Playing centerfield is a glamour position in Major League Baseball. When you think of the position, you think Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and all the other great players that have played there. It is a position that requires speed, range, instincts and a little bat would be good when thrown in. Teams don't generally look for a slugger for centerfield. Those are reserved for the corner outfield spot. When these "rules" came about on the kind of hitter a certain player position should be, who knows. But centerfield is rarely manned by a slugger. It's the speed guys like Kenny Lofton, Willie Wilson, Mickey Rivers and the like that play there. They lead off in the batting order and steal bases. But as Mantle and Mays proved, you could bop too and still play the position. Mr. Hamilton in Texas did that in 2010 too.
It may surprise you to know that according to Fangraphs, the top two guys in value over the last five years (playing center) are Carlos Beltran and Grady Sizemore. That those two are still on top after missing significant time to injuries in the past year or two, either speaks to how good they were/are, or it speaks to how few valuable centerfielders there are in the game. It may or may not surprise you that right behind those two players is Curtis Granderson followed by Alex Rios and Shane Victorino. In fact, this piece probably started out to figure out who was the better player, Granderson or Victorino. But that wouldn't be right without including Rios as he is right between them in value for the last five years.
Among the five players we've mentioned, Granderson and Beltran are tied for the most homers with 118. Sizemore has 104, Rios has 94 and Victorino has 60. And while power certainly helps, we need to look at the bigger picture when comparing the players. Taking Sizemore and Beltran out of the picture (though it is hoped that both return in a big way in 2011), let's take a deeper look into the three remaining centerfielders.
Let's start with defense. According to Fangraphs, Rios has the honors here. His defense is rated off the charts. It's weird, not having watched Rios play very often, you can't picture him as a great fielder. And for the first couple of years of this sample, he didn't even play center as he played with Vernon Wells in Toronto. Who would have thought that Rios would be the best fielding centerfielder of this era. Victorino comes in second behind him but the gulf is wider between Rios and Victorino than it is with Victorino and Granderson. The bottom line here is that all of our guys are great fielders who help their teams defensively as well as offensively.
When it comes to offense, it's closer than you think. Let's start with Weighted On Base Average or wOBA as it is called. Granderson comes out on top at .358 over the last five years. Victorino and Rios come in together in a dead heat at .347. Would you have guessed that? The Fan wouldn't have. Granderson walks more than the other two, but he also strikes out more. Victorino steals more bases, but not much more than Rios (another surprise), while Granderson lags behind them a bit.
Granderson had a good second half in 2010. He seems to have learned to hit lefties with Kevin Long as his coach. Victorino had a bad year in 2010. Rios had a great first half but faltered in the second. There are some good young centerfielders coming in the game like Austin Jackson and Andrew McCutchen. But for the last five years, Granderson comes out on top in the value race between he and Rios and Victorino. We'll see this year if Sizemore can get back to being one of the best in the business and it remains to be seen if Beltran has anything left in the tank or if he'll even play centerfield for the Mets in 2011.