SweetSpot: Richie Ashburn

Willie Mays MLB Photos/Getty ImagesDid Willie Mays headline the golden era of center fielders when he played for the New York Giants?
This is somewhat shocking to me: A center fielder hasn’t won an MVP Award since Ken Griffey Jr. in 1997. (Josh Hamilton played some there last season, but the majority of his games came in left field.)

Before that, it was Robin Yount in 1989.

Since Yount won his MVP Award, a first baseman has won 11 times – sure, three of those trophies belong to Albert Pujols, but Frank Thomas (twice), Jeff Bagwell, Mo Vaughn, Jason Giambi, Ryan Howard, Justin Morneau and Joey Votto have also won.

This hasn’t always been the case. Willie McGee won the NL MVP Award in 1985 with a terrific all-around season. Dale Murphy won back-to-back trophies in 1982 and 1983. Fred Lynn won in ’75 and if you go back further, you get all-timers like Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio.

Anyway, I always thought of center field as baseball’s glamour position -- the guys who get to making leaping grabs at the fence, steal bases and belt home runs. More than any other position, center fielders are expected to do everything. As Nick Loucks discovered, however, 2010 was the first season of the live-ball era that no center fielder hit .300. Searching through Baseball-Reference’s wondrous Play Index, I also discovered that 2010 was the first season since 1944 that no center fielder recorded a WAR of 5.0 or better.

Are we in a lull of great center fielders? Maybe so. We have a nice group of power/speed guys like Chris Young, Drew Stubbs and Andrew McCutchen, but none of them are MVP-caliber hitters right now. A decade ago we had guys like Griffey, Jim Edmonds, Carlos Beltran, Andruw Jones and Bernie Williams out there. Everybody knows about Willie, Mickey and the Duke patrolling center field in New York in the mid-‘50s. It made me curious: What was baseball’s golden age of center fielders?

Using B-R’s search functions, I checked every individual season back to 1901, looking for center fielders who posted a WAR of 5.0 or better. I also broke each decade into five-year increments (2006-2010, 2001-2005 and so on) and checked cumulative WAR for center fielders over those five-year periods.

I think we’re only talking about good center fielders here -- nobody cares who the 23rd best center fielder is right now. So I focused on the top one-third – the top 10 center fielders in this era (30 teams), but adjusted downward to the top six when there were only 16 teams.

Best single years:

[+] EnlargeDuke Snider
Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesDodgers center fielder Duke Snider had a .341 average with 40 home runs and 130 RBIs in 1954.
1954: Willie Mays (10.2 WAR), Mickey Mantle (7.8), Duke Snider (7.7), Richie Ashburn (6.2), Larry Doby (5.6). These guys all made the Hall of Fame, Mays won the NL MVP Award, Snider finished fourth in the voting. Doby finished second in the AL vote, and Mantle somehow finished 15th despite leading the AL with 129 runs and generally scorching the baseball. After those guys, you had the original Frank Thomas (23 home runs), Wally Moon (106 runs), Jackie Jensen (92 runs, 117 RBIs) and Gus Bell (104 runs, 101 RBIs). Not bad for a 16-team league.

1992: This was the final season before offense began jumping up. There were fewer runs per game in ’92 than any season between 1982 and 2010. The depth was extraordinary: Andy Van Slyke (6.9), Kirby Puckett (6.7), Kenny Lofton (5.7), Marquis Grissom (5.6), Ken Griffey Jr. (5.4), Devon White (5.3), Steve Finley (5.3), Ray Lankford (4.3), Brett Butler (4.3). And you had solid players like Lance Johnson, Mike Devereaux (107 RBIs), a young Juan Gonzalez (led the AL with 43 home runs) and an aging Yount.

1999: Andruw Jones (7.0), Brian Giles (6.7), Kenny Lofton (5.9), Carl Everett (5.9), Brady Anderson (5.4), Steve Finley (5.1), Bernie Williams (5.0), Ken Griffey Jr. (4.8), Chris Singleton (4.6), Carlos Beltran (4.4), Doug Glanville (3.9), Garret Anderson (2.7). Griffey led the AL with 48 home runs, knocked in 134 runs and scored 123 – and he rates as only the ninth-best center fielder that season (B-R gives him a very poor defensive rating). The list doesn’t even include Edmonds, who was injured that season.

OK, those are nice lists, but I think we’re looking more for an era, not a single season. One way to look at this was to simply average the five-year chunks of WAR for our groups of center fielders.

Under this method, it does show 2006-10 as the weakest era for center fielders since Joe DiMaggio headlined a nondescript group from 1936-40 (we didn’t count the 1941-45 war period). Carlos Beltran (26.3) had the best WAR over this period, followed by Grady Sizemore (20.5), Curtis Granderson (20.3), Torii Hunter (15.6) and Mike Cameron (14.6). A nice group of all-around players, but no future Hall of Famers.

OK, using WAR as the baseline, looking at things like MVP votes and making a few personal judgments as I desired, here are my top golden eras for center fielders:

5. 1986-1990

Top five: Kirby Puckett, Eric Davis, Andy Van Slyke, Lenny Dykstra, Brett Butler.
Next five: Robin Yount, Dave Henderson, Ellis Burks, Devon White, Gary Pettis/Willie McGee.

Great depth as the top six all accumulated 20-plus WAR. Lacks a signature superstar, but what gloves you had out there: Van Slyke, White and Pettis were all supreme flychasers.

4. 1916-1920

Top five: Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Edd Roush, Happy Felsch, Benny Kauff
Next five: Max Carey, Cy Williams, Hi Myers, Clyde Milan, Amos Strunk

You have two of the greatest center fielders of all time each compiling over 7.0 WAR per season, two other Hall of Famers (Roush and Carey) and a slew of other good players.

3. 1966-1970

Top five: Jimmy Wynn, Willie Mays, Paul Blair, Tommie Agee, Reggie Smith

Next five: Willie Davis, Matty Alou, Rick Monday, Curt Flood, Adolfo Phillips

Mays was starting to age but still racked up 28.0 WAR, just behind Wynn’s 28.3. There are those who will argue that Blair is the greatest gloveman ever in center. Smith later moved to right field, but he came up with the Red Sox as a power-hitting center fielder. Alou hit .327 over the five years.

2. 1996-2000

Top five: Ken Griffey Jr., Bernie Williams, Andruw Jones, Kenny Lofton, Ray Lankford
Next five: Jim Edmonds, Brady Anderson, Steve Finley, Mike Cameron, Lance Johnson

The top six all accumulated over 20 WAR. Griffey hit 249 home runs, Williams hit .324, Jones covered ungodly amounts of ground, Lofton brought speed and on-base skills and Lankford was one of the most underrated players of his era.

1. 1956-1960

Top five: Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Richie Ashburn, Duke Snider, Jim Landis.
Next five: Jim Piersall, Bill Bruton, Bill Virdon, Vada Pinson, Larry Doby.

I guess the song has it right. This era rates a little better than the 1951-55 period due to more overall depth. Doby and Snider had their best five-year stretch in 1951-55, but Mantle and Mays were dominating their leagues. Ashburn was a leadoff guy who rivaled Mays for defensive excellence and guys like Landis, Piersall and Bruton, while forgotten today by all but the most dedicated seamheads, were excellent players. And remember -- this came in a 16-team league.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter at @dschoenfield. Follow the SweetSpot blog at @espn_sweet_spot.

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