The Top 100 Center Fielders of All-Time
#1. Willie Mays
Years: 1951-1973 Primary Team: San Francisco Giants
#2. Mickey Mantle
Years: 1951-1968 Primary Team: New York Yankees
#3. Ty Cobb
Years: 1905-1928 Primary Team: Detroit Tigers
#4. Tris Speaker
Years: 1907-1928 Primary Team: Cleveland Indians
We hear about the great right fielders a lot, but among outfielders, the center fielders are the top dogs. Of the top eleven outfielders of all-time according to our ratings formula, five are center fielders: Mays, Mantle, Cobb, Speaker, and DiMaggio. This makes sense when you think about it.
The center fielder handles about 95 more chances than a left fielder and 65 more than a right fielder over the course of season. The actual figure has fluctuated over the course of history, but the ratio remains pretty much the same. There's more action in the middle of the field and a center fielder roams a larger territory. He has more responsibility.
Tris Speaker has the best defensive statistics of any outfielder in history. He led the league in putouts seven times, in double plays ten times, and in assists by a center fielder eight times. He played extremely shallow, almost like a "rover" in short center field, shifting to either side of second base depending on the batter. Dozens of times in his career, Speaker served as the pivot man on double plays at second base. He was sort of a one-man defensive shift. He also made far fewer errors than outfielders of his era, and he could go back on a ball as well as anyone.
Speaker played nearly 2,800 games but he only appeared in right or left for about 20 innings. When he was 40 years old he played 50 games for Connie Mack in center field and was still ranging better than most outfielders in the league. That year he made eight assists, several of them on short singles to center where he was so shallow he was able to throw out a runner going from first to second.
#5. Joe DiMaggio
Years: 1936-1951 Primary Team: New York Yankees
In 2011 some smart folks used lasers to measure an electron 25 million times. Through their careful and precise analysis, they found that the electron was the most perfectly spherical object ever observed. The electron is a perfect sphere to within one billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a centimeter. Pretty darn round.
There probably weren't 25 million sets of eyes that watched Joe DiMaggio on the ballfield, but there were millions who witnessed him live. An analysis of those witnesses and the statistical record that remains suggests that DiMaggio was the most perfect ballplayer we've ever had. Maybe to within a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of baseball perfection.
DiMaggio had the instincts of a great hitter and the mechanics to go with it. He made contact and also hit for power. His defensive play in center field was as good as anyone in the league, he had range, a strong arm. He could run very well. Ted Williams always said that if he'd had the speed of DiMaggio, he could have hit .400 a few more times. DiMaggio's swing was considered the most beautiful and perfect from a right-handed batter. He had no weakness on the diamond.
Another way to look at the question of near-perfection is to work backward and ask "What would a perfect ballplayer accomplish?" He might lead the league in home runs while hitting more homers than he has strikeouts. He might lead the league in triples and homers and runs scored and runs batted in, as well as hitting and slugging and total bases. A signature of a versatile player. He might hit safely in 56 straight games, getting at least one hit per day every day for two months.
The greatness of DiMaggio is amplified when we consider that he played his entire career in a ballpark that was not conducive to his power. The deep dimensions in left and left-center field at Yankee Stadium took a lot of home runs away from Joe. If we could somehow magically give those three years he missed in WWII back and also place him in a more favorable ballpark, DiMaggio would have easily topped 500 home runs.
#6. Ken Griffey Jr.
Years: 1989-2010 Primary Team: Seattle Mariners
#7. Duke Snider
Years: 1947-1964 Primary Team: Brooklyn Dodgers
#8. Carlos Beltran
Years: 1998-2017 Primary Team: New York Mets
If we psychoanalyze the outfielders, the left fielders are the troublemakers, or the children lashing out to get attention, often socially dysfunctional and/or boastful. The right fielders are the big brothers, the caretakers, the guys you depend on. The center fielders are the immensely talented but complicated ones, perhaps too sensitive and prideful.
The archetypes of these admittedly simplified descriptions are Manny Ramirez, Mike Trout, and Vlad Guerrero. To list three modern ballplayers. Or Joe Jackson, Joe DiMaggio, and Al Kaline. Or Ted Williams, Ty Cobb, and Frank Robinson.
These are generalizations, of course. Cobb was a troublemaker too. Goose Goslin and Billy Williams were more like right fielders in this scenario. Reggie Jackson was a right fielder with the left fielder's cockiness and the center fielder's sensitivity. The Babe Ruth personality fits in at both corner spots. Left fielder Stan Musial was a right fielder type, Kenny Lofton was like a left fielder. But if you look at the 5-10 greatest players at each outfield position, the stereotype outlined here is fairly accurate.
Let's look at the top dozen center fielders: Willie Mays was prickly; Mickey Mantle was unable to communicate and buried himself in the bottle; Cobb was extremely anti-social and sensitive, which led to an eruptive temper; Speaker was a lot like Mays; DiMaggio was complicated and prideful, he worried very much about what others thought; Junior Griffey is hard to pin down in the three outfield personas; Duke Snider was petty; as a young player Trout is very intense and driven, a bit like Cobb but without the baggage; Andruw Jones bucks the CF type and was more like a right fielder; Loften I mentioned, was like a left fielder, in the mold of Rickey Henderson; Richie Ashburn doesn't fit the center field type.
Like Ashburn, Beltran doesn't fit the simple definition of a center fielder type. He was a great teammate, a strong leader, and immensely talented. He'll probably be a manager or a long-time coach. He wasn't overly prideful and he wasn't sensitive. He was more like Stan Musial, who was closest to a right fielder personality type.
#9. Mike Trout
Years: 2011-2017 Primary Team: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
#10. Andruw Jones
Years: 1996-2012 Primary Team: Atlanta Braves
#11. Kenny Lofton
Years: 1991-2007 Primary Team: Cleveland Indians
#12. Richie Ashburn
Years: 1948-1962 Primary Team: Philadelphia Phillies
#13. Jim Edmonds
Years: 1993-2010 Primary Team: California Angels
We'll never know how many ballplayers had their careers end due to concussions. That's because medical personnel have only recently begun to understand concussions and their impact on the human brain. There have probably been hundreds. I'd say confidently that Pete Reiser, the Dodger outfielder who won a batting title at age 22 and had several head-first run-ins with outfield walls, had his career curtailed by concussions. Reiser was once given the last rights on the field after crashing into an outfield wall. Back then, in the 1940s, outfield walls were really walls.
Most likely, Mickey Cochrane had several severe concussions during his Hall of Fame career. Cochrane was hit in the head by a Bump Hadley pitch in 1937 and never played again. He suffered a broken skull on that pitch. Cochrane had shown sighs of head trauma for years. Tony Conigliaro and Mike Jorgensen suffered symptoms after being hit in the face. Both came back to play, but neither was ever the same.
Edmonds dove into a wall at Wrigley Field in 2006 and banged his head. Over the next few weeks he had several symptoms and was in and out of the lineup. "The last four or five days I've just really been clueless," Edmonds said. "I started to notice it the most when I tried to catch two fly balls on Saturday night and both of them almost came out of my glove." Edmonds played in the World Series that fall for the Cardinals, but he never again played a full season. He had problems with dizziness, blurred vision, and nausea the rest of his career.
#14. Andre Dawson
Years: 1976-1996 Primary Team: Montreal Expos
#15. Jim Wynn
Years: 1963-1977 Primary Team: Houston Astros
#16. Willie Davis
Years: 1960-1979 Primary Team: Los Angeles Dodgers
#17. Larry Doby
Years: 1947-1959 Primary Team: Cleveland Indians
#18. Vada Pinson
Years: 1958-1975 Primary Team: Cincinnati Reds
#19. Cesar Cedeno
Years: 1970-1986 Primary Team: Houston Astros
#20. Chet Lemon
Years: 1975-1990 Primary Team: Detroit Tigers
#21. Bernie Williams
Years: 1991-2006 Primary Team: New York Yankees
#22. Kirby Puckett
Years: 1984-1995 Primary Team: Minnesota Twins
Among position players, center fielders may have suffered more career-threatening (or career-ending) injuries than any other position. Here's a partial list of prominent center fielders who were hurt seriously during their careers or saw their careers ended early due to illness or injury:
Elmer Flick, Chick Hafey, Pete Reiser, Mickey Mantle, Fred Lynn, Andre Dawson, Kirby Puckett, Lenny Dykstra, Eric Davis, Ken Griffey Jr., Jim Edmonds, and Josh Hamilton.
Flick (stomach ailment), Hafey (eyesight and probable concussion), and Puckett (severe eye injury) saw their careers ended prematurely. Reiser, Mantle and Junior Griffey ran into walls a lot. After one collision with a wall, Reiser had the last rights administered to him. Lynn, Dykstra, Davis, and Edmonds got hurt hurtling their bodies around the outfield. Dawson and Hamilton both suffered numerous serious knee injuries, as did Mickey. Hamilton went under the knife a dozen times, more than even Mantle. Over the last decade of his career, Griffey averaged fewer than 100 games per year.
#23. Fred Lynn
Years: 1974-1990 Primary Team: Boston Red Sox
No one inside baseball was thinking about steroids in the 1970s. So when Fred Lynn hit 39 home runs in 1979, nearly doubling his previous career high, there was buzz but it wasn't about pills or needles. It was about a weight machine. The 27-year old Lynn purchased a Nautilus weight machine for his southern California home after his fifth year. He worked out all winter on the contraption. He reported to spring training with a slimmer waist and a larger upper body. His hands and forearms were stronger. He hit eight home runs in the first 20 games and at the All-Star Break he had 24.
"I didn't have to hit the ball on the screws for it to go out," Lynn told Sports Illustrated.
Bigger and stronger, Lynn himself didn't raise any eyebrows. But his training regiment did. Traditional baseball men hated weight lifting. The conventional wisdom was that big muscles led to strained muscles and inflexibility. Low batting averages and strikeouts would follow. That proved to be only partially true. Injuries don't increase with weight training, they decrease. Players are not less flexible when they get stronger. They can actually swing the bat faster. But with Lynn and others leading a new wave of weight training, batting averages did dip, and strikeouts did increase. But that was due to more players swinging harder and trying to hit home runs.
After '79 when he hit those shocking 39 homers, Lynn never hit more than 25 in a season again. That wasn't because of anything strange, he was simply injured almost every year of his career after the age of 28. Consequently he settled in for 21, 22, 23, or 25 homers every season for seven straight years in his 30s.
#24. Johnny Damon
Years: 1995-2012 Primary Team: Kansas City Royals
#25. Dale Murphy
Years: 1976-1993 Primary Team: Atlanta Braves
#26. Devon White
Years: 1985-2001 Primary Team: Toronto Blue Jays
#27. Brett Butler
Years: 1981-1997 Primary Team: Los Angeles Dodgers
#28. Willie Wilson
Years: 1976-1994 Primary Team: Kansas City Royals
#29. Curtis Granderson
Years: 2004-2017 Primary Team: Detroit Tigers
#30. Earl Averill
Years: 1929-1941 Primary Team: Cleveland Indians
#31. Torii Hunter
Years: 1997-2015 Primary Team: Minnesota Twins
#32. Lenny Dykstra
Years: 1985-1996 Primary Team: Philadelphia Phillies
#33. Andrew McCutchen
Years: 2009-2017 Primary Team: Pittsburgh Pirates
The title of best center fielder in the history of the Pirates comes down to three men: Max Carey, Andy Van Slyke, and Andrew McCutchen. The enigmatic Al Oliver rests just outside the boundaries of this argument.
Carey played his first game in the major leagues the same year that Jack Johnson beat Jim Jeffries for the heavyweight title. Johnson was a black man and Jeffries was not, and the event sparked racial riots across the country. The year was 1910. Carey was a great basestealer, covered vast amounts of grass in the outfield, and was a switch-hitting leadoff batter. He was sort of the Willie Wilson of his time.
Van Slyke was a big, strong man, but he could run very well. He was almost like a tight end out in center field, loping with long strides and heavy footsteps as he chased down flies. He was a great defensive outfielder and a passionate competitor.
McCutchen is compact and very strong, but quick. After a couple seasons as a leadoff man, he transitioned to the number three spot, where he increased his power. Of the three, Cutch is the only one to have won an MVP. He's not as good of a defender as Van Slyke, but McCutchen is pretty damn good. He's extremely likable, a team leader, in the mold of a Kirby Puckett.
McCutchen's career value was nearly identical to Van Slyke's, but the latter played many seasons for the Cardinals. Cutch's peak was better than Carey or Van Slyke by far. Carey did not play against as good of competition nor in integrated leagues. Carey is the only one to have won a World Series with the Bucs, and he's in the Hall of Fame. Still, the numbers choose McCutchen as the greatest center fielder in the history of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Just for fun, let's make a quick back-of-the-napkin Pirates All-Time Team lineup:
SS: Honus Wagner
CF: Andrew McCutchen
RF: Roberto Clemente
1B: Willie Stargell
LF: Barry Bonds
DH: Ralph Kiner
3B: Bill Madlock
C: Jason Kendall
2B: Bill Mazeroski
That outfield, wow. We have to add a designated hitter slot just to get Ralph Kiner's booming bat into the lineup. Hide the pitchers, this lineup would scare the hell out you.
#34. Paul Blair
Years: 1964-1980 Primary Team: The O's
#35. Mike Cameron
Years: 1995-2011 Primary Team: Seattle Mariners
#36. Curt Flood
Years: 1956-1971 Primary Team: St. Louis Cardinals
#37. Max Carey
Years: 1910-1929 Primary Team: Pittsburgh Pirates
#38. Amos Otis
Years: 1967-1984 Primary Team: Kansas City Royals
#39. Earle Combs
Years: 1924-1935 Primary Team: Murderers' Row
#40. Ellis Burks
Years: 1987-2004 Primary Team: Boston Red Sox
Everyone knows about the great left fielders in Red Sox history, but what about the center fielders? Five of the top 41 center fielders on our list played significant portions of their career for the Red Sox. They are: Tris Speaker, Fred Lynn, Johnny Damon, Ellis Burks, and Dom DiMaggio. Sure, they're not Williams, Yaz, Rice, and Manny, but still fine ballplayers. (Reggie Smith is ranked as a right fielder, though he played center in his years in Boston)
Burks is the only one of those five Boston center fielders in the top 41 who never played in a World Series for the Sox, but he got something almost as good, a front row seat to history. At the age of 39 after more than a decade spent roaming the big leagues, Burks returned to Boston as a veteran DH in 2004. But only a few weeks into the season he injured the knee that he'd had surgery on twice before. He missed more than four months, but after a rehab stint and an announcement that he would retire after the season, the Red Sox activated Burks for the final week.
On the last Saturday of the season, Burks started at DH and in the second inning he singled to left field for the final hit of his 18-year career. He exited the game to a standing ovation in Fenway Park after Terry Francona summoned him from the on-deck circle later in the game. It was his 2,000th and final big league game. Even though Burks was not activated for the post-season, the former first round pick remained with the club, serving as an unofficial coach for a team that stormed back from impossible odds to defeat the Yankees in the LCS. Burks earned a World Series ring after the Red Sox had their magic post-season run and "reversed the curse".
#41. Dom DiMaggio
Years: 1940-1953 Primary Team: Boston Red Sox
#42. Steve Finley
Years: 1989-2007 Primary Team: Houston Astros
#43. Andy Van Slyke
Years: 1983-1995 Primary Team: The Bucs
#44. Wally Berger
Years: 1930-1940 Primary Team: Boston Braves
#45. Hack Wilson
Years: 1923-1934 Primary Team: Chicago Cubs
#46. Ray Lankford
Years: 1990-2004 Primary Team: St. Louis Cardinals
#47. Edd Roush
Years: 1913-1931 Primary Team: Cincinnati Redlegs
#48. Al Oliver
Years: 1968-1985 Primary Team: Pittsburgh Pirates
#49. Garry Maddox
Years: 1972-1986 Primary Team: Philadelphia Phillies
#50. Eric Davis
Years: 1984-2001 Primary Team: Cincinnati Reds
#51. Andy Pafko
Years: 1943-1959 Primary Team: Brooklyn Dodgers
#52. Ben Chapman
Years: 1930-1946 Primary Team: New York Yankees
#53. Willie McGee
Years: 1982-1999 Primary Team: St. Louis Cardinals
#54. Tommy Leach
Years: 1901-1918 Primary Team: Pittsburg Pirates
#55. Darin Erstad
Years: 1996-2009 Primary Team: Halos
#56. Mickey Rivers
Years: 1970-1984 Primary Team: Texas Rangers
#57. Dwayne Murphy
Years: 1978-1989 Primary Team: Oakland A's
#58. Bobby Murcer
Years: 1965-1983 Primary Team: New York Yankees
#59. Shane Victorino
Years: 2003-2015 Primary Team: Phillies
#60. Pete Reiser
Years: 1940-1952 Primary Team: Brooklyn Dodgers
#61. Chili Davis
Years: 1981-1999 Primary Team: The Halos
#62. Bobby Thomson
Years: 1946-1960 Primary Team: The G-Men
#63. Jacoby Ellsbury
Years: 2007-2017 Primary Team: Boston Red Sox
#64. Josh Hamilton
Years: 2007-2015 Primary Team: Texas Rangers
#65. Lorenzo Cain
Years: 2010-2017 Primary Team: Kansas City Royals
#66. Marquis Grissom
Years: 1989-2005 Primary Team: Montreal Expos
#67. Dave Henderson
Years: 1981-1994 Primary Team: Seattle Mariners
#68. Clyde Milan
Years: 1907-1922 Primary Team: Washington Senators
#69. Lance Johnson
Years: 1987-2000 Primary Team: Chicago White Sox
#70. Bill North
Years: 1971-1981 Primary Team: Oakland A's
There's an old saying that "speed never takes a day off." Another one goes: "speed never has a slump." At various junctures in baseball history there have been efforts to build a team based on this principle. John McGraw tried it, once directing his team of jackrabbits to steal 347 bases in a single season. Al Lopez made a run at it (sorry) in the 1950s with the "Go Go Sox." In the 1970s the Athletics were so committed to the strategy that they had a former track star on their roster solely for the purpose of being a pinch-runner. Most recently, Whitey Herzog built the Cardinals into a track team of speedsters.
Every one of those teams enjoyed success. McGraw's Deadball Era Giants are sprinkled among the top ten single-season stolen base leaders, including the top spot with 347 thefts in 1911. They won the World Series that season, and also won it in 1910 and 1913.
The White Sox in the 1950s were only team in the game gutsy enough to steal bases. Every other club was swinging for the fences. Chicago won the pennant in 1959, the only team other than the Yankees to win the AL pennant from 1955 to 1964.
The Oakland A's won three straight World Series in the 1970s and five consecutive division titles. While they didn't employ the stolen base as a major weapon every year, they had a very fast team. In '76 they became the first team in more than six decades to top 300 steals.
The Cardinals were the outliers: in the 1980s they were playing a game no one else was: the speed game. The Cardinals had great success, winning three pennants and one world championship. But despite their success and the success of other teams who have built around speed, few clubs try this strategy. Why?
The answer lies in the fact that it's not easy to find fast athletes who are good baseball players. Just because someone is fast, doesn't mean they can negotiate the demands of playing the outfield or hit a slider. Several other teams have tried to build around speed and failed to find success. The Reds tried it at the same time McGraw was doing it in New York. The Reds stole a lot of bases, but they finished low in the standings. The Yankees tried to imitate Herzog and the Cardinals in the 1980s, to no avail. It was an embarrassing effort. Those teams had fast players, but not good enough ones.
Billy North was a good baseball player, which is why he played 11 years in the big leagues and started in center field for three pennant-winning clubs. North was a great defensive center fielder and a master at stealing bases. He worked hard at learning the moves of every pitcher in the league and he gained a reputation for taking the longest leads in baseball. He won World Series titles in 1973 and 1974 with Oakland.
#71. Grady Sizemore
Years: 2004-2015 Primary Team: Cleveland Indians
#72. Rick Monday
Years: 1966-1984 Primary Team: Los Angeles Dodgers
#73. Benny Kauff
Years: 1912-1920 Primary Team: New York Giants
#74. Wally Judnich
Years: 1940-1949 Primary Team: St. Louis Browns
#75. Adam Jones
Years: 2006-2017 Primary Team: Baltimore Orioles
#76. Cy Williams
Years: 1912-1930 Primary Team: Philadelphia Phillies
Williams was a multi-sport star. He played with Knute Rockne on the Notre Dame football team, and he was a letter-winner in track & field, excelling in hurdles and the broad jump. Baseball was something he picked up later, while on campus in South Bend, but once he took to it, he was recruited by several scouts. Eventually he inked a contract with the Chicago Cubs.
With the Cubs, Williams had the distinction of playing under all three of the famed Tinker to Evers to Chance trio, each of them having a shot at managing the club. In all, Williams played for 14 different managers, a record that has never been surpassed. Apparently the change in the dugout didn't affect Williams: he played in the major leagues for almost two decades.
After the Cubs traded him to the Phillies, Williams emerged as the most prolific home run hitter in the senior circuit. He paced the league in homers four times, the first time when he was 28 and the last when he was 39 years old. A dead pull-hitter, Williams yanked the ball down the short right field line at the Baker Bowl in Philadelphia. He averaged 23 homers per 500 plate appearances at the Baker Bowl and only 11 on the road. When he retired in 1930, his 251 home runs were the most in National League history.
A very good team can be made from players who appeared in more than 2,000 games but never played in the post-season:
C: Joe Torre
1B: George Sisler
2B: Toby Harrah
SS: Ernie Banks
3B: Ron Santo
LF: Adam Dunn
CF: Cy Williams
RF: Harry Heilmann
Williams never played on a team that finished higher than third, and in his 13 years as a Phillie, the club never finished higher than fifth, and they came in last eight times. Cy was on a losing team for the last sixteen years of his career. Ouch.
#77. Vernon Wells
Years: 1999-2013 Primary Team: Toronto Blue Jays
#78. Roy Thomas
Years: 1901-1911 Primary Team: Philadelphia Phillies
#79. Lloyd Moseby
Years: 1980-1991 Primary Team: Toronto Blue Jays
#80. Tommie Agee
Years: 1962-1973 Primary Team: New York Mets
#81. Jim Piersall
Years: 1950-1967 Primary Team: Boston Red Sox
#82. Sam Chapman
Years: 1938-1951 Primary Team: Philadelphia A's
#83. Tony Gonzalez
Years: 1960-1971 Primary Team: Philadelphia Phillies
#84. Cesar Tovar
Years: 1965-1976 Primary Team: Minnesota Twins
#85. Coco Crisp
Years: 2002-2016 Primary Team: Cleveland Indians
#86. Fielder Jones
Years: 1901-1915 Primary Team: Chicago White Sox
#87. Randy Winn
Years: 1998-2010 Primary Team: Seattle Mariners
#88. Cy Seymour
Years: 1901-1913 Primary Team: New York Giants
#89. Terry Moore
Years: 1935-1948 Primary Team: St. Louis Cardinals
#90. Austin Jackson
Years: 2010-2017 Primary Team: Detroit Tigers
#91. Carlos Gomez
Years: 2007-2017 Primary Team: Milwaukee Brewers
#92. Baby Doll Jacobson
Years: 1915-1927 Primary Team: St. Louis Browns
#93. Brady Anderson
Years: 1988-2002 Primary Team: Baltimore Orioles
#94. Ginger Beaumont
Years: 1901-1910 Primary Team: Pittsburgh Pirates
#95. Michael Bourn
Years: 2006-2016 Primary Team: Houston Astros
#96. Marlon Byrd
Years: 2002-2016 Primary Team: Philadelphia Phillies
#97. Amos Strunk
Years: 1908-1924 Primary Team: Philadelphia A's
Strunk might have been the fastest player in the American League in the 1910s, but he never bothered to learn how to get a good lead. In the years we have detailed steal data, Strunk swiped 110 bases but was caught an alarming 100 times. Playing for the A's, he may have wilted under the pressure of his manager, Connie Mack. After he disbanded his club in 1914, Mack retooled it around the stolen base, employing speedster Strunk and a college track star named Eddie Murphy who once went 36-for-68 in stolen base attempts, proving that being quick doesn't mean you can steal a bag.
Strunk, who was so quick his nickname was "Lightning", later played center for Boston alongside Babe Ruth as the latter was transitioning from ace southpaw to slugger. The Red Sox won the pennant in 1918 with Strunk, giving him a fourth world championship.
#98. Al Bumbry
Years: 1972-1985 Primary Team: Baltimore Orioles
#99. Denard Span
Years: 2008-2017 Primary Team: Washington Nationals
#100. Sam West
Years: 1927-1942 Primary Team: Washington Senators