The centerfield renaissance
Elsewhere on SI.com today, Joe Lemire wrote about the current clutch of productive centerfielders, and suggested that the position is enjoying a banner era. Indeed, several advanced metrics bear that out.
Looking at the Wins Above Replacement Player leaderboard at Baseball Prospectus, five of the top 13 WARP totals for this season belong to players patrolling the middle pasture, including Andrew McCutchen (4.9) and Mike Trout (4.6, despite not debuting until April 28), who rank first and second, respectively. Austin Jackson (3.3) is 11th despite missing three weeks with an abdominal strain, Adam Jones (3.2) is 13th and Josh Hamilton is 15th at 3.1, though one can quibble with his classification, as he has more starts in center (39) than left (36), but more innings at the latter. Furthermore, of the 44 players with at least 2.0 WARP thus far this year, 10 are classified as centerfielders (including Hamilton), the most of any position:
For the purposes of comparison, last year's distribution among the top 44 hitters (a cutoff of 3.1 WARP) found centerfielders tied for second with rightfielders, at seven apiece; shortstops led the pack with eight. The upper reaches of the leaderboard weren't quite as top-heavy; Matt Kemp (8.3) and Jacoby Ellsbury (7.5) ranked second and third overall, with Shane Victorino (5.4, 13th), Curtis Granderson (4.6, 19th) and Andrew McCutchen (4.5, 20th) making the cut. Considering the injuries that have wiped out much of Kemp's season and nearly all of Ellsbury's, this year's cluster atop the leaderboard is even more impressive.
Lower this year's cutoff a bit and the distribution still favors centerfielders; among the top 67 players for 2012 (a cutoff of 1.6 WARP), 13 are centerfielders, 10 are rightfielders and nine are leftfielders. There's really not much of difference between 2.0 and 1.6 WARP, particularly considering the inexactitude of defensive measurement over small sample sizes. In its raw form BP's fielding metric, Fielding Runs Above Average, has a margin for error component built in, but by the time it's expressed as a single number on their stat reports, that number has been regressed based upon the amount of playing time. Given that, the points to the right of the decimal suggest a bit more precision than actually exists, a statement that basically holds true for any single-number value metric, no matter how much fun they are to throw around. Enlarging the sample to include last year as well, six of the top 20 players are centerfielders, as are an MLB-high 15 of the top 61, a cutoff set at 4.0 WARP and chosen to approximate two hitters per team but including ties.
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Hamilton (6.6) ranks 18th, but has far less time in center than left once the two-year sample is taken into account, so he's not included above. On the other hand, Melky Cabrera, whose 143 starts in center last year are more than he has in left (80) or right (12) over the two-year stretch, is included.
The high concentration of centerfielders on the leaderboard isn't entirely a single-metric fluke. Using Baseball-Reference's version of WAR and including last year, Ellsbury (8.0) ranks second, Kemp (7.8) ranks fourth, Granderson, Victronio and McCutchen (5.1) are tied for 19th and Trout (5.0) ranks 22nd. Similarly, 13 of the top 61 are centerfielders, including Cabrera but not Hamilton. Either way, it does seem clear that the position is enjoying something of a renaissance. As Lemire notes, it's quite possible that both McCutchen (.371/.423/.651) and Trout (.349/.403/.574) could win batting titles and MVP awards, with Trout and Harper (.273/.345/.454) taking Rookie of the Year honors. McCutchen (.368) and Trout (.364) both lead their respective leagues in True Average (runs per plate appearance, expressed on a batting average scale after adjusting for park and league scoring environments) as well. Even with Kemp, Ellsbury, Trout and Harper relatively limited in terms of playing time, centerfielders as a group have compiled a collective .271 True Average, which isn't far behind rightfielders (.277), designated hitters (.275), leftfielders (.274) and first basemen (.274) — a surprisingly strong showing given that aside from shortstop and catcher, it's the most defensive-minded position. That .271 mark is up from .267 last year, which beat leftfielders (.263) for the first time since 1966; from 1955-1966, it happened four times, with centerfield offense bolstered by the likes of Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and (for the first part of that stretch) Duke Snider. History suggests it will be tough for centerfielders to maintain their current clip; the last time they were above .271 was 1990 (.273), a far cry from the 1950-1976 stretch, when they were at or above .270 every year. Still, the returns of Kemp and Ellsbury should keep them flying high this year.