Move Over Barry Bonds—That's Why I Play in Center Field, Part I

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Move Over Barry Bonds—That's Why I Play in Center Field, Part I

No 10: Andruw Jones  

With his unmatched defensive skills and home-run-happy tendencies, Andruw Jones is unquestionably the best center fielder of the last 10 years.    

His pre-historic, yet highly effective, approach to positioning himself in the outfield—combined with his strong and accurate arm—make him one of the finer defensive specimens the league has ever seen.

It should come as no surprise that ESPN's Baseball Tonight ranked Jones as the best defensive center fielder of all time just a few years back.  

Andruw Jones plays a shallower center field than anyone since World War II. He can afford to do this because he's so damn good at getting back. Jones is willing to bank on the fact that he'll be able to chase down any ball that is hit deep in his territory—a pretty ballsy move given the slug-happy tendencies of modern-day hitters.     

This shallow style of positioning, which originated back in the dead-ball era (1903-1918), allows for the outfielder to regularly turn bloop singles and line drives into outs. As such, Jones is fully prepared to grab balls that others would have no chance at. 

He has brought an ancient style of shallow outfield positioning back from the grave, during an era of baseball that is known for deep-ball hitters.               

While Jones' throwback style results in balls occasionally flying over his head, he makes up for it by regularly taking away shallow base hits. Furthermore, his first step is so good that he gets to a lot of deep shots that appear to be out of his range—and his arm is strong enough to keep runners honest, even when long balls drop in.

Admittedly, Jones' defensive abilities have withered somewhat in recent years—however, this has been counteracted by an impressive surge in his offensive prowess.

Jones is always going to hit below the league average and do his best Rob Deer impression when it comes to whiffing the ball. But his power numbers in recent years have drastically improved. He hit 51 homers in '05 and 129 RBI in '06—both career highs.

He's whacked 30 or more dingers in seven different seasons throughout his tenure in the league, and will most likely eclipse the career 400-home-run mark by the time he hangs up his cleats.

Andruw Jones has been past his prime on the defensive end for some time now, though at his peak, he was as good as it gets. This, coupled with his impressive offensive production since the turn of the millennium, allows for Jones' inclusion as one of the 10 best center fielders to ever play the game.

 

No 9: Kirby Puckett  

When I think of Kirby Puckett, I think of him braced up against the glass at the Metrodome, jumping at exactly the right time to pull a home run into his glove—and the excited fans in the frame behind him.     

What an amazing player Kirby was. He was the heart and soul of those two championship Twins teams in '87 and '91.     

Kirby could do a lot of other things besides jam himself up against the glass like a hockey player: he could hit, throw, and field a baseball pretty damn well, too.    

Kirby's defensive abilities were his first sign of brilliance. In his rookie year of 1984, Kirby led the American league with 16 assists, and increased his number of victims to 19 the following season.

Baserunners clearly caught on to Puckett's reliable arm, as he never reached those kind of totals again, yet still managed to win six Gold Glove Awards in his shortened 12-year career.  

In the beginning of his tenure, Kirby struggled offensively, failing to bat .300 in either of his first two seasons and hitting a total of four homeruns in a combined 288 games.

In his third year in the majors, he broke out as a hitter, smacking 31 dingers and 96 RBI with a .328 average to boot.    

Kirby's offense continued to excel, and peaked in 1988 when he hit .356 with 24 dingers, 121 RBI, and 119 runs scored.    

But credentials aside, Kirby's on this list much more for his attitude than anything else. He was a living, breathing example of how a center fielder should conduct himself on the field.  

He had that connection with the fans, and the willingness to put himself on the line for the love of the game and give 110 percent at all times.  

He ran out every grounder on the basepaths, and he hustled to shag balls in the outfield he knew were out of reach.

It's something you just don't see these days, as the slug-happy, modern-day hitters see nothing inherently wrong with watching their dingers fall on the warning track and having to hold up at second base on a clear triple because they didn't think ahead.    

A center fielder must have an ambitious, go-getter attitude if he wishes to master his craft. Kirby had that attitude, and the fans of Minnesota adored him for it. His finely balanced skills and willingness to make the most of every play land him at No. 9 on my list.       

 

No 8: Max Carey  

It's difficult to stack-up players of ancient lore with those who played after World War II. The power numbers of the dinosaurs are always mind-numbingly low, and their defensive abilities are difficult to gauge, considering that most of the folks who saw them play are long gone.    

Often times, it's tempting to exclude such players from consideration in a column like this (you see it regularly on ESPN), as the game played back in the day was so vastly different from the game that major leaguers currently engage in.

But sometimes, evidence of natural ability at a particular position is just too overwhelming to deny a pre-historic player a closer look.    

Pittsburgh's Max Carey, otherwise known as "Scoops," is one of those players.  By all historical accounts, Max Carey was considered the best defensive center fielder in the National League for the majority of his career—which spanned from 1910 to 1929. Fielding statistics (for what they're worth) seem to back up this assertion.    

Carey accumulated over 400 putouts in six different seasons, including an astonishing 450 in 1923. He led the league in both putouts and total chances in nine seasons. In addition, Carey's 339 career baserunner kills (highest all time for an NL player after 1900) suggest that Scoops had quite a reliable arm. 

Granted, Carey led the league in errors on four occasions. While this may initially suggest inconsistency in the outfield, the explanation that Carey's contemporaries put forth is that the guy was so quick that he simply got to more balls than anyone else in the game.  

Carey is also known as being one of the fastest and greatest baserunners in the history of baseball. He led the league in stolen bases 10 times in his career, and in triples in 1914 and 1923.

He finished in the top three in the league in runs scored on five occasions. His career 738 stolen bags put him ahead of expert bandits like Joe Morgan and Bert Campaneris on the all-time list.  

Perhaps most impressively, Carey was one of the most efficient thieves the game has seen. In an era where the average base-stealer was thrown out nearly 50 percent of the time, Scoops successfully stole 51 bases in 53 tries in 1922. Gazikes!  

Carey was an average hitter for most of his career—his lifetime mark of .285 barely outpaced the rest of the league. That being said, Carey managed to find his swing towards the end of his career, becoming one of the better leadoff hitters in the game.

From 1917 on, Carey never struck out 40 or more times in a year—and he even kept his total whiffs below 20 in three full seasons.    

In 1925, Carey switched to a parted-hands grip at the plate and hit .343 at 35 years of age. It was by far the best season he ever had offensively. He also showed off his ability to perform under pressure that year, leading the Pirates back from a 3-1 deficit against Walter Johnson and the Washington Senators in the World Series.    

Carey's defining moment came in Game Seven of the series, where he used a tip given to him by Detroit left fielder Bobby Veach to light up the Big Train. Carey figured out that Johnson tipped off his curve when he shortened his delivery; he sat on those curves and whacked three doubles and a single in what capped a spectacular display of athleticism on all ends of the field.    

The Pirates won the game 9-7; Scoops hit .458 in the series and stole three bags.        

Max Carey may be lesser known than the majority of center fielders that are ranked in this column, but that should not negate the fact that he is unquestionably one of the best 10 to ever play his position.

His uncanny defensive skills, wheels on the basepaths, glimpses of hitting brilliance, and ability to step-up his game at the most important time in his career make him a highly deserving selection for the eight spot.       

 

No 7: Ken Griffey Jr.   

Ken Griffey Jr.; what can you say about him?    

His career may have taken a downhill turn after leaving Seattle, but he's a legendary center fielder nonetheless.  

In his prime, Griffey was superb defensively. I've heard some talk recently that Griffey's defensive abilities were overrated—pardon my French, but that's horseshit.  

Griffey could cover more ground than any center fielder of his generation, and he was damn consistent, too. Furthermore, I can't think of a guy who I'd rather have try to bring a homerun back into the park than Ken Griffey Jr.    

Can you?  

Sure, he was a showoff with his basket catch move. But it was fun, wasn't it?  

Griffey also happened to be an offensive powerhouse, before the injuries that would plague the second half of his career began to take shape. He had eight seasons with at least 100 RBI between '91 and '00—and three straight with 140 or more from '96 to '98.    

Griffey could hit for both average and power. For five straight seasons ('90-'94), Griffey hit well over .300, peaking out in '91 with a .327 average. Griffey also whacked 40 or more dingers in seven seasons—a feat that remains unmatched by any other center fielder in the history of the game.  

Then, of course, there's Griffey's most overlooked ability: his speed.    

In his prime, Junior had a non-conventional type of speed that historians are likely to overlook—for as fast as he was, he didn't steal too many bases. Griffey didn't reach his top speed as quickly as other players because his legs were so long; it took him a couple of steps to get going. That's one of the main reasons he only has 184 stolen bags in 20 seasons of professional play.

But running from second to home on a double? Griffey was fast as they came.    

It's inevitable that Junior's drop-off in production after the new millennium will be held against him, but in hindsight, he was unquestionably one of the best couple of overall players in the majors during his tenure in Seattle.  

Griffey's performance during the 1990s is so impressive that, in a lot of ways, it seems like the seven slot on this list is somehow selling him short—until you look at the guys ahead of him and see what an elite club of athletes we're talking about here.

 

Tune in next week, as Zander breaks down center fielders six through four on his all-time list.

Read Introduction

Read Part II

Read Part III

Sources:

1) http://www.wikipedia.org

2) http://www.baseball-reference.com

3) http://www.baseballhalloffame.org

4) http://bioproj.sabr.org

5) http://www.baseballlibrary.com

6) (History of the Game thread) http://www.baseball-fever.com

7) http://www.baseball-almanac.com

8) James, Bill (2003). The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. New York: Simon & Schuster.

9) Ritter, Lawrence (1966). The Glory of Their Times: The Story of the Early Days of Baseball Told by the Men Who Played It. New York: William Morrow and Co.

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