How Center Field Has Become the Premier Position in Today's MLB

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How Center Field Has Become the Premier Position in Today's MLB
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
Andrew McCutchen is one of many (many, many) who are at the center of it all in baseball today.

"Put me in coach, I'm ready to play today. Look at me, I can be centerfield."

So sang John Fogerty back in 1985 on his catchy-as-all-heck ditty "Centerfield." Nearly 30 years after that song was released, complete with a video that featured footage of various famous center fielders—from Willie Mays and Duke Snider to Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle—that position has once again become the glamour position of Major League Baseball.

Considering all the talent at the center of the diamond, it might be time to update the video.

In only the past two or three seasons, the sport has witnessed the breakouts of (deep breath) Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen, Carlos Gomez, Adam Jones, Austin Jackson, Dexter Fowler, Desmond Jennings and Leonys Martin.

Mitchell Layton/Getty Images
Adam Jones leads all centerfielders with 22 homers and 74 RBI.

And that group doesn't even take into account more established stars who have handled the center spot in recent years—like Matt Kemp, Josh Hamilton and Curtis Granderson.

If you're searching for a way to quantify just how talented and deep the current crop of center fielders is, consider the statistical evidence.

Among the top 30 players per FanGraphs' Wins Above Replacement ranking (WAR), nine are either current center fielders or players who have done or could do the job: Trout, Gomez, McCutchen, Carlos Gonzalez, Colby Rasmus, Jacoby Ellsbury, Starling Marte, Shin-Soo Choo and Jennings.

Justin Edmonds/Getty Images
Now a full-time left fielder, Carlos Gonzalez played some center every year from 2008 to 2011.

Think about that for a second.

There are eight positions aside from pitcher on the diamond, meaning no position should have more than four in the top 30 on average. Almost unfairly, then, center field takes up more than twice as many as that.

Perhaps the biggest reason behind center field becoming the center of attention is that baseball has shifted away from the slow-footed, power-hitting profile of the Steroid Era to younger, faster and more agile athletes who just so happen to be really, really good at baseball.

That's the center field profile to a tee. Guys who can do stuff like this...

Carlos Gomez does this almost every day, it seems.

...or this...

Andrew McCutchen, showing of his glove then his arm.

...or this on a regular basis.

Mike Trout continues to do it all, with both the glove and the bat.

You want to argue that Trout and Bryce Harper, the top two young talents in the game, aren't actually playing center field this year? Well, they did as rookies, and they could certainly get the job done if not for ceding to superb defenders in Peter Bourjos and Denard Span.

The story is similar for Starling Marte and Michael Brantley, a pair of center fielders by trade who are playing left field for the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cleveland Indians, respectively. In other words, there are so many great center fielders that some of them have been pushed off their primary position and are excelling elsewhere.

Starling Marte: A centerfielder playing left field.

Another key reason for the boon in center is that teams have recognized the importance of defense more over the past decade. As a result, glove work has become even more appreciated, valuable and sought after, especially in this era of diminished run scoring.

That's why, for example, the New York Yankees moved Brett Gardner, an elite defender, from left field to center this year (a decision planned before incumbent Granderson went down with injury); or why the Indians signed Michael Bourn to handle center even though they already had Brantley; or why the Twins have stuck with Aaron Hicks despite the rookie's struggles with the bat.

This is called centerfielder-on-centerfielder crime.

Even more ammo for the center-field-as-the-premier-position argument is the fact that as incredible as the talent is right now, more is on the way.

To this point in 2013, each of Adam Eaton, Jackie Bradley Jr., Jake Marisnick and Christian Yelich—all of whom are consensus top-100 prospects—have broken into the big leagues. And two more are expected to arrive shortly: George Springer, a potential 30-30 candidate, and Billy Hamilton, the all-time single-season stolen base leader with 155 last year who converted from shortstop to center field.

As if that isn't enough, the next wave of top young centermen includes Albert Almora, a 2012 first-rounder; Gregory Polanco, a toolsy breakout prospect last year; and Byron Buxton, the No. 2-overall pick in 2012 who just so happens to be atop most prospect lists.

Pretty soon, those phenoms will join the current center field stars in the majors, and they won't have to echo Fogerty's lyrics by telling their coaches to put them in.

When they're ready, they'll be front. And center.


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