Power Center

I saw that the Hall of Fame is honoring the guy who wrote “Talkin’ Baseball” at this year’s Cooperstown festivities. The line from it that everyone knows is “Willie, Mickey, and the Duke.” All were center fielders and as I’ve been looking through information on the position, I’ve discovered just how extraordinary they were.

What came to my attention is how few major power hitters occupy center field as their primary position. Having three at one time is really very odd. Let me show you a particular stat that points that out. I remembered that Joe DiMaggio had 361 home runs. So I decided to make him the bottom of my list of center fielders with power. When I looked over the list of home run hitters in order, I found DiMaggio was 71st, which worked for a good base after all. It would have been better it he was 75th, but 71 will work. Obviously if I run the list longer, the numbers will change, but a cursory look all the way to 100 didn’t seem to make that much difference (and I should stress “cursory” in that sentence).

What I noticed is that there are less center fielders on the list than either of the other outfield positions. Now the usual caveats. As outfielders can sometimes be interchangeable, especially as stat types tend to lump them together as “outfielders” rather than “left fielders” or either of the others (and I’ve also noticed that the more modern the source, the less common this is, which I think is good), I went to  Baseball Reference.com to determine which outfield position guys like Gary Sheffield actually played most often (right in his case). I also took the Hall of Fame listing to determine a player’s primary position. The Hall lists Willie Stargell as a “left fielder” rather than a “first baseman” so Willie becomes one of the people I looked at. Finally I realize not all the people in the top 71 played all games at one position, so that they hit home runs at other positions rather than their primary position. For instance both Mickey Mantle and Stan Musial spent significant time at first base (as, obviously, did Stargell). So this is not a list to determine who hit the most homers while in center or anything like that.

Here’s what I found. Of the top 71 home runs hitters in Major League history, 17 were primary right fielders (I’m not listing them all, but they run from Hank Aaron to Rocky Colavito), 13 were primary left fielders (from Barry Bonds to Ralph Kiner), and only eight were in center. Here I’ll list them all in order of home runs: Willie Mays, Ken Griffey, Mickey Mantle, Andruw Jones, Duke Snider, Dale Murphy, Jim Edmonds, Joe DiMaggio.

A few observations:

1. It seems big league baseball really does like the old “defense up the middle, power at the corners” idea. I heard that all the way back in Little League. The idea is that if you have solid defense up the middle (shortstop, 2nd base, center field) then you can get your power from the corner players (1st base,  3rd base, left and right field). From the info above 24% of the 71 best power hitters played right field, 18% played left field, and 11% played center field as their primary position. The drop from 24% to 11% is noticeable. I’m not saying that you can’t play center if you hit for power, but that the power hitters tend to cluster towards the edges. If you think about it you probably already knew that intuitively.

2. Those numbers hold even if you move the base to another arbitrary position, like 400 home runs. Then you get 11 right fielders, nine left fielders, and five center fielders (losing Murphy, Edmonds, and DiMaggio).

3. Those numbers and percentage will change as soon as the opening of the 2011 season. Just a few men hitting just a few home runs will drop DiMaggio further down the all-time list and change things. I briefly looked over the top 100 and it appears it won’t add an inordinate number of center fielders, so the general trend will remain the same (more or less).

4. They tend to clump. Mays, Mantle, Snider, and DiMaggio all have careers that overlap. Having said that, both Mays’ and Mantle’s rookie year is DiMaggio’s last, so only Snider overlaps DiMaggio by more than one year. Of course Mays , Mantle, and Snider play a decade together. Griffey, Jones, and Edmonds are also contemporaries.  And Murphy actually overlaps Griffey and Edmonds (although his final season is Edmonds rookie campaign).

5. On a personal note. I hadn’t realized that Andruw Jones was already fourth on the list of home runs among primary center fielders. I’ve never considered him a truly elite player. He was a great center fielder, but I guess I had managed to more or less ignore his hitting contributions. Silly me.

I don’t think the stats above are all that significant in the long list of baseball information. I merely find them interesting and am sure that if I were to change the criteria it would change the info. For instance I left out Earl Averill, who didn’t make the top 71 home runs hitters, but was a significant power hitter in the 1930s.  They do remind me just how lucky we were to have Mays, Mantle, and Snider playing at the same time.

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2 Responses to “Power Center”

  1. William Miller Says:

    The list you came up with is very useful in providing context to just how few great center fielders there have been in MLB history. This helps make a strong case that both Andruw Jones and Jim Edmonds both deserve to make it into The Hall. Whether or not they actually will make it in is another story.
    Good job, Bill

  2. Vinnie Says:

    Two others who had relatively short careers also come to mind even though their home run total pale by comparison today. Hack Wilson and Wally Berger.

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