Just a couple of years ago, Carlos Gomez of the Milwaukee Brewers was a guy with wicked glove who fought off the Mendoza line. Now, not only has Gomez finally found his stride at the plate, but he has established himself as the most adept center fielder in baseball.
What are the ingredients of a top-notch center fielder? Speed, the ability to catch over either shoulder, a good arm, mad ups, natural instinct of which route to take to the ball and an understanding of positioning, to name a few.
In recent years, veterans Michael Bourn and Denard Span could’ve vied for this spot. But young legs generally make the best center fielders, and if you’ve earned the status of “veteran,” chances are that you aren’t the hotshot speedster you used to be.
To give you an idea of what I mean by “young legs,” take a look at Gomez last week:
From this we get a sense of his sheer athletic ability. In terms of routes, here’s a good example of Gomez’s aptitude for tracking fly balls:
In 2011, Jack Moore of the ESPN blog Disciples of Uecker took a closer look at Gomez's innate skill when it comes to positioning.
Moore used still shots from a video of a typical, highlight reel-worthy Gomez grab and noted that "Gomez seems to be so familiar with the Miller Park dimensions and so good at following the path of a fly ball in the air that he can figure out exactly where he has to get to before backing into the wall."
To further illustrate this point, Mark Simon of ESPN recently created this graphic which demonstrates the caliber of player Gomez is in center:
Major leaguer-turned-analyst Doug Glanville had this to say about Gomez in an interview with Simon: "He's fantastic. You just don't get the full scope of what he can do until he's out there every day."
At this point Gomez has been adequately showered with praise, and now we can get into nitty-gritty statistics.
Out of the new defensive stats (the archaic ones being fielding percentage, assists and errors) Range Factor is one of the more old-fashioned ways of measuring a player’s defense. In terms of RF, Gomez ranks fourth in the majors.
However, I didn’t think it was a good gauge of defensive ability, seeing as it’s very much contingent on whether or not your pitcher is a ground-ball or fly-ball guy. In other words, Mike Trout’s range factor surely benefits from having Joe Blanton on the mound every fifth day.
Three of the more comprehensive defensive statistics are of the advanced metric flavor: Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and defensive WAR (click for explanations at your own risk—head scratches may ensue).
Just two of all qualifying center fielders are in double digits in terms of UZR: Gomez and Arizona’s A.J. Pollock. Pollock’s UZR is actually .3 higher than Gomez’s (11.2 to Gomez’s 10.9 according to FanGraphs), but beware that UZR is heavily susceptible to smaller sample sizes. Pollock—although a fantastic defender—has only logged 511.1 innings, whereas Gomez has racked up 662.1
How does that translate in terms of actual performance? Gomez has 210 total play chances and 206 putouts, whereas Pollock is at 138 and 133.
Upon considering the latter two measures, it's clear that Gomez reigns supreme in center.
In terms of DRS, Gomez sits at 18. The second-highest tally among center fielders is nine. The defensive WAR rankings are equally embarrassing for the rest of the qualifiers. After Gomez’s 2.2, the next highest dWAR among center fielders is 1.2.
And at the end of the day, even Gomez's competitors have to acknowledge his greatness:
Bryce Harper tips his helmet to Carlos Gomez after the second time Gomez has robbed him of extra bases today.— Andrew Gruman (@AndrewGruman) July 3, 2013
Statistics are accurate as of July 2.