There is no more fun position in the game than center field. It is baseball’s equivalent of an ultra-amazing wide receiver, an eye-popping wing in basketball or a puck-handling magician at center in hockey. The position is home to some of the most iconic players in MLB history, such as Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Ty Cobb and the Hall of Fame’s newest superstar, Ken Griffey Jr.
As a result, it is a position that carries quite an impressive standard for its current inhabitants. And luckily enough for today’s viewers, it is home to the most diverse collection of talents in the game today. There are two former MVPs at spot who can also be argued as being two of the top three players in the game overall. There is also a collection of power hitting, mileage covering, run scoring, Gold Glove collecting talents that are nucleus of each of their teams. And such is the depth at the position that this description is apt for those that even just missed the list.
As a result, ranking out the top center fielders in any year is a task that is based in a certain level of guaranteed error. So many crucial talents are bound to double back on each other in some way, shape or form. On any given day, a match-up between any pair of players on this list could see them change the game with the glove in the top of an inning, while then following it up in the same fashion with the bat in the bottom of the same frame.
But regardless of that, it is time to get into the task of separating and splitting hairs for the top 10 players in the heart of the outfield, today.
10. Jacoby Ellsbury, Yankees (#6 in ’15)
2015: .257/.318/.345 7 HR, 53 RBI, 15 doubles, 66 runs scored, 21 stolen bases, .663 OPS
Last 3 Years: .277/.335/.401 11 HR, 52 RBI, 24 doubles, 76 runs scored, 37 stolen bases, .736 OPS
It is completely fair to say that Ellsbury has not lived up to the standards of the $153 million deal that he inked before the 2014 season. However, it is also not completely accurate to say that he has been a total bust either. In reality, Ellsbury has settled into a more of a groove of the type of player he truly is: a solid on-base speed threat, whom can make a strong defensive effort while being a traditional top of the line up bat.
As has been his constant story in his career, injuries limited his playing time and effectiveness a year ago. A right knee sprain took curbed him mid-May, after he worked to a .324 average over the first two months of the year. After missing all of June and returning in July, he hit below .230 for the rest of the year. Despite this, his quick start still saw him top 20 stolen bases and work 24 extra base hits. With an offseason of healing time behind him, Ellsbury could continue at the pace that he opened the year at.
9. Carlos Gomez, Astros (#4 in ’15)
2015: .255/.314/.409 12 HR, 56 RBI, 29 doubles, 61 runs scored, 17 stolen bases, .724 OPS
Last 3 Years: .276/.338/.468 20 HR, 67 RBI, 30 doubles, 79 runs scored, 30 stolen bases, .806 OPS
This is a rather steep dip for Gomez, who before last season had back-to-back All-Star appearances for the Brewers and had established himself as one of the major all-around threats in the game. However, this is also not what could be called a legit decline for the 30-year-old now Astro. A rash of injuries zapped his power and speed, while limiting him to 115 games. While always a free swinger, his numbers were hampered by a lowered contact rate even by his standards, but regardless of that his skill set remains intact.
Gomez looks primed for a rebound if his health is faithful to him this year. He translates well into the Astro lineup and 81 games at Minute Maid Park look awfully good for him as well. His 12 home run dip was more than half of what he had been good for from 2013-14, and his average declined nearly 30 points. As a result, Gomez is primed to be one of the big bounce back candidates in the game this year.
8. Adam Eaton, White Sox (NR in ’15)
2015: .287/.361/.431 14 HR, 56 RBI, 28 doubles, 98 runs scored, 18 stolen bases, .792 OPS
Last 3 Years: .285/.353/.407 6 HR, 38 RBI, 21 doubles, 71 runs scored, 13 stolen bases, .760 OPS
Not enough people know how good Eaton is becoming, and that’s not quite fair. While he showed steady improvement over his first few seasons, Eaton made the big jump last year into affirming himself as one of the game’s better leadoff hitters. He had a major uptick in power last year, hitting 9 more home runs in 2015 alone than he had in his three previous years between Arizona and Chicago.
Otherwise, he showed the ability to either maintain and/or improve everywhere else in his offensive repertoire. He matched his .360+ on-base percentage for the second straight year, while also nearing double digits in triples (19 since 2014) and increasing his hits, doubles, stolen bases and runs scored (from 76 to 98).
7. Charlie Blackmon, Rockies (NR in ’15)
2015: .287/.347/.450 17 HR, 58 RBI, 31 doubles, 93 runs scored, 43 stolen bases, .797 OPS
Last 3 Years: .291/.340/.449 14 HR, 51 RBI, 25 doubles, 70 runs scored, 26 stolen bases, .780 OPS
Blackmon proved that his full-time breakout of 2015 was no fluke. While he carried some prototypical home/away splits that are evident for many Rockies bats (.331 home average vs. .238 road, 890 home OPS vs. .695 road), an impact is an impact and Blackmon made plenty of those a year ago.
The 29-year-old had career-highs in OPS (.797), hits (176), runs scored (93), doubles (31), triples (9) and stolen bases (43), the latter of which was good for the second most in the National League. Blackmon also contributed nine outfield assists, while working to a respectable 2.35 zone rating in the field.
6. Kevin Kiermaier, Rays (NR in ’15)
2015: .263/.298/.420 10 HR, 40 RBI, 25 doubles, 62 runs scored, 18 stolen bases, .718 OPS
Last 2 Years: .263/.305/.432 10 HR, 38 RBI, 20 doubles, 48 runs scored, 12 stolen bases, .737 OPS
In many ways, he is becoming the Andrelton Simmons of the outfield; a true game changer on nearly everything hit into grass beyond the infield. No Major League defender changed the outcome of more games with his defensive exploits last year than Kiermaier. His 5 defensive Wins Above Replacement outpaced every other MLB by more than 3 wins, while he also had more center field assists (15) and covered the largest range factor (3.26) as well. His 42 defensive runs saved were the most in the game, and he appropriately won both the Gold and Platinum Glove Awards.
While he is still developing as a hitter, the tools that make him such a dynamic outfielder also carried over to the plate as well. Kiermaier hit double digits in doubles (25), triples (12) and home runs (10), in addition to swiping 18 bases as well.
5. Adam Jones, Orioles (#3 in ’15)
2015: .269/.308/.474 27 HR, 82 RBI, 25 doubles, 74 runs scored, 3 stolen bases, .782 OPS
Last 3 Years: .279/.313/.479 30 HR, 95 RBI, 30 doubles, 87 runs scored, 8 stolen bases, .792 OPS
Jones’ has comfortably settled into become the top power hitting center fielder in the game, outside of the guy in Anaheim. 2015 marked the fifth year in a row that he has topped 25 home runs, and he had a chance at making it his third year north of 30. However, his remarkable streak of durability –he had played in at least 150 games for four straight years— was clipped due to a string of nagging injuries.
This led to five-year lows across the board for AJ 10, however even in a down year, Jones put up impressive overall numbers, making his fourth consecutive All-Star Game in the process. He is still an above-average defender and is just a year removed from winning three consecutive Gold Gloves. And while he is no longer a threat in the stolen base department (10 steals in 12 chances since 2014), he is a smart base runner that can still stretch the right hit for a tough extra base.
4. Lorenzo Cain, Royals (#7 in ’15)
2015: .307/.361/.477 16 HR, 72 RBI, 34 doubles, 101 runs scored, 28 stolen bases, .838 OPS
Last 3 Years: .289/.339/.419 8 HR, 57 RBI, 28 doubles, 70 runs scored, 23 stolen bases, .759 OPS
While he had long been most wide-ranging, dynamic center fielder in the American League, Cain made as unexpected of a jump into the overall impact class as any player in the game last season. He had a substantial uptick in power in 2015, which saw his OPS rise by 80 points and reach career highs in home runs, doubles, triples, hits and batting average as well. He fueled the Royals offensive attack by driving in 72 runs, while scoring an additional 101.
His 28 stolen bases remained steady from where his 2014 total was and was good enough for the second best total in the American League. Overall, he contributed an impressive 20.4 Power-Speed figure, which measures a combination of home runs x stolen bases, divided by stolen bases + home runs, and was good for third in the AL. Overall, he contributed a strong 7.2 overall WAR figure, good for fourth in the American League and solidified his third place finish in AL MVP voting.
3. A.J. Pollock, Diamondbacks (NR in ’15)
2015: .315/.367/.498 20 HR, 76 RBI, 39 doubles, 111 runs scored, 39 stolen bases, .865 OPS
Last 3 Years: .297/.349/.468 12 HR, 46 RBI, 29 doubles, 72 runs scored, 22 stolen bases, .817 OPS
Oh what a difference a full year makes. Staying both healthy and having a full time position were two elusive elements for Pollock throughout the first few years of his career. He gave a great sample sized look at his potential in 2014, but a broken right hand ended his season just as it was taking off after 75 games of posting a .302/.353/.498 split line.
It was a brief, yet clear indicator of what Pollock was capable of, but the question remained whether he could keep up that pace over a full year. And that is a question that no longer exists, as Pollock put on one of the best all-around assaults on the game a year ago. He became a five-tool star, finishing fifth in total bases with 303, which came on the heels of placing in the National League top 10 in doubles (4th), triples (8th), stolen bases (4th) and runs scored (2nd). Add in his (very legit) Gold Glove campaign as well, built on the back of having the top Total Zone runs saved number in the NL (20), and this is a proven quantity as one of the most well-rounded talents in the game.
2. Andrew McCutchen, Pirates (#2 in ’15)
2015: .292/.401/.488 23 HR, 96 RBI, 36 doubles, 91 runs scored, 11 stolen bases, .889 OPS
Last 3 Years: .308/.405/.512 23 HR, 88 RBI, 37 doubles, 92 runs scored, 19 stolen bases, .917 OPS
One of the game’s truly elite talents, McCutchen continued his role as one of the game’s most pivotal players in 2015, and as a result, kept the Pittsburgh Pirates among the elite teams in the game. Cutch continued to put on display his plethora of baseball talents, besting a .290 average, 20 home runs, 80 RBI, 35 doubles, 85 runs scored and a .400 on-base percentage for the third straight year. And while his totals dipped some from previous years due to an injury-plagued start, his 2015 was still worthy of a top 5 MVP finish, a fourth straight Silver Slugger and a fifth consecutive All-Star Game. This was due in part the fact he hit .330, .337 and .348 in May, June and August, respectively.
Thus is the life of a perennial MVP candidate, as the 2013 winner of the NL’s top player prize has not left the top 5 in voting since 2012. This is as much of a result of his all-around excellence as it is the fact that it has fueled the Pirates to a regular spot in the postseason picture. Since McCutchen made his All-Star debut in 2011, the Pirates’ annual win total has risen steadily, with last year’s 98-win effort being the most for the Bucs since 1991.
1. Mike Trout, Angels (#1 in ’15)
2015: .299/.402/.590 41 HR, 90 RBI, 32 doubles, 104 runs scored, 11 stolen bases, .991 OPS
Last 3 Years: .303/.404/.569 35 HR, 99 RBI, 37 doubles, 109 runs scored, 20 stolen bases, .973 OPS
What else can be said about Trout at this point? It is a moot point to state that he’s the best player in the game, because it goes without saying. At the age of 24, the conversation about how good he can be is done, rather it is about just how legendary he can become. He continued to push his own boundaries again last season, setting career highs in home runs and OPS last season, while also remaining in the AL top 10 in batting average, runs scored and leading the circuit in slugging percentage as well.
While many make light of the fact that his stolen base total declined down to 11 last year, it is far from a loss of a skill set. Rather, it just shows the unavoidable evolution of his game from an ultra-catalyst at the top of the order and into a multi-skilled middle of the lineup bat. Because while his stolen base total dropped, so did his strikeout rate, while his walk rate climbed. Simply put, he is getting better overall because for as much raw talent as he possesses, he is gaining maturity & discipline to go along with it, which is truly a frightening thought. Thus far in his career, Trout is yet to finish any lower than second in an MVP race and he has essentially become the measuring mark for whether another player is worthy of the award instead of him. Because that is what the best player in the game should do annually, and he has yet to fail to live up to his role.
Just A Bit Outside: Kevin Pillar, Blue Jays; Denard Span, Giants; Dexter Fowler, Cubs; Randal Grichuk, Cardinals.