Buster Olney's top 10 center fielders: A new crew can't catch Mike Trout ... yet

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A few hours before George Springer became a World Series champion, he lounged in front of his assigned locker in Dodger Stadium listening to an ‘80s mixtape and explained the dramatic change in his numbers last season: his reduction in strikeouts, from 178 to 111, and in his swing-and-miss rate, from 12.4 percent to 9.5 percent.

“I just made up my mind I wasn’t going to strike out as much,” said Springer, who owns real estate in our top 10 list of center fielders.

Joey Votto, the best and smartest hitter in baseball, offered a similar take in the midst of his incredible 2017 season, as he cut his strikeouts from 120 to 83. Anthony Rizzo had 127 strikeouts in 2013, back when he had trouble with inside fastballs, but he moved closer to the plate in the batter’s box and used the same kind of approach as Votto: As the ball-strike count deepens, he chokes up on the bat, digs in and focuses on not striking out. Last year, Rizzo had 91 walks and 90 strikeouts, marking the first season in his career in which his walk-strikeout ratio reached 1:1.

Executing an adjustment such as this is difficult -- more complicated than a simplified encapsulation for a reporter suggests. But the ground floor of change began with a new mindset for each plate appearance -- I’m not going to strike out -- and these are some of the greatest athletes in the world, with the physical skills to support that single-mindedness.

A lot of hitters have devoted themselves to the idea of lifting the ball in the air in recent years, based on the theory that in the era of the shift, ground balls are the worst possible result of a plate appearance and usually result in singles -- and hitters get paid for big damage.

But there probably needs to be an adjustment of thought behind that adjustment because sluggers are not necessarily getting paid. This winter’s free-agent market is glutted with hitters who racked up a lot of homers -- and strikeouts -- and some of them are struggling to land expected rewards, just as they did last winter. Five hitters who had 30 or more homers last season remain unsigned.

On-base percentage, on the other hand, will usually get you paid, even in slow markets. Carlos Santana has gotten the biggest contract this winter so far, $60 million over three years, because the Phillies value his high OBP. Santana’s 23 homers tied for 84th in the majors, but he posted an OBP of .363, 37th in baseball, and Philly bought in (Santana has had an on-base percentage of .350 or higher in each of his eight seasons). Zack Cozart improved his OBP from .308 in 2016 to .385 last season, and the Angels locked him up to a three-year deal for $38 million. By winter’s end, it figures that Cozart is going to be making a lot more money than peers who hit a lot more homers.

Executives from some teams who have had internal discussions on Mike Moustakas have talked about the pros to signing him: the solid defense, the experience, the power. Moustakas clubbed 38 homers last season, but some evaluators focus on a number that concerns them: Moustakas had a .314 on-base percentage.

As Springer worked on reducing his strikeouts, his on-base percentage climbed to .367, and he generated plenty of power as well, with 29 doubles and 34 home runs. In the top of the 11th inning of Game 2 of the World Series, Springer came to the plate, and as he explained after, he was just looking to make contact, to take the ball through the middle of the field -- as he had all season. He was shocked when his line drive to right-center field carried over the wall, a turning point in one of the best postseason series ever played. Springer’s speed and defense already separated him from a lot of his peers, but as his career progresses, his improving ability to reach base will make him even more coveted.

Here is our ranking of the top 10 center fielders, compiled with input from MLB evaluators and ESPN researchers Sarah Langs, Paul Hembekides and Mark Simon:

1. Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels

On the latest leg of his journey to Cooperstown, he reached a couple of milestones in his career last summer, collecting career hit No. 1,000 and career homer No. 200. He’s 26 years old.

Beyond his physical talents, Trout has always demonstrated a knack for using information, for cornering the opposing pitcher in the possible choices and capitalizing. For example, he has consistently improved his OPS through a sequence of plate appearances in the same game against starting pitchers. His career numbers:

First plate appearance against a starter: .929

Second: 1.017

Third: 1.020

Fourth-plus: 1.135

More evidence of this talent for adjustments is in his improving production as he gets ahead in the count and the pitcher’s options narrow. More often than not, opposing pitchers don’t even bother trying to dig themselves out, but sometimes they try -- and it often doesn’t go well.