Now that I’ve made up my mind about who I think are the top ten center fielders, I’ll present the list in a moment. I thought about it, read over comments on my question about the “tenth man,” and decided on a list. I’m putting it down in alphabetical order, not in order of 1-10:
Richie Ashburn, Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, Jim Edmonds, Ken Griffey, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Kirby Puckett, Duke Snider, Tris Speaker.
Now, of course, the usual commentary is going to show its ugly head. First, I left out all Negro League players who spent the bulk of their careers in the Negro Leagues (guys like Oscar Charleston). I just don’t think there is enough information available for analysis to compare them directly with Major League players. Are some of them as good or better than the people listed? I’m sure they are, I just can’t prove it. My guess is that Charleston, and maybe Torriente and/or Bell, might make this list. Proving it is another story. I also dropped in pre-mound players. I simply think the game is too different to compare the players. I know a bunch of people have come up with statistical programs that claim to have overcome that problem. Obviously I don’t buy that. Feel free, particularly if you’ve invented one of those programs, to disagree.
You’ll notice it’s a pretty standard list. My guess is that almost anyone reading this then putting together their own list is going to have seven or eight names that are just like mine. It’s the other couple that will create the problem. So let me take a second of commentary and at least partially justify three of my picks, the three I think will create the most “Huh?” factor from readers.
Ashburn: Richie Ashburn is simply the best center fielder I ever saw (which has nothing to do with how well he hit). He had incredible range and a fine glove. He led the league in putouts nine times, in assists three times, and range 10 times. The argument is always made that he played behind a staff that threw an inordinate amount of fly balls. If you had Ashburn behind you, wouldn’t you throw a lot of fly balls too? Additionally he could hit a little. He led the league in average twice, on base percentage four times, hits three times, triples twice, walks four times, and stolen bases once. For a man who hit only 29 home runs for a career (his career high was 7 in his final season with the 1962 Mets) he has a respectable OPS of 778 (OPS+ of 111). His black ink total is 32, his gray ink is 156, both above Hall of Fame standards. I remember we didn’t see the Phillies much when I was small (they were usually terrible), but when we did it was Ashburn you were drawn to. I’ve always been a little surprised he took as long to make the Hall of Fame as he did.
Puckett: I’m amazed at how quickly Kirby Puckett has disappeared from our conciousness. OK, I know he’s dead, but he seemed to be fading already by the time he died. His post baseball career was a tragedy of weight gain, vision problems, and allegations of abuse. It seems he just didn’t know what to do with himself when the thing that defined him, his baseball career, was over. But let me remind you how terrific he was. The greatest catch of the last 25 years may have been in game 6 of the 1991 World Series. Frankly, I didn’t think short-legged, chubby Kirby Puckett could run that far that fast. He was a very good center fielder. Three times he led the league in both assists and putouts by a center fielder and twice in range. He hit well, winning a batting title, leading the league in hits four times, total bases twice, and in RBIs once. His OPS is 837 (OPS+ of 124). The Minnesota Twins have won exactly two World Series’ ever. Puckett hit third on both teams.
Edmonds: Obviously, based on the last post I made, he was the person I thought longest and hardest about (and just as obviously Andruw Jones is 11th on this list). I finally chose him based on his fielding and his overall hitting stats. I decided that both he and Jones have differences, but that they are pretty much miniscule. Even at strange stats like gray ink and Hall of Fame standards they end up a wash (Edmonds leads in gray, Jones in HoF standards). The key difference to me was the OPS+ stat where Edmonds leads 132 to 111 (which is quite a difference). I finally decided if Ashburn gets in at 111, then Edmonds, who has a higher number, should be in too.
So there’s the list. I’m sorry to have had to leave out Earl Averill, Earle Combs, Hack Wilson and an entire group of good center fielders, but somebody had to be left out. I especially hate having to leave out Vada Pinson, who I thought was great when I was much younger. I also have some problems with including either Edmonds or Jones (or even Griffey for that matter). I don’t like to put in players who are still active or who have just retired. We have absolutely no perspective yet on them and that always worries me. I’m not sure how, ten years from now, their careers will stack up, but to leave them off smacks of fogeyism. You know fogeyism, don’t you? It usually starts with a comment along the following lines, “Heck, everyone was better when I was a kid. These guys couldn’t hold Paul Blair’s glove.” Most of us are probably guilty of it from time to time. Hopefully I haven’t been in this case.
Thoughts appreciated, but remember to be kind in your comments. This is a family site.