“Strong up the middle” is a common baseball phrase referring to defensive strength up the middle of the field. This includes the catcher, shortstop (and lesser degree second baseman), and the center fielder. All three positions are difficult defensive assignments. Center fielders are responsible for covering the largest area of a baseball field. The position requires speed, good judgment, a quick first step and a explosive acceleration. Defense is so important that, like both shortstops and catchers, teams are sometimes willing to suffer with a poor hitting, but defensively sound center fielder. Teams lucky enough to find one who can hit as well as field have something truly special. With apologies to the current crop of players, some of who might eventually grace this list, here are ten of the best to ever play the position.
10 Jim Edmonds
Edmonds hit .284 with power. He posted an offensive WAR over 4.0 for nine years, and six of those were 5.0 or higher. Despite his offensive production it was Edmonds' defensive wizardry and diving catches that made him popular. Some argue his need to dive for balls was a result of his lack of speed – and there’s some truth to this. That being said, Edmonds would dive and catch balls no other player ever thought were even remotely playable, a fact backed up by his eight Gold Glove Awards. Edmonds played over 1,700 games in center field and never let up for even a moment.
9 Kirby Puckett
Puckett was an offensive force. He posted only 2 years of offensive WAR that were less than 3.0 and those were his first two years in the league. No player in the 20th century had more hits in the first ten years of their career than Puckett did. He won six Gold Gloves, was a 10-time All-Star, and featured an impressive all-around defensive game, but it was his offensive abilities, leadership and intangibles that made Puckett popular. He was a .318 lifetime hitter, won six Silver Slugger Awards, and had over 200 home runs, 2,000 hits and 1,000 RBIs – in only twelve seasons. Puckett had a knack for coming up in big in the postseason, as those who watched Game 6 of the 1991 World Series will attest.
8 Oscar Charleston
Charleston gets a mention here even though he never played in the Major Leagues. Charleston was a Negro League ballplayer, and later manager. He was elected to the baseball Hall of Fame in 1976. So what made Charleston so good? Bill James believes he might be the fourth best player to ever play the game. He was a .348 career hitter and is the all-time leader in stolen bases in the Negro League. It’s said he was also a fantastic fielder, and was renowned for his combative temper.
7 Duke Snider
Had he played in another era, Duke Snider might have been one of the biggest stars in baseball. Unfortunately, Snider played in the same city and at the same time as Mantle and Mays. Snider wasn’t just good, he was truly great. He was an offensive machine, hitting over 400 home runs, including five consecutive years of 40 or more, and continually posted top five numbers in slugging percentage, RBIs, doubles, and triples. He also posted three consecutive years of 8+ offensive WAR. The only thing keeping Snider from climbing higher on this list was his defense. He was steady in the field, but not spectacular. Not to mention he was overshadowed by two of the best to ever play the game.
6 Ken Griffey Jr.
Griffey blasted 630 home runs in his 22-year career; sixth all-time. He won an MVP, played in 13 All-Star games and was an offensive giant. From 1993 to 1999 there might not have been a more consistent and better center fielder in baseball. Griffey had a real shot at breaking the all-time home run record before his injuries. He was that good. His defense wasn’t bad either. Griffey was a lifetime 1.3 defensive WAR player. In 1996 he posted a 3.4 dWAR and he won 10 consecutive Gold Golves. Injuries derailed his career and he was moved to right field towards the tail end of it. That doesn’t diminish what he did beforehand.
5 Tris Speaker
Speaker was known to play an extremely shallow center field. How shallow? Speaker would catch line drives and sprint in to second base and double off a runner by tagging the bag. He played in the “dead ball” era, but still managed to post a lifetime .345 batting average. Speaker is fifth all-time in hits, and his 792 doubles are the most ever hit by a major leaguer. Ty Cobb called Speaker the best player that he’d ever play with.
4 Ty Cobb
Ty Cobb’s offensive numbers border on the obscene. He holds the lifetime batting average record, having hit .366 for the entirety of his career. From 1907 to 1922 Cobb posted only one year (1920) of an offensive WAR less than 6.1, including two years of 10+ WAR. Cobb led the AL in batting average 11 times and hit over .400 three times. He’s fourth all-time in doubles, second all-time in triples, and fourth all-time in stolen bases. While Cobb wasn’t a defensive wizard, he was extremely quick. He ranks second all-time in outfield assists and recorded 105 double plays. Had Cobb been a better defender he might have been closer to the top of this list.
3 Mickey Mantle
Mantle is often considered the best switch hitter to have ever played the game. He played in seven World Series and won three MVP Awards. His 1957 MVP season included an offensive WAR of 11.3. Mantle hit 536 home runs, over 1,500 RBIs, and played in 16 All-Star games over the course of his career. In the field Mantle was exceptionally quick and had to cover one of the largest center fields in the league. He only won a single Gold Glove, but even so, he more than held his own in the field. Like Cobb, Mantle might have topped this list had injuries and an exceedingly damaging social life not limited his career.
2 Joe DiMaggio
DiMaggio’s career was cut short due to injuries and war. He missed three years of his prime during World War II. DiMaggio only played 13 seasons, but he made the All-Star game in every year he played. DiMaggio won nine World Series rings and his 56-game hitting streak might live on forever. DiMaggio also won three MVP Awards and posted a .325 career batting average. Despite his impressive offensive numbers, DiMaggio also posted a career 3.2 defensive WAR while playing in the largest outfield in baseball. Joe had a great arm and his defensive numbers include 153 outfield assists. Not only did he lead the league in outfield assists three years of his career, but he never finished lower than fifth.
1 Willie Mays
If you’re building the ideal center fielder you need look no further than the “Say Hey Kid.” Willie Mays was a true five-tool player. His career numbers include 523 doubles, 140 triples, 660 home runs, 1903 RBIs, 338 stolen bases and a career .302 batting average. Mays posted nine years of offensive WAR over 8.0 – which is nearly unheard of. But it wasn’t just his offense that made Mays great. He posted a career 18.1 defensive WAR and 195 outfield assists. He won 12 Gold Gloves and is the all-time leader in games played in centerfield with 2,829. Some of this is attributed to a lengthy career, but that shouldn’t diminish his numbers. Mays is the all-time leader in putouts in center field, fifth in assists, and second in double plays as a center fielder. Not only was Mays the best center fielder, he might have been the best all-around player to play the game.