Look Away Willie Mays—There’s a Crisis at Center Field

Center field is the worst position in baseball in a bevy of categories right now, a far cry from the days of Mays. 
Neil Leifer/Sports illustrated

As Willie Mays turns 93 years old Monday, the position he redefined with his combination of speed, power and elan has lost its glamor. Center field is the worst position on the field this season and populated with one of the worst collections of hitters the position has ever seen.

Center fielders entered play Monday hitting .224 with a .292 on-base percentage and .648 OPS, all of which would easily be the worst rates at the position. With the way modern hitters sacrifice batting average for power, you might excuse the ineptness if there was some serious slugging. Nope. Center fielders this season are slugging .357, well below the nadir of .370 in 1989 since the mound was lowered in ’69.

How bad is the center field crisis? This bad:

  • Nine teams are hitting less than .200 out of center field.
  • The .648 OPS from center field is the worst of any position, 19 points lower than the next worst, second base. Center fielders also have the worst batting average, worst OBP, worst slugging, fewest hits and fewest total bases among all positions.
  • Seven teams have one or no home runs by their center fielders.
  • St. Louis Cardinals center fielders are hitting .132 with no home runs and three RBI. The Pittsburgh Pirates and Boston Red Sox also have no homers from center field.
  • Los Angeles Angels center fielders have yet to hit a double.
  • It’s not just a bad month. Since the mound was lowered in 1969, the seven worst batting averages for center fielders all have occurred in the past seven seasons (2018 to ’24).
  • Even the arms are worse in center field. Average arm strength has dropped from 90 mph in 2022 to 89.4 in ’23 to 89.2 this year.

What in the names of John Fogerty and Terry Cashman is going on here?

Mike Trout, Byron Buxton, Clay Bellinger and Luis Robert Jr. are hurt.

Aaron Judge, Julio Rodríguez, Corbin Carroll, Jazz Chisholm Jr. and Cedric Mullins are having slow starts.

 New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge (99) awaits a pitch against the Orioles.
Judge, who has had an uncharacteristically slow start this season, was given his first career ejection against the Tigers on Saturday. / Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

A bevy of young center fielders are having a hard time hitting their weight, or at least .230, such as Tyler Freeman, Parker Meadows, James Outman, Ceddanne Rafaela, Kyle Isbel, Dominic Fletcher, Jose Siri, Johan Rojas, Michael Siani, Victor Scott II, Stuart Fairchild and Will Benson.

What is so strange is that the amazing athleticism and offensive profile we see from a new generation of shortstops—Elly De La Cruz, Bobby Witt Jr., Gunnar Henderson and CJ Abrams—isn’t showing up in center field.

It was Mays, who debuted with the 1948 Birmingham Black Barons and in the National League with the ’51 New York Giants, who popularized center field as a glamor position of power and speed. His two home parks, Rickwood Field and the Polo Grounds, had enormous outfields that allowed him to showcase his range.

Mays changed the game. In 1955 he became the first player to hit 50 homers while stealing 20 bases. He led the league in stolen bases each of the next four seasons, pulling the game away from its station-to-station conservatism. Until Mays, baseball had seen only one 30–30 player, Ken Williams of the St. Louis Browns back in ’22. Then Mays did it in back-to-back years, ’56 and ’57.

Mays hit .300 with 30 home runs eight times, a record for center fielders, followed by Mickey Mantle (7), Ken Griffey Jr. (5), Duke Snider (4) and Trout (3). Only three center fielders in the past six years have done it even once: Judge (2022), Ketel Marte (’19) and Trout (’18).

Comparing anybody to Mays is folly. As the journalist Murray Kempton wrote, Mays was as original as Faulkner or the Delta Blues. The actress Tallulah Bankhead, a fellow Alabaman, supposedly said the world had two true geniuses: Shakespeare and Mays.

Willie Mays in action, at bat vs Los Angeles Dodgers. View of Dodger Stadium in 1962.
There will likely never be a center fielder quite like Mays, who hit .300 with 30 home runs eight times. / Neil Leifer/Sports Illustrated

Leo Durocher, Mays’ first manager with the Giants, once wrote that “If somebody came up and hit .450, stole 100 bases and performed a miracle in the field every day, I’d still look you right in the eye and tell you that Willie was better.”

Durocher said Mays was the ultimate five-tool superstar.

“And,” he added, “he had the other magic ingredient that turns a superstar into a super-superstar: charisma.”

Mays remains the pinnacle of what a center fielder should be. There is no one like him before or since. Forget finding a center fielder who hits .300 with 30 home runs these days. Can we at least get a center fielder who hits .280 with 20 home runs? Sadly, the answer last year was no (for the first time in 47 years) and it might be too much to ask again this year.

Tom Verducci


Tom Verducci covers Major League Baseball and brings Sports Illustrated 41 seasons of experience. Tom is a five-time Emmy Award winner, two-time National Magazine Award finalist, two-time New York Times bestselling author and a member of the National Sports Media Association Hall of Fame. He was the first baseball writer to be named National Sportswriter of the Year for three consecutive years and the only to call the World Series as an analyst. He appears on MLB Network and Fox. He holds a degree from Penn State and lives in New Jersey with his wife. They have two sons.