It's hard to be a five-tool player--hitting for average and power, speed, defense and throwing arm are a lot to ask of one player, and some positions make it difficult to fulfill these requirements. Catchers sacrifice speed and average, middle infielders average and power, and first basemen speed, defense or a throwing arm. Center field is the one position that certainly can use all five if a player possesses them. Throughout baseball history, the true five-tool players such as Mickey Mantle, Ty Cobb, Willie Mays and Ken Griffey Jr. tend to be found at this position.
The foundation of this post is a Tableau data visualization that plots a player's FanGraphs Dollar Value (FG$V) on the horizontal axis and his pro-rated salary on the vertical. FanGraphs estimates each point of fWAR to be worth around $8 million, so the best players are those who are furthest right on the graph, regardless of the height. Players toward the lower right are delivering more value than their contracts, and players to the upper left less.
Ground zero for outstanding center fielders is in southern California, home of the two top-ranked players at the position. Mike Trout is playing the game like no one else, and here's how he ranks among all players in baseball history in their first five seasons:
|Ted Williams||Red Sox||1939||1946||736||2618||925||165||638||651||240||.353||1.131||45.1|
|Wade Boggs||Red Sox||1982||1986||725||2778||978||32||322||417||206||.352||.898||35.0|
A couple of very important caveats--Trout had only 135 plate appearances in 2011 and has played only half a season this year, meaning he's put up his stratospheric numbers in about 100-150 fewer games than the other players on this list. Normalizing his value to 750 games yields a 43.3 rWAR, good enough for second behind Ted Williams--pretty good company. His big money kicks in next year, and the Rockefeller money in 2018, and he's done nothing to show that he won't be worth every penny paid, and then some. When the term "generational talent" or "once in a lifetime" are used, he's the kind of player they're describing (or this).
When at a loss for words, refer to the words of others--here's what Baseball Prospectus 2014 had to say about prospect Joc Pederson (#50--one behind Billy Hamilton):
He projects as an average hitter, though he is currently anemic against same-side arms, and he should have at least average power.
Baseball Prospectus 2015 upped the praise a bit:
In Albuquerque, he posted historic numbers and was named Pacific Coast League MVP: he was the first 30/30 player in 80 years. . . He can play center field, where the offensive standards aren't anywhere near as high as in left, home to every lumbering dinosaur unlucky enough to be blocked at first base by some even more lumbering dinosaur.
He has 20 home runs, an excellent 148 wRC+ (13th in the majors), and all with a .240 batting average. He has a .319 Baseball Prospectus True Average (TAv), showing how otherworldly power can make up for hitting deficiencies. He also makes catches like this:
He's only 23, and if he can resist the urge to try to run through walls, between him and Trout, they'll have the market cornered on outstanding center field play, separated by around 30 miles.
The data point just to the left of Pederson is a player destined to be overlooked, at least as long as he plays in Arizona. While Paul Goldschmidt is rightly getting the national coverage he deserves, A.J. Pollock slaves away in anonymity. He's been a solid player since becoming a regular in 2013, and so far this year his fWAR is close to his career high. He's already surpassed his career high in home runs and stayed off the disabled list. The fielding measures disagree on his defensive value (FanGraphs or Baseball Prospectus), but at worst he's average. He becomes arbitration-eligible after this season, and I wonder if the Diamondbacks would ever consider trading him--and what they'd get in return.
Fellow writer Murphy Powell discussed Kevin Kiermaier and the Rays outfield yesterday, so I won't rehash what he wrote and state Kiermaier's value is almost entirely defensive--if he can become more selective at the plate and cut down on the strikeouts, he'll be even more valuable. Lorenzo Cain has proven last year wasn't a fluke, and is one of the more intriguing #3 hitters out there since he's not a power hitter. He's showing a propensity to take more walks and has shown a bit more pop than last year, and his defense is as solid as ever.
Andrew McCutchen and Adam Jones are both about the same age, under team control through 2018 and having solid seasons and continuing the excellence they've shown for years. After getting off to an 18-22 start this year, the Pirates have gone 28-12 (through Saturday), and this is how McCutchen performed:
|Apr 6 to May 20, 2015||39||143||20||34||5||23||17||25||.238||.333||.399||.732|
|May 22 to Jul 4, 2015||39||140||23||50
The Orioles have had a similar season trajectory--slow start, decent stretch in the past 40 games or so, but Jones has been the opposite of McCutchen:
|Apr 6 to May 23, 2015||40||158||20||51||6||25||7||19||.323||.363||.500||.863|
|May 24 to Jul 4, 2015||30
Jones had some dings that caused him to miss consecutive games twice this year, and every player goes through slumps. He's been consistent over the past eight years, and he's on pace to have the same fWAR he's had, right around five--that of an All-Star.
The data viz includes a date slider to show how players improve or decline over time. If one were to move the slider back to the beginning of the data (around the middle of May), one would see Dexter Fowler with a 1.1 fWAR and among the best center fielders in the game, and even being a plus defender, something he's never been considered. This shows center fielders since 2009 and their UZR/150, and it's not a positive showing for Fowler, but he appeared to be rejuvenated playing in the smaller outfield in Wrigley and on a winning team. Alas, since that first data point, he's added absolutely nothing to his fWAR, even though his defense continues to be positive:
|Apr 5 to May 17, 2015||36||141||26||38||3||10||17||33||.270||.354||.411||.765|
|May 19 to Jul 4, 2015||41||157||25||31||5||13||15||42||.197||.266||.350||.616|
One of the main reasons he was acquired was for his career.366 OBP entering the 2015 season. It was working at the beginning of the year, but he's cooled off dramatically since the middle of May. He didn't pick a good year to have a down one, since he's a free agent after this season.
I thought Billy Hamilton's .292 OBP in 2014 was totally unconscionable given his speed, not knowing it could get even worse. He's been dropped from leadoff in the order to number nine, and I'm sure Reds
The notion that any single or walk to Hamilton becomes an almost-automatic double has been shown to be true, and he's tremendously cut down on getting thrown out stealing. His defense continues to be stellar, but his skill set demands he get on base, and if he can't, he'll have a difficult time staying in the majors.
Quite possibly more than any other position, there are more center fielders delivering value over and above their contracts than at any other position, and even highly-paid players like Jacoby Ellsbury are doing so. The recent comparable for center fielders was Ken Griffey Jr., and all-time it's a toss-up between Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays.
Mike Trout, if he can stay healthy and productive, has an outstanding chance to be mentioned in the same conversation by the time he's finished, and of course, it's far too soon to make any kind of judgment on Joc Pederson.
There aren't many real boppers in center field today as the position recognizes the lack of offense and the consequent emphasis on run prevention, but as a group they're still as fun to watch as ever. As StatCast data becomes public (if it ever does), it will create entirely new ways to measure defensive effectiveness and range in the outfield. It will validate what we've seen with our own eyes: these guys are good. Really good.