Where have all the great centerfielders gone?
A cursory look at the basic stats tell us that there are no elite offensive talents currently in the major leagues at that position. No player who spent half his time in center field last season and qualified for the batting title managed to hit .300.
That’s the first time that’s happened in the live-ball era (1920).
OPS for Average CF in Previous 5 Seasons
Baseball-Reference.com tells us that since 1920, there have been 173 players who spent half their time toiling in center field and had an OPS+ of at least 140. Every decade from the 1920s to the 1990s featured at least 17 individual seasons reaching that number. In the 2000s, there were 11 seasons combined and five of them were by Jim Edmonds alone. The last centerfielder to accomplish it was Carlos Beltran in 2006.
To the right is a chart of the recent annual OPS averages for major-league centerfielders. Notice especially the steady decline in the AL.
We should consider this in context with other positions since offense has depressed overall in that time span. Still, the offensive profile of the centerfielder has changed.
It’s very possible that defense has become more of a priority in front offices across the baseball landscape. Taking a glance at the American League West alone and you’ll see Peter Bourjos in Anaheim (15 Defensive Runs Saved in 2010), Franklin Gutierrez in Seattle (14), Coco Crisp in Oakland (9) and Julio Borbon in Texas (7). These players are light on offense and decidedly heavy on defense.
Combined Defensive Runs Saved
MLB Centerfielders Since 2003
Looking more broadly with a defensive metric from Baseball Info Solutions, 2010 was a banner year for defense at this glamour position. The combined Defensive Runs Saved by all centerfielders that played at least 700 innings was +109. That's the high-water mark for a position that has become decidedly more defensive-oriented in the last decade.
Is there light at the end of the tunnel? Currently, there are nine teams that have players in their age-25 season or younger manning centerfield. And that’s not even counting players like Jacoby Ellsbury, Drew Stubbs, Chris Young and B.J. Upton.
Since 2000, the only centerfielder to manage an OPS+ of 160 over the course of an entire season is Edmonds. In the VERY early-goings this season, Baseball-Reference shows us there are four centerfielders doing that now, three of whom are still in their 20s (Matt Kemp, Colby Rasmus and Upton).
They may not be names like Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Duke Snider, Mickey Mantle or even Kirby Puckett but it does offer some hope for future greatness.
--Contributions made by Mark Simon, Jeff Bennett and Justin Havens