Will Leitch took an in-depth look at the game in 2019 with a series exploring Major League Baseball's Data Decade. From the best World Series, to the best starting pitchers and more, Leitch ranked, dissected and celebrated all the things we loved most about the Great American Pastime during the past 10 years.
Center field is the John Fogerty song, the glamour position, the one that’s so important that if you can play it well, it almost doesn’t matter how well you do anything else. But if you can hit as well as play a brilliant center field, you’re the most vital player on the field. You’re a superstar. Catcher is often considered the quarterback position, or maybe pitcher. But when it comes to glamour, there’s nothing in baseball like a center fielder.
So we look at the 10 best center fielders of this decade. For the sake of clarity, we looked at players who played at least 30 percent of their games in center field over the decade, according to Baseball-Reference’s Play Index. But occasionally, with outfield being as fluid as it is, we had to sneak under that number to make sure everyone was appropriately included in all spots.
The advantage center field has? It has that guy at No. 1.
Here are the best this decade.
1. Mike Trout (LAA 2011-19)
On July 8, 2011, a month before his 20th birthday, Trout made his Major League debut. He flied out against the immortal Blake Beavan. Baseball has not been the same since. Trout has essentially been the best player in baseball ever since he arrived. He has already passed 14 Hall of Famers in career WAR this season, including Ernie Banks last week. Trout is better at baseball than anybody you know is at anything. And he’s still only 27. Trout will be on this list for the '20s. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him there in the '30s, too.
2. Andrew McCutchen (PIT 2010-17, SFG 2018, NYY 2018, PHI 2019)
McCutchen didn’t end up with the statue outside PNC Park the way you once thought he might, but from 2012-15, he was otherworldly, and he’s been pretty darned excellent since then, as well. He has now transformed himself into a leadoff man in Philadelphia, and it has resulted in the highest walk rate of his career. McCutchen is also everything you could want as a teammate, a manager or a fan. Also, the guy proposed on "Ellen," for crying out loud.
3. Adam Jones (BAL 2010-18, ARI 2019)
What was it we were saying about center fielders being natural leaders? Jones is one of the most universally beloved players in baseball, both on and off the field, and he was the centerpiece of some fantastic Orioles teams that always played a little better than you thought they would on paper. Jones was a big reason for that, and he’s keeping it going in Arizona, putting together what would be the second-highest OPS of his career so far for a team that, in a scenario that sounds familiar for him, is better than anyone thought it would be.
4. Lorenzo Cain (MIL 2010, 2018-19, KC 2011-17)
Cain has always been underappreciated, though not by the analytic community, which considered him an NL MVP Award candidate for most of 2018. One thing is certainly true: Both the Royals and the Brewers have had their best seasons when Cain was an All-Star for those teams, both in '15 (when the Royals won the World Series) and '18 (when the Brewers missed the Fall Classic by one game). His defensive skills are well-documented -- still, at 33 -- but his power-speed combination is difficult to find anywhere, let alone in center field.
5. Curtis Granderson (NYY 2010-13, NYM 2014-17, LAD 2017, TOR 2018, MIL 2018, MIA 2019)
Granderson was already 29 when the decade started, which speaks not just to his longevity but his productivity. His best season was probably 2011, when he led the American League in runs and RBIs, though he’d receive NL MVP Award votes four years later with the Mets. He’s off to a slow start with Miami this year, but he still feels like exactly the guy you trade for if you’re a contending team come July. Hopefully somebody does, as Granderson’s teams have reached three World Series, although he has never won one.
6. Starling Marte (PIT 2012-19)
Marte led all center fielders in stolen bases this decade, but stealing bases has never been all Marte can do. A true five-tool player, Marte has won multiple Gold Glove Awards and been the linchpin of many Pirates teams that are always a little more competitive than outside observers might have suspected. He’ll always be haunted by that PED suspension in 2017, but he, unlike some others following their suspensions, has bounced back to be the player he was before the positive test.
7. George Springer (HOU 2014-19)
Springer only played half this decade, but what a half-decade it has been. He has been a perpetual stud for the Astros, overshadowed only by the studs on the roster with him. Springer was the best player on the team this season before his injury, and unlike everyone else on this list, he can say he has a World Series MVP Award under his belt.
8. Dexter Fowler (COL 2010-13, HOU 2014, CHC 2015-16, STL 2017-19)
Fowler was only a Cub for two of this decade’s years … but it sure feels like he was there longer than that, doesn’t it? He’ll be revered forever as a smiling centerpiece of the Cubs’ 2016 World Series team -- remember, he almost signed with Baltimore the previous offseason -- and his homer in Game 7 of that Fall Classic set the tone for all the madness that would come afterward. That was the only year he made an All-Star team, but ask his teammates if they consider Fowler an All-Star.
9. Kevin Kiermaier (TBR 2013-19)
Kiermaier is a player that always is underappreciated by those who only look at the counting stats but revered by the analytical folks, particularly those who specialize in defense. He has been an unreal defensive center fielder since arriving in the Majors, and even if his bat never quite caught up to his glove, he’s still the guy you want out there every game. It’s a shame injuries haven’t allowed Kiermaier to do that. But look at this year: When the Rays are good, he’s out there.
10. Jacoby Ellsbury (BOS 2010-13, NYY 2014-19)
If you ignore the injuries and the cumbersome and seemingly endless contract with the Yankees -- and neither of those are easy to do -- you can remember just how terrific Ellsbury was in his prime. His 2011 season, in which he finished second in AL MVP Award voting, he led the Majors in total bases and put up a 30-30 season and was a terrific defensive center fielder. Ellsbury was never the same player for New York, but he wasn’t awful either, until the injuries got the best of him. It’s a shame what could have been, but what we had was rather outstanding, don’t forget.
Honorable mentions: Charlie Blackmon, Carlos Gomez, Ender Inciarte, Austin Jackson, A.J. Pollock, Denard Span, Shane Victorino.