What does the future hold for center field?

April 7th, 2024

When it comes to the landscape of center fielders in MLB, it’s not the group your grandparents were used to. Or your parents, or even your older siblings, for that matter.

The days of Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle ruling the sport are long gone. Ken Griffey Jr. no longer competes against great athletes – he just photographs them.

Even many of the position’s better players from the 2010s have already hung up the cleats, including Adam Jones, Lorenzo Cain, Matt Kemp and Dexter Fowler. remains as a connecting link to the (somewhat) old guard, but he hasn’t played 120 games in a season in five years.

In the short term, at least, the position is feeling the effects of the circle of baseball life. MLB.com’s Anthony Castrovince ranked center field as the ninth-best out of 11 positions league-wide entering this season, and even that ranking was somewhat artificially boosted, given that DH was last by default due to its lack of full-time players.

But this next generation, while largely unproven at the moment, just might be on the brink of taking the sport by storm. There might not be any 50-HR hitters in the group, but its collective speed and defensive ability could quickly turn the tide on the narratives about the position.

A sharp recent decline

Castrovince’s low ranking didn’t come out of nowhere. By most offensive metrics, the most recent full MLB season -- and also the couple that came right before it, for what it’s worth -- were rough ones for players manning position No. 8.

We can start with 2023 itself. In each of the following metrics, center fielders ranked last among outfielders, and in the bottom three across all nine primary offensive positions (i.e. DH included, pitchers and pinch hitters not included):

  • 4,363 hits (eighth, only ahead of C)
  • 583 HR (seventh, only ahead of SS and 2B)
  • 7,253 total bases (seventh, only ahead of 2B and C)
  • 2,151 RBI (last)
  • 4,812 strikeouts and 24.6 K% (both second-most, only behind DH)
  • 3.07 strikeout-to-walk ratio (highest)

Likewise, if we take a more historical lens, a deeper dive shows that 2023 -- and really, the 2020s as a whole -- have been particularly rough for the position. For example, since at least 1974, the five lowest single-season OBP values by center fielders have come in the past six years:

Lowest on-base percentage by center fielders in a season
Since 1974

  • 2022: .303
  • 2023: .316
  • 2021: .318
  • 2019: .319
  • 2018: .319

And perhaps no measurement sums the up the current state better than this: According to Baseball Reference, only three center fielders had at least four Wins Above Replacement (WAR) last season: the Cubs’ , the White Sox’s and the Mariners’ . That’s the lowest total in any 162-game season since MLB expanded to 30 teams in 1998.

How was this possible? For one, the injury bug hit hard. Notable center fielders who were limited to under 100 games last season include Trout, Detroit’s , Miami’s and Minnesota’s , among others.

Secondly, position shifts also hurt the group somewhat. moved to right field to accommodate Toronto’s acquisition of in 2023, and moved to left field in Pittsburgh as a result of 's rise.

But more so than anything else, it came down to simple personnel turnover. Many of the position’s best players from the past 5-10 years have aged out of the game, and the next generation wasn’t quite ready to step up yet. If we look a little harder, though, the signs are there that said generation is capable of taking over -- and doing it quickly.

Can 2024 be better?

There’s no guarantee that 2024 will lead to a sharp turnaround in the position’s performance. After all, Mantle, Mays and DiMaggio aren’t walking through that door. But there are several reasons to be optimistic in the center fielders’ potential, starting with the players whom we’ve seen do it at the highest level before.

Established Talent

Despite last year’s results, the cupboard isn’t completely bare when it comes to proven players patrolling the middle of the outfield. For starters, Trout needs no introduction, as the 10-time All-Star starter continues to be among MLB’s elite players when healthy.

Elsewhere in the AL West, the player that Trout might be passing the torch to as the game’s best center fielder (if he hasn’t already) resides in Seattle. Rodríguez gives the sport another bona fide star at the position, having been an All-Star and Silver Slugger winner in each of his two seasons.

And while position swaps hurt the position in the form of Springer and Reynolds last year, the same concept will be providing a major boost to the center fielder community this season. Thanks to the Yankees’ blockbuster trade for Juan Soto, has moved to the middle of the outfield for at least this season. Only two years removed from his AL-record 62-HR season, Judge should almost single-handedly be able to increase the position’s productivity if he stays healthy.

In the realm of relatively established talent, Atlanta’s (2022 NL Rookie of the Year) and Robert Jr. (2023 All-Star and Silver Slugger) also come to mind, along with Bellinger if his career resurgence with the Cubs proves to be sustainable.

Better Health and Bounceback Seasons

From a health perspective, this is pretty straightforward. The center fielders got crushed with injuries last season, including their biggest name in Trout, along with other former All-Stars such as Buxton and Chisholm. Better injury luck would be the first step to an improved product in 2024.

Even for players who remained relatively healthy, though, there’s reason to believe some rebound performances could be on the way. For example, Baltimore’s comes to mind, as he has had two straight seasons with a .721 OPS after a strong .878 mark in his 2021 All-Star season.

As it pertains to the real reason to be excited about the future of the position, though, the answer lies in what the next generation might be capable of.

Young Upstarts

If you look across MLB, you see youth in center field. Of the 30 players currently projected by FanGraphs to lead their team in playing time at that position this season, 23 are in their age-28 season or younger. Put in alternative terms, there are as many center fielders in their age-29 season or older as there are in their age-23 season or younger (seven apiece).

Of course, one might expect center fielders to skew younger, considering that the position tends to require speed and athleticism, but consider this: The average age for the 30 starting center fielders on Opening Day was 27.1 years old. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that’s the youngest at the position since it was 27.0 years in 1980 -- a group that included the likes of Andre Dawson, Kirk Gibson, Chet Lemon, Fred Lynn, César Cedeño and Willie Wilson.

The current crop of youngsters includes some already proven players, as Rodríguez (23 years old), Harris (23) and Robert Jr. (26) all are on the younger side. And this is fitting, given that their play styles are extremely representative of the entire up-and-coming CF group’s bread and butter: speed and defense.

Even if none of these young players can crank homers like Judge, they might not need to in order to make a huge impact on the sport. Indeed, even during the 2023 season, which was a sub-par year for the position in terms of offensive output, this group was already beginning to excel in different areas of the game.

Of the top 33 in Baseball Savant’s Fielding Run Value in 2023, 12 of them were center fielders, more than twice as many as any other position. All 12 of them had at least eight runs saved, which was the third-most such players by any position in any year in the Statcast era, one behind the center fielders from the 2017 and 2018 seasons. This dozen included the trio of Rodríguez, Harris, and Robert Jr., along with Kiermaier, the Yankees' (now with the other New York team), Colorado’s , Milwaukee’s , Tampa Bay’s , Kansas City’s , Minnesota’s (now with Pittsburgh), Washington’s , and the Dodgers’ .

Furthermore, out of that group of 12, all but Kiermaier and Taylor are currently in their 20s.

As the metric of choice changes, a similar conclusion continues to emerge. Among 45 players with at least seven Outs Above Average last season, a staggering 17 were center fielders -- tied for the most by any position group in any year tracked by Statcast, along with the 2018 shortstops.

Via Baseball Savant’s “Success Rate Added” (a similar metric that measures how successfully a player recorded outs, relative to the difficulty of the plays that came his way), half of the top 12 qualifiers in 2023 were center fielders, including each of the top three (Kiermaier, Isbel, and overall leader of Philadelphia). This was the only year in the Statcast era during which each of the top three in that metric came from the same position.

Likewise, if we glance away from the field and onto the basepaths, the group continued to provide excitement. According to Baseball Savant’s average sprint speed, four of the top 11 players in MLB last season (min. 100 competitive runs) were center fielders, with Doyle and Rodríguez being joined by fellow youngsters of Oakland and of Boston.

And going beyond the raw Statcast numbers, many of these players bring extremely interesting narratives to the table. Rojas (23 years old) is arguably the X-factor for a Phillies team seeking to make a third consecutive deep playoff run, as the franchise banked on his development by moving former outfielder Bryce Harper to first base for good. Outman (26) is in an eerily similar situation, also playing for a legit contender which recently moved a former MVP (Mookie Betts, in the Dodgers’ case) to the infield. Ruiz (25) was the definition of “electric” as a rookie, leading the AL with 67 stolen bases in 2023 (most by any A’s player since Rickey Henderson himself swiped 108 bags in 1983), though he was surprisingly sent to the Minors early this season.

And then, of course, there’s the prospects. Among the top players in MLB’s Prospect Rankings, each of the following are center fielders who either made their MLB debut in 2023 or are expected to this season: No. 2 (who already had a stellar Opening Day debut with the Brewers), No. 7 (the reigning Golden Spikes Award winner as the nation’s best amateur player), No. 12 , and No. 16 , who is already no stranger to defensive highlights at the MLB level.

(23), ranked 96th on the same prospect list, has also already cracked the starting lineup for the Cardinals, as his presence will likely allow to move to left field even when he is off the IL.

Among the players slightly too old or experienced to formally be considered prospects, (25) made headlines with his first career homer on March 30, in only his third MLB game after a stellar KBO career. (24) cracked the Tigers’ Opening Day roster and has turned heads with his defense, as his rise has allowed Greene (23), who performed well in center field when healthy a year ago, to shift to left field.

The deep future

In a sport as notoriously difficult to project as baseball, it’d be foolish to pretend that we know who the best players will be in 10 years. But for the sake of fun, no one’s stopping us from guessing.

And a few of the most educated guesses indeed reside in center field. Chourio, Crews, Merrill, and Crow-Armstrong are all 22 or younger, with Chourio in particular already making headlines for his age.

Beyond that quartet, the 2023 MLB Draft also provides a glimpse into who the mega-stars of the future could be. Top of the top-five picks were center fielders that haven’t even been mentioned in this piece yet: No. 3 (Tigers) and No. 5 (Twins), both of whom were picked out of high school.

Unlike fellow top-five picks Crews, Paul Skenes and Wyatt Langford (who remarkably has already cracked the bigs), neither Clark nor Jenkins is projected to reach MLB before 2026 because of their age. Despite that, both of them still rank in the top 15 of MLB’s Prospect Rankings (Jenkins in 10th, Clark in 13th). And if their eventual production matches their Draft status, they’ll be among the best of the best years down the road.

From top to bottom, there are almost too many names to count in terms of players who could be on the brink of stardom. It’s impossible to deny that the position has hit a nadir in the beginning of this decade. But with its collective youth, speed, and defensive prowess, this could quickly become a group that fans can’t turn their eyes away from.