Centerfield takes center stage as game's glamour position
Think about the most exciting offensive players that defined the first half of the 2012 season, and you'd likely have the names Josh Hamilton, Matt Kemp, Andrew McCutchen, Mike Trout and Bryce Harper at or near the very top of your list.
Each is a true five-tool player. Each has been a fixture in the highlight reels. And each has played a lot of centerfield.
We're not in the territory of Willie, Mickey and the Duke, when Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider all concurrently roamed New York City's centerfields in the mid-1950s, but the game may be witnessing the dawn of another banner era in centerfield play across the majors, with the majority of the talent young and still maturing into its peak.
By one measure, centerfielders are accounting for the largest share of offensive production in 20 years and could be most of the major year-end award winners and statistical leaders.
Hamilton, Kemp, McCutchen, Trout and Harper -- who are 31, 27, 25, 20 and 19 years old, respectively -- are also only the start of the list. Consider the seasons of their fellow All-Stars: the Orioles' Adam Jones, 26; the Braves' Michael Bourn, 29; and the Yankees' Curtis Granderson, 31. Three more All-Star outfielders (the Cardinals' Carlos Beltran, 35; the Giants' Melky Cabrera, 27; and the Rockies' Carlos Gonzalez, 26) previously played centerfield extensively.
(It warrants mentioning that Hamilton and Harper have split their time defensively this season, though both have started more games in center than anywhere else. The Rangers' Hamilton, who has been a centerfielder for most of his career, has started 39 games in center and 36 in left; similarly, though Harper's long-term home is rightfield, he has made 35 of his 65 starts in centerfield, including in 22 of the Nationals' last 25 games.)
There are also, among others, the Tigers' Austin Jackson (.323 average, 154 OPS+), the Rockies' Dexter Fowler (MLB-best 9 triples, 133 OPS+), the Blue Jays' Colby Rasmus (17 HRs, 111 OPS+) and the Giants' Angel Pagan (16 SBs, 111 OPS+); and there are those who have had incomplete seasons: the Athletics' Yoenis Cespedes (11 HRs, 130 OPS+) or the Cardinals' Jon Jay (.296 average, 104 OPS+) -- both of whom had strong starts interrupted by injuries -- or the Red Sox' Jacoby Ellsbury, last year's AL MVP runner-up who made his return last weekend after a three-month absence.
Consider this: It is entirely possible that both MVPs (Hamilton or Trout in the AL; McCutchen in the NL), both Rookies of the Year (Trout in the AL; Harper in the NL), both batting champs (Trout or Jackson in the AL; McCutchen or Kemp in the NL) and both stolen base leaders (Trout in the AL; Bourn in the NL) will be centerfielders, not to mention the AL's home run king (Hamilton or Granderson).
As a whole, the offensive production of major league centerfielders is on the rise for the third straight year and is at its highest, relative to league-wide numbers, since 1992, when the position's OPS+ was 108.
OPS+ adjusts standard OPS (on-base plus slugging) for league and ballpark, so that 100 is average; any deviation is the percentage difference, so that a 107 is seven percent better. It's an important distinction that OPS+ is a relative stat. One can see that the raw OPS number in 2012 is down 11 points from six years ago, but league-wide offensive production at all positions is down
So why has there been this bump in centerfield play now?
"I really don't know," Hamilton said. "That's a good question. When you find out the answer, get back to me."
There's no single, prevailing reason for the influx of centerfield talent, a phenomenon that may owe mostly to the cyclical nature of the sport, but it's not unreasonable to think centerfielders may dominate the better part of this decade, not unlike the second basemen of the early 1990s (Roberto Alomar Jr., Craig Biggio, Chuck Knoblauch and, a little later, Jeff Kent), the shortstops of the late '90s (Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra and Miguel Tejada) or the first basemen of the 2000s (Albert Pujols, Mark Teixeira, Prince Fielder, Joey Votto, Adrian Gonzalez, et al.).
It's possible that this is trend is merely statistical continuity, that inherently every position will have a peak and a valley as the talent fluctuates up and down.
"It's a cyclical game," Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto said. "Most of the five-tool players that you have ever seen play baseball either play shortstop or centerfield."
The rise of centerfield is perhaps another sign of the game's fading emphasis on power and, consequently, its reborn emphasis on all-around play. Middle-of-the-diamond players are increasingly in demand.
"Athleticism is probably more at a premium in today's game than it has been in a while," one scouting director said. "Guys can really thrive in [centerfield] based on just pure athleticism."
The physical demands of playing centerfield means it has a higher attrition rate than most positions. Of the 21 centerfielders who have enough at bats to qualify for the batting title this season, 14 of them have an OPS of 101 or better, and the average age of that subset is 26.1. Only Hamilton and Granderson are older than 30; both are 31.
Angels rightfielder Torii Hunter, who turns 37 on Wednesday, won nine Gold Gloves and made four All-Star teams as a centerfielder before moving to right in late 2010, stepping aside first for Peter Bourjos and now for Trout.
"The game is changing to get more athletes in the game -- five-tool players, four-tool players, whatever it may be," Hunter said. "That's what I see. I see a lot more talent.
"I definitely see the game changing from 10 years ago. Ten years ago, it was about hitting homers and hitting bombs. People kind of looked away or turned their cheek to five-tool players. He hits bombs, but he can't run, he can't steal, he can't do anything else. Five-tool players are special. That's why they're so expensive."
Hunter said that last part with a chuckle, but he's exactly right. Just in the last few months, McCutchen and Jones received long-term extensions worth a combined $137 million. Kemp got $160 million last year. Hamilton and Bourn will both hit free agency this winter.
The centerfield peer group has noted the growth in the number of well-rounded players to its position.
"I think everybody's just become more athletic," Granderson said. "The fact that you can run doesn't necessarily mean that you have to play center. The fact that you can hit for power doesn't mean you have to play in the corners. The molded outfielder has morphed into that. You can do both.
"You see guys like Andrew McCutchen in the Home Run Derby. You wouldn't have seen that a few years ago. He's got power, he knows his swing but when he's in the game he's going to have a chance to make some exciting plays in centerfield."
Added Kemp, "Centerfielders are usually great athletes. They play elite positions and can do some amazing things. Most centerfielders have played other sports, like basketball or football, and are pretty powerful."
It was noted earlier that centerfielders are at their best since 1992, which may not be coincidental. Scoring was lower in '92 than in any of the past 30 years. The seasons of 2010, '11 and '12, which coincide with an uptick in centerfield play, have been touted as a pitching renaissance and have produced the lowest run totals since the aforementioned 1992. There are fewer sluggers with huge home run numbers with whom centerfielders compete for All-Star spots.
The influence of popular stars is impossible to track, but it doesn't hurt that today's young centerfielders first became baseball fans during Ken Griffey Jr.'s prime. Jones and Granderson were two of the centerfielders who said Griffey was influential.
"He played the game with flair and flash but he was legit," said Jones, who now endorses Griffey's Nike Swingman line and said he consults with him for advice. Added Granderson, "A lot of us modeled our game after him."
So whatever the reason for this recent trend of up-and-coming centerfielders, it's making an impact on the 2012 season.
"You've got a lot of great players coming up," says Bourn. "Kemp is not real, real young, but he is probably the most dynamic player in our game. You've got McCutchen. You've got Bryce Harper. You've got Mike Trout. You've got some players who can play this game, and it's only going to get better.
"McCutchen and Kemp, they can do it all. And Trout just as well. I like players like that. Players that can do it all. They can affect the game in different areas. It's not just with their power and their speed, defense, throwing -- whatever it is, they can affect the game in so many different areas. So many people don't realize, but I know, from watching. I play the same game they play."
Keep an eye out these next few years, as centerfielders will remain the center of attention.