Yankees' Top 5 center fielders: Hoch's take

May 4th, 2020

No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun and debate purposes only … if you don’t agree with the order, participate in the Twitter poll to vote for your favorite at this position.

Here is Bryan Hoch’s ranking of the top five center fielders in Yankees history. Next week: right fielders.

Yankees’ All-Time Team: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | LF

1. (1951-68)
An immensely talented icon of his generation, “The Mick” was the most feared hitter on some of the most successful teams in history. The owner of 536 career homers, including a 1953 blast in Washington that was reported to have traveled 565 feet and gave birth to the phrase “tape-measure home run,” it is staggering to ponder that Mantle’s numbers could have been even greater if not for the numerous injuries that impacted his career.

In 14 seasons from 1951-64, the switch-hitting Mantle led the Yankees to 12 American League pennants and seven World Series championships. He still owns the records for the most homers, RBIs, runs and walks in World Series play. A three-time American League Most Valuable Player Award winner (1956, ’57, ’62), Mantle enjoyed one of the greatest offensive seasons ever in ’56, winning the AL Triple Crown by hitting 52 homers with 130 RBIs and a .353 average.

During the summer of 1961, Mantle electrified the nation alongside teammate Roger Maris with their pursuit of Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record. A 1974 inductee to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Mantle leads all Yankees center fielders in fWAR (112.3), games (2,401), at-bats (8,102), runs (1,676), hits (2,415), homers, walks (1,733), on-base percentage (.421) and OPS+ (172).

Mantle is second in RBIs (1,509), stolen bases (153) and slugging percentage (.557), and third in doubles (344), triples (72) and batting average (.298).

2. (1936-51)
A sensational hitter for both average and power, “The Yankee Clipper” was a splendid, graceful center fielder who featured a powerful and accurate arm. The celebrated San Franciscan achieved one of baseball’s greatest feats during the 1941 season, when he captivated the country’s attention by hitting safely in 56 consecutive games -- a record that will likely never be broken.

A two-time batting champion and three-time AL MVP, DiMaggio compiled a .325 lifetime batting average and powered the Yankees to nine World Series titles, despite losing three seasons (1943-45) to military service. Ted Williams once referred to DiMaggio, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1955, as “the greatest all-around player I ever saw.”

DiMaggio leads all Yankees center fielders in RBIs (1,537) and slugging percentage (.579), and he is tied for first in batting average (.325) and OPS (.977). He ranks second in fWAR (83.1), OPS+ (155), runs (1,390), doubles (389), triples (131), homers (361) and on-base percentage (.398). DiMaggio is third in games (1,736), hits (2,214) and walks (790).

3. (1991-2006)
A sweet-swinging switch-hitter from Puerto Rico, Williams played his entire 16-year Major League career with the Yankees, earning five All-Star selections (1997-2001), four AL Gold Glove Awards (1997-2000) and the 2002 Silver Slugger Award. Williams also claimed the 1998 AL batting title with a .339 average.

A four-time World Series champion (1996, ‘98, ‘99, 2000) who is viewed as having been instrumental to the development of that era’s dynasty, Williams is the Yankees’ all-time postseason leader in home runs (22) and RBIs (80), and he ranks third in games played (121). He was named the 1996 AL Championship Series MVP after batting .474 (9-for-19) with two homers and six RBIs in the Yankees’ five-game victory over the Orioles.

Among Yankees center fielders, Williams is first in doubles (449). He ranks second in games (2,076), at-bats (7,869), hits (2,336) and walks (1,069). Williams is third in fWAR (43.9), runs (1,366), homers (287), RBIs (1,257) and batting average (.297).

4. (1924-35)
A celebrated table-setter for the heralded Murderers' Row lineups of Ruth and Lou Gehrig, Combs was known for his ability to lash line drives, chase fly balls in the outfield gaps and exhibit blazing speed on the basepaths. Part of four AL pennant-winning clubs and three World Series championships over a dozen years with the Yankees, “The Kentucky Colonel” batted .325 in a career that was cut short by injuries.

Combs led the AL in hits (231) in 1927 and thrice paced the circuit in triples. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1970. He leads all Yankees center fielders in triples (154) and is tied with DiMaggio for first in batting average. Combs ranks third in on-base percentage (.397) and OPS (.859), and he is fourth in fWAR (41.3), games (1,455), at-bats (5,746), runs (1,186), hits (1,866), doubles (309) and walks (670).

5. (1965-74, 1979-83)
Arriving in the big leagues carrying unenviable comparisons to Mantle, Murcer forged a successful career of his own, establishing a place as a fan favorite in his era. Later a popular commentator on the club’s television broadcasts, Murcer was a four-time All-Star with the Yankees and won an AL Gold Glove Award in 1972.

Murcer's finest season was 1971, when he excelled in three statistics that weren’t considered at the time: he led the Majors with a .427 on-base percentage while pacing the AL in OPS (.969) and OPS+ (181). Traded to the Giants prior to the 1975 season, Murcer returned to the Yanks in ’79 and laced a memorable winning hit in the club’s first home game following the death of captain Thurman Munson.

Among Yankees center fielders, Murcer is fourth with 175 homers and 687 RBIs. He ranks fifth with a 129 OPS+, and is also fifth in games (1,256), at-bats (4,428), runs (641), hits (1,231), doubles (192), triples (29) and walks (491).

Honorable mentions
Rickey Henderson (1985-89) only played 4 1/2 seasons in pinstripes, but the Hall of Famer compiled a 135 OPS+ that rates third among Yankees center fielders. His 326 stolen bases are second on the franchise list to Derek Jeter. … Curtis Granderson (2010-13) hit 115 homers during his brief time in The Bronx, fifth among Yanks center fielders. … Brett Gardner (2008-present), who was ranked in last week’s rundown of left fielders, has compiled a fWAR of 37.0 thus far in his Yanks tenure.