 1957. The “Duke of Flatbush” filled up the box score in several ways during his heyday, leading the league in runs three times, SLG and OPS twice, and hits, HRs, walks, and RBI once.
Snider also flexed his power in the World Series, hitting 11 homers and driving in 26 runs during the six series in which he played. He hit four home runs twice in the Fall Classic – in 1952 and 1955. The Dodgers only won two of the six series, but the Duke did his part.
Snider played his last two seasons with the Mets and Giants before retiring in 1964. In 1950, the BBWAA elected Duke to the Hall of Fame. That same year, the Dodgers retired his #4.
9. Robin Yount
Robin Yount played shortstop for the first half of his career before shifting to center field. He just missed the cut among the Top Ten Shortstops of All-Time, but we were happily able to slot him in here. Yount began his long career in 1974 as the Brewers’ starting shortstop at only 18 years old. Each season he progressed until he made his first of three All-Star teams in 1980. Yount also won the Silver Slugger that season, an honor he would repeat in 1982 and 1989 – this time as a center fielder.
Robin won his first MVP in 1982 after leading the AL in hits, doubles, SLG, and OPS with 29 HRs, 114 RBI, and a .331 average. He also took home his only Gold Glove that year. A shoulder injury took him off shortstop in 1985, and he transitioned to center field. This didn’t slow him down one bit, though, as he quickly became one of the premier center fielders in baseball. In 1989, Yount won his second MVP after hitting .318 with 21 HRs, 101 runs, 103 RBI, and 19 stolen bases.
The Brewers only made it to the playoffs twice during Yount’s 20-year career but did get to the World Series in 1982 – the year of his first MVP. Milwaukee lost the series in seven, but Yount did his best, hitting .414/.452/.621 with a homer, six runs, and six RBI.
Yount retired after the 1993 season, and the Brewers retired his #19 the following season. He was a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 1999, receiving 77.5% of the vote.
8. Billy Hamilton
Billy Hamilton was baseball’s first great speed demon. His 914 stolen bases (revised to modern match modern criteria) stood as the record until Lou Brock surpassed him in 1978. Hamilton broke in with the Kansas City Cowboys of the American Association in 1888 but was in the NL with the Phillies two years later. In his 14 seasons, Hamilton led the league in SBs five times, surpassing 100 swipes four times. At 5’6″ tall with an excellent eye, it was difficult to keep him off base. Hamilton led the league in walks and OBP five times during his career, which was bad news for opposing catchers.
Hamilton could also hit, evidenced by his .344 lifetime average and two batting titles. But he is perhaps best remembered as an insatiable run scorer. Hamilton scored 1,697 runs in his career in 1,594 games. His 198 runs scored in 1894 remains the record to this day and may never be broken. “Sliding Billy, ” who became known for his head-first slides, was a 19th-century fan favorite.
In 1896, Philadelphia traded Hamilton to the Boston Beaneaters, where he would finish his career six years later. Sliding Billy still ranks third in stolen bases all time, behind Brock and Rickey Henderson. In 1961 the Hall of Fame Veteran’s Committee honored Hamilton’s accomplishments by post-humously inducting him to Cooperstown.
7. Ken Griffey Jr.
Ken Griffey Jr. was famous before he debuted, thanks to his father, who played for the “Big Red Machine” teams in the 1970s. “Junior” would play with his father in Seattle for a few seasons before the senior Griffey retired in 1991. Junior debuted at only 19 years old, making the team out of spring training in 1989. Despite his youth, Griffey acquitted himself nicely and finished third in the rookie-of-the-year voting.
Once the 90s hit, Griffey became a superstar. He won a Gold Glove and was an All-Star every year of the decade, and he only missed winning the Silver Slugger twice. “The Kid,” as he was also dubbed, was a fan favorite and a premier power hitter. He led the AL in HRs four times, including back-to-back years with 56. The first time he hit 56, in 1997, he was the MVP. He also led the league in runs, RBI, and SLG that season. The Mariners never made it to the World Series with Griffey (or ever), but in 1995 they did upend the Yankees in the ALDS. Griffey hit five HRs in the five games.
In 2000, Junior left Seattle to join his hometown Cincinnati Reds. However, his tenure in Cincy didn’t turn out the way he’d hoped, as injuries often kept him off the field. He still had his moments but was not the same player in his 30s. The Reds traded him to the White Sox at the deadline in 2008, which got Griffey to the postseason for only the third time in his career. He returned to Seattle as a free agent the following year and retired on May 31, 2010. The Kid was a first-ballot inductee to the Hall of Fame in 2016, amassing an impressive 99.3% of the vote. That same season, he became the first player to have his number retired in Seattle when the Mariners took #24 out of circulation.
6. Mike Trout
Mike Trout is the only active player in the Top Ten and should climb higher than his current ranking of six before he’s done playing. Trout is sixth in WAR on both Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference among center fielders despite playing far fewer games than most everyone else on the list. Only Willie Mays and Ty Cobb have higher WAR7s than Trout, and no one has a higher WAR/162.
Trout struggled in his first taste of the Show when he debuted in August 2011. That was the last time he’d struggle. In 2012, Trout won rookie-of-the-year and his first Silver Slugger and was an All-Star and the MVP runner-up. These honors have become commonplace for Trout, who has won three MVPs, eight Silver Sluggers, and has been an All-Star ten times in his eleven full seasons.
Trout was a duel-threat player early on, leading the league with 49 SBs as a rookie to go with 30 HRs. Various leg injuries have slowed his running recently, but he remains a premier hitter. Trout has led the league in runs, OBP, and OPS four times; SLG and walks three times; and RBI and SBs once. In addition to his three MVPs, Trout has finished second in the voting four times.
Unfortunately for Trout and baseball fans, the Angels have only made the postseason once during his tenure. Injuries have also kept him off the field a fair bit the past few years, but he’s still amazing when he’s out there. Trout turned 30 last month, so hopefully, we’ll see much more of this future Hall of Famer before he hangs up his cleats.
5. Joe DiMaggio
Joe DiMaggio was an American icon at a time when the country needed it. He debuted with the Yankees in 1936 and was an All-Star immediately. In fact, DiMaggio was an All-Star every season of his 13-year career. DiMaggio was a graceful fielder and a deadly hitter. He led the league in batting average, HRs, RBI, and SLG twice during his career and won three MVPs. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment came in 1941, when “Joltin’ Joe” put together his famous 56 consecutive game hitting streak. This record still stands, and no one has come particularly close to breaking it. Yankee fans were fortunate to move from Ruth to Gehrig to DiMaggio.
“The Yankee Clipper” lost three seasons of his career to World War II. In February 1943, DiMaggio enlisted in the Air Force and didn’t resume his career until 1946. He quickly picked up where he left off, winning his third MVP in 1947. The Bronx Bombers were juggernauts during DiMaggio’s time. Joe played in ten World Series in his 13 seasons, and the Yanks won nine championships. Injuries began to catch up with him starting in 1949, and Joltin’ Joe retired after the 1951 season.
The Yankees didn’t wait long to retire DiMaggio’s #5. They took it out of circulation on April 18, 1952, during their home opener the season after his retirement. In 1955, the Yankee Clipper joined the Hall of Fame, inducted by 88.8% of the BBWAA.
4. Mickey Mantle
Mickey Mantle debuted during Joe DiMaggio’s final season in 1951 when he was 19. He was the Yankees’ right fielder out of spring training, but a midseason slump sent him back to the minors. After tearing it up on the farm, Mantle was back in August and played in the World Series. Unfortunately, he only amassed five at-bats after an injury knocked him out of the series in Game 2. Following DiMaggio’s retirement, Mantle moved to center field the following year. “The Mick” was an All-Star that season and would represent the Yankees at the game 20 times in his career.
Like DiMaggio before him, Mantle could do it all at the plate. He led the league in OPS six times, runs/walks five times, HRs/SLG four times, OBP three times, and triples/RBI/batting once. The year he won the batting title, 1956, he also won the triple crown. That season The Mick batted .353 with 52 HRs and 130 RBI. Despite not being known as a great defender, at least by baseball historians, Mantle also won a Gold Glove in 1962.
The Yanks of Mantle’s era remained dominant, and Mickey played in 12 World Series, winning seven rings. Mantle put together legendary performances in the Fall Classic and is atop the series’ all-time leaderboard in home runs (18), walks (43), and RBI (40). The Mick retired in 1968 after 18 seasons in New York. The following year his #7 was retired by the club. In 1974, in his first year of eligibility, he was elected to the Hall of Fame.
3. Tris Speaker
Tris Speaker began his career with the Boston Americans in September 1907. He only got 19 at-bats with the club that season, and the following year the team became the Red Sox. Speaker only played seven full seasons with the Red Sox, during which he led the league in hits, OBP, and HRs once and doubles twice. He took home the MVP award in 1912 and played on two World Champion Red Sox teams in 1912 and 1915. In addition to his prowess at the plate, Speaker was considered one of his day’s finest defensive center fielders. Evidence of this can be seen by his leading the league in putouts five times and assists four times while in Boston.
In April 1916, the Red Sox traded him to Cleveland following a contract dispute, and he remained with the team through the 1926 season. He made a huge first impression on the club, leading the league in hits, doubles, batting average, OBP, SLG, and OPS in 1916. “The Grey Eagle” would lead the AL in doubles five more times over the next seven seasons.
In 1919, Speaker became player/manager for Cleveland, and the following season they won their first World Series championship. Tris batted .320 in the series with a .393 OBP. He would continue to play and manage through 1926, after which he left the club and played two more seasons with the Senators and Athletics. In 1937, Speaker was among the second group of players elected to the Hall of Fame, cementing him as one of the best players from MLB’s early era.
2. Ty Cobb
In the first vote for the Hall of Fame in 1936, Ty Cobb received the most votes. More than any other first-class inductee, including Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, and Walter Johnson. This illustrates how highly regarded Cobb was by his contemporaries, and rightly so considering his myriad accomplishments.
Cobb began his career with the Tigers in late 1905, a few months before his 19th birthday. He won his first batting title two years later, hitting .350 in 1907. Cobb proceeded to win the batting title 11 times over the next 12 seasons. The only year he didn’t win it during that stretch was 1916, when he hit .370. He was simply the most dominant hitter in the game in the first two decades of the 20th century. In addition to the batting titles, Cobb led the league in OPS ten times, hits/SLG eight times, OBP seven times, stolen bases six times, runs five times, triples/RBI four times, doubles three times, and HRs once (with nine). “The Georgia Peach” also won the Triple Crown in 1909 and the MVP in 1911.
Cobb’s Tigers, on the other hand, weren’t as successful. Despite having the best player in the game, they only managed to get to the World Series three times early in Cobb’s career. Detroit represented the AL for three consecutive years from 1907 to 1909 and lost all three. This surely gnawed at Cobb, who was well known as an ultra-competitive and difficult player. In 1921 he tried to do even more by becoming the club’s player/manager. In his six years at the helm, though, the best the Tigers would finish was second place. He played his final two seasons with the Philadelphia Athletics before retiring after 24 seasons in 1928.
At the time of his retirement, Cobb held many records. Most have fallen over the years, but he still has the highest lifetime batting average and is second in hits, runs, and triples. The Tigers couldn’t retire Ty Cobb’s number because he didn’t have one. Instead, he is honored on the wall at Comerica Park with his initials “TC.” In addition, a statue of him has graced the stadium since 2000.
1. Willie Mays
The best center fielder of all time is not a shocker, as Willie Mays is also one of the best players of all time. Ty Cobb came close, but the “Say Hey Kid” is the king. Mays spent his teenage years in the Negro Leagues with the Black Barons, joining the Giants in 1951. He was the rookie-of-the year that season. The following year, Willie played only 34 games before being drafted into the Army. Mays returned with a bang in 1954, winning the batting title and the first of his two MVPs. He was also an All-Star for the first of 24 times (there were four seasons of two All-Star games).
Mays continued to dominate offensively, demonstrating his power and speed by leading the league in home runs and stolen bases four times. Willie was the definition of the “five-tool” player. He could hit for power and average, steal bases, was an excellent fielder, and had a marvelous arm. In 1957, when the Gold Glove award was initiated, Mays was one of the first recipients. He would win 12 in total, but this doesn’t do justice to how superior he was as a defender. “The Catch” that Mays made in the 1954 World Series is often cited as one of the greatest plays ever. It was undoubtedly one of the most clutch.
The Say Hey Kid played in four MLB World Series (and one NAL), three with the Giants. His catch in 1954 helped the team take home the championship, but he came up on the losing side in the other three. The last opportunity came in Mays’ final season in 1973. Willie was back in New York, playing for the Mets after a career in the Giants’ organization. However, he was 42 years old by this point and a part-time player.
Mays retired after the series as one of the most well-rounded players in baseball history. His career WAR trails only Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds among hitters. In 1979 he was elected to the Hall of Fame with 94.7% of the vote on his first attempt. Mays’ #24 was retired by the Giants in 1972, and just last week, the Mets followed suit in a surprise move.
In two weeks, we’ll shift to the last outfield spot and reveal our Top Ten Right Fielders of All-Time. If you enjoyed this article, check out our All-Franchise Starting Lineup in the between weeks. You can find both and tons of other great content in the We Love Baseball section.
Photo by Ben Gorman/Unsplash | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)