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

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

No. 6: Joe Dimaggio

There was another center fielder that played long before Ken Griffey Jr. who possessed similar type of wheels—the kind that get you from second to home faster than a speeding bullet but don't produce a lot of stolen bases.   

Joltin' Joe DiMaggio was his name.

Joe could do it all—field, throw, hit, and run.  But in all honesty, his stats really sell his talents short. 

The Yankee Clipper hit a surprisingly low number of dongs throughout his career (361), and only smacked 40 or more in a season on one occasion.  Despite all the talk about his hitting streak, Joe didn't even win the batting title in 1941, and in fact only claimed two crowns throughout his entire career. 

His lifetime on base percentage (.398) is significantly lower than the hitting legends he is usually compared with (Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, etc.)  Let's also not forget that Dimaggio stole a mind boggling 30 bases—in his career!—far fewer than any other center fielder discussed in this column.   

So why then is Joe considered to be one of the greatest center fielders, and indeed one of the best overall players, in Major League history?

For one, he spent his entire career in Yankee stadium, an ideal spot for lefty sluggers and an awful one for righties.  According to Bill James' calculations, DiMaggio lost more homeruns to his stadium than any other player in the history of the game.  This should come as no surprise, as left center in Yankee stadium went back an astonishing 457 feet while Joe played there. 

DiMaggio was also quite savvy with the whole "team ball" concept; he won four World Series championships during his first four years in the majors, and nine out of 10 throughout his 13 years of professional play.  While the Clipper shared the spotlight with the Iron Horse for his first three seasons in the league, Dimaggio was undoubately the Crux of the Yanks for the remainder of his tenure. 

Let's also not forget his solid RBI totals: Dimaggio drove in 120 or more runs in seven straight seasons from 1936-1942, including 167 in '37.  After a few years of serving his country overseas, Joe then provided the means for 158 Yankees to cross home in his swan song season of 1948.
 
But when all is said and done, the most memorable aspect of Dimaggio's game was his firm command behind the plate; his uncanny ability to decide when a pitch was worth hitting and when it should be fouled away. 

Joe went down swinging a grand total of 369 times in 13 big league seasons—that's an average of just over 28 whiffs per season.  In 1941, the year of his hitting streak, he struck out a total of 13 times.  He did this while taking 30 balls yard, driving in 125, scoring 122 runs himself, and walking 76 times.  

Like wooah Scoob! 

Dimaggio never struck out 40 times in a season—ever.  When you consider that some of the league's best sluggers today average close to 200 K's per year, DiMaggio's 369 career misses and 361 dingers seems earth shattering.

Joe DiMaggio is the epitomy of an all around player and team leader.  In addition to being one of the most well known athletes in history, he's clearly one of the best as well.  His ability to get wood on any ball, catch fire for 56 straight games, effectively manage the outfield, and lead his team to nine championships in 13 seasons lands him in the six slot.
 

No. 5: Mickey Mantle


In his final season in the majors, the Yankee Clipper played alongside a nineteen year old kid from Oklahoma named Mickey Mantle.  Throughout his career, Mantle would live in DiMaggio's shadow, as Joe was considered hands down the best Yankee center fielder who ever lived. 

It's a pretty close call, but I think in hindsight the

Mick edges out Joltin' Joe for that honor.  In Mantle's case, it seems practical to stack him up against the Yankee Clipper in evaluating his overall abilities as a center fielder.

Let's start with hitting.  The typical argument goes something like this: Mantle's .298 career average pales in comparison with DiMaggio's .325.

Fair enough—but did you consider when Mantle played?

Mantle had the bulk of his greatest years in the 1950s, when 19 percent of regular hitters posted a .300 average or better.  DiMaggio, on the other hand, played five of his best seasons in the 1930's, where 41 percent of regular hitters were over the .300 mark.

Even more telling, the league average during Mantle's tenure in professional baseball was an eye-opening .256. 

The average during DiMaggio's career?  .276.

Do the math: Mantle hit .042 points above the league average, compared with .049 points above for Joe.  DiMaggio therefore was indeed the better hitter, but not by much (though he did strike out a whole lot less).

DiMaggio's slight advantage over Mantle in hitting for average is more than made up by Mantle's ability to get on base via the walk.  Mantle walked to 1st base over 100 times in ten seasons, something DiMaggio never managed to do a single time in his entire career.  Furthermore, the Mick's .421 OBP (compared with the league's .329 during his tenure) slaughters DiMaggio's .398 (compared with the league's .354). 

Power wise, Mick gets the nod but not by much.  Mantle hit 50 or more dingers twice in his career, and 40 or more on four occasions.  Other than his 46-bomb season in 1937, Dimaggio never approached the 40 mark. 

That said, DiMaggio's .576 career slugging average beats out Mantle's .557, though as can be expected, when compensating for the time periods each played in it ends up pretty much square.

So far, it's seemingly a tie ballgame.  To recap:

Hitting for average: DiMaggio by a hair
Hitting for power: Mantle by a hair
Striking out (or lack thereof): DiMaggio by a ton
Getting on base: Mantle by a ton

Now let's bring defense and baserunning into the equation. 

With all due respect to the Yankee Clipper, the Commerce Comet was surely the better baserunner.  His contemporaries said he was the fastest guy they ever saw. 

Rumor has it that the Mick ran from home to first in 3.1 seconds batting right handed.  To give you some perspective, Ichiro recently was clocked a few years back at the same time, and he's a lefty.   

Mantle stole 153 bases in his career—with major knee problems.  His speed on the basepaths also allowed him to score more than 100 runs in nine consecutive seasons from '53 to '61, and 1677 total in his career. 

DiMaggio may have been quick, but the Mick was quicker.

On the flip side, DiMaggio is by and large considered to be better defensively. Joe was known for playing deep in the outfield, which meant that he let a lot of bloopers fall in for singles but rarely gave up extra base hits over his head.  While his conservative methods didn't win him many style points, Dimaggio's ability to minimize errors and not give up the big play proved to be highly effective in a large outfield like Yankee stadium. 

Mantle, meanwhile, played solid defense in his prime—but his abilities in center didn't stand up to the test of longevity (most likely due to his knee problems).  Mantle won only a single Gold Glove award in 18 seasons; Bill James asserts that (using his win shares system) DiMaggio was deserving of eight such awards in 13 seasons.  Seems like an easy call here. 

So DiMaggio and Mantle split baserunning and defense—hence we're still pretty much even Steven.  What now?

Intangible factors need to be considered, and that's what lands Mick on top...barely.

Their postseason performances are pretty similar, but Mantle wins the day in the end.  In 10 World Series appearances, Dimaggio hit .271, far lower than his career batting average of .325.  Mantle posted a similarly sucky .257 in 12 series appearances, which again is well below his career mark of .298. 

However Mantle's power numbers in the postseason are significantly more impressive: he slugged .535 career in the playoffs, compared with Joe D's .422.  Mantle's postseason OBP is also significantly higher than Dimaggio's (.374 for Mickey, .338 for Joe).

Another factor to consider: Mickey Mantle hit on both sides of the plate—and is unquestionably the best switch hitter of all time.  Dimaggio only hit righty.   

The final intangible quality where Mantle trumps Dimaggio is what I like to call "badass factor."  DiMaggio might have thought that marrying an American sex icon and smoking a pack of camels a day was cool...but Mantle could put down a handle of Jim Beam faster than he could run to first base.

There are surely good arguments on both sides here—and in the end, it's not very important which of these Yankee legends is ranked higher on this list.  These are two of the quintessential center fielders to ever grace the field; we owe both of them a great deal for what they did for the game of baseball.

For my money though, Mantle gets the nod over Joe in the five hole.

 
No. 4: Ty Cobb

A notorious racist with an anti-social demeanor and mean-spirited attitude, Ty Cobb was one of the most disliked players of his day.  Few of his teammates got along with him, and the stories of Cobb's negative disposition are never-ending. 

Indeed, the one thing that all of Cobb's contemporaries seem to agree on is the fact that the Georgia Peach didn't have very many friends.

That being said, Cobb is one of baseball's most infamous legends, who for all his negative attributes as a person performed feats on the field that will never be matched.  He was the first man elected to the Hall of Fame, and was indeed considered the best overall player in baseball history before Babe Ruth came roaring along in the 20's.  When Cobb retired after the 1928 season, he held major league records for batting average, hits, runs scored, runs batted in, total bases, and stolen bases.

Cobb's overall game was ferocious—he could play baseball in the purest sense.  Whether it be his crafty baserunning, savvy defensive ability, or dazzling capacity to put bat-on-ball better than anyone else in the history of the game, Cobb excelled at the sport like none had done before him and few have done after.

Let's start with defense.  Cobb's abilities in the outfield are somewhat disputed—namely by his contemporaries but also by baseball historians.  While most agree he had excellent range and swift backward flight, many feel that his arm was merely average.  His statistics, however, suggest brilliance in all departments in center.

In the words of Detroit right fielder Sam Crawford: "Cobb could only play the outfield, and even there his arm wasn't anything extra special."  Yet it's hard to fathom that a guy who finished his career with 392 assists (second most all time) didn't have a laser.

Cobb is said to have covered more ground than most of the other great center fielders of his era.  He played shallow, hustling towards the bleachers to catch balls that flew over his head while turning singles into double plays with great tenacity.  His 6361 career putouts place him 4th all time among major league players.   

I'm guessing there are two reasons that Cobb wasn't considered a top notch defensive center fielder during his time: first, that his other abilities as a player overshadowed his work in the outfield, and second, that he was such an awful person to be around that many of his contemporaries felt little inclination to give him props in arenas where they were not expected to do so. 

Either way, Cobb's numbers seem to suggest that he was in fact an excellent fielder. 

But really, it's a meaningless debate; for even if Cobb was terrible defensively, it would still be impossible to exclude him from this list given his achievements on offense. 

While Cobb wasn't necessarily the fastest player in the majors, he will always be remembered for his brainpower on the basepaths.  He is said to have outthought his defensive foes more often than he outran them.  His aggressive attitude and willingness to get his pants dirty and spikes in the air intimidated pitchers and defenders alike. 

Cobb was unquestionably the most effective base swiper of his day.  He racked up 892 stolen bags in his career—the fourth most in league history—and led the league in the category six times.  His record of 50 lifetime steals at home plate still stands today.

Now that we've covered defense and baserunning ability, let's examine Cobb's finest trait as a player: his knack for hitting a baseball.

Cobb is the best Major League hitter of all time—hands down, no question, end of discussion.  Standing alone, his .367 lifetime batting average seems quite impressive. 

But when you consider that the league average during his tenure was .273, Cobb's hitting ability appears out of this world.

With his parted hands style of gripping the bat, Cobb won 11 batting titles, and finished second in hitting on four other occasions.  Cobb was patient behind the plate as well, leading the league in OBP seven times in his career. 

Just as phenomenal are Cobb's power numbers—interestingly enough, this is the aspect of his game that is most commonly criticized.  I suppose it makes sense in a way; after all, when a guy barely manages to crank 100 jacks over a 24-year career, your first instinct isn't to regard him as a slugger.

But Cobb was indeed a slugger of the finest caliber.  He played in a time before players were hitting a lot of homeruns, and made up for it by whacking doubles and triples with regularity. 

For twelve consecutive seasons—from 1907 to 1918—Cobb finished top three in the league in slugging average, leading the AL in the category eight times.  He also led the league in triples four times, doubles thrice, and homeruns in 1909. 

Furthermore, Cobb hit over 100 RBIs six times in his career—without ever crushing more than 12 bombs in a season.

Yet once Babe Ruth shattered the home run record in 1919—and then nearly doubled that effort the following season—the media quickly forgot about Cobb and his brilliant hitting.  They adored Ruth for his happy-go-lucky spirit and homerun-happy tendencies, and embraced him as the new God of the game.

Cobb began to hate Ruth; he saw the Babe as a threat to both him and the long standing tradition of hit-and-run, grind-it-out baseball.  His rage steadily boiled as the media took the spotlight away from him and continually asked why he didn't hit more homeruns.

Finally, in May of 1925, Cobb decided he had heard enough.  He told a reporter in the dugout before a two game series that he was going to swing for the fences for the first time in his career, and prove once and for all that he was indeed capable of whacking the long ball.

The 38-year-old Cobb put his hands together on the bat and went six for six in the first game—with two singles, a double, and three dongs.  He smacked two more dingers the following day. 

Cobb's five homeruns in a two game span was a feat then unmatched even by the Babe, and permanently silenced his critics. 

After that series, Cobb returned to his parted hands style and focused once again on the aspects of the game he truly adored: bunting, stealing, the hit-and-run, the double in the gap, and the squeeze play.

Ty Cobb may have been a truly disturbed individual, but what he did on the field shall never be forgotten.  He is baseball's oldest legend—the player who put the sport on the map.  His ability to run, field, and most importantly, hit, make him without question one of the greatest to ever play the game, not to mention highly deserving of the four spot on this list.

 

Don't miss the final edition of the series next week, when Zander reveals the most impressive trifecta of center fielders to ever set foot on a baseball field.

Read Introduction

Read Part I

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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