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October 11, 2000

Catching the Damn Ball

Center Fielders

by Gary Huckabay

Previous articles in this series:

This is the fifth in a series of rankings of major-league defenders, highlighting the top ten and bottom five at each position. The ratings are a combination of Zone Rating, Range Factor and my best (and admittedly mammothly flawed) assessment of the job they're doing.

Many readers have written in to ask that we include actual ZR and RF numbers in these articles. Due to intellectual property concerns, that's not something we can do. What we can include is the approximate percentile score for a defender in a given statistic. For example, a third baseman who was better than 3/4 of the league in Range Factor at that position would have a percentile score of 75 in RF.

Right now, we're seeing one of the greatest collections of center fielders ever. Unlike looking at those who play to the right of these guys, it was a joy to eyeball this group. The quality of center field defense is as great as the overall play of shortstops in the AL right now. That is to say, enjoy it...this is historically great stuff.

The Top

1. Andruw Jones, Atlanta. RF%: 85, ZR%: 41

I first saw Andruw Jones during his cup of coffee in 1996, on TurnerReich TV while sitting at a Round Table Pizza with a couple of friends with whom I played baseball. The first ball we saw hit to him was a lazy fly ball slightly off to his right. By the time the director switched camera angles, Jones was camped under the ball, prepared to make a soft catch on his shoulder side. We kept watching the game, hoping to see more balls hit to him, but I think Tom Glavine was throwing groundballs during that game and we didn't see another one.

Jones is the class of center fielders defensively. He gets a tremendous break, has ridiculous speed, his form is idyllic and he has a cannon for an arm. All of that is why his numbers this year worry me. His range is down significantly from his 1999 numbers, which were otherworldly, and his assist total is down as well. Still, I don't see any difference in his game.

He stays on top of the list for now, but if his numbers continue to stay down, he might not be the next coming of He Who Catches All Things, Dwayne Murphy, after all. (Note: Please do not send me e-mails telling me that his assist numbers are down because people are afraid to run on his arm unless you can also include all relevant data and analysis.)

2. Mike Cameron, Seattle. RF%: 89, ZR%: 67

What a great defender to have in center field. Mike Cameron was probably the best defensive center fielder in baseball during 2000. He is a bright defender who makes rapid, accurate cutoff throws and very aggressive positional changes in the outfield. He covers the ground at Safeco Field like a tarp and his technique is excellent.

Cameron's lack of a tremendous arm is his only weakness. He doesn't have a directional weakness per se, but he is so good at going back on a ball to his glove side that it can make the rest of his breaks (which are excellent) look bad by comparison. An absolute blast of a player to watch.

3. Torii Hunter, Minnesota. RF%: 100, ZR%: 67

If more people saw Torii Hunter play, he'd probably win a Gold Glove. One thing you immediately notice about Hunter is his arm motion. His release is lightning quick, and I haven't seen him miss a target all year. He's only played about 100 games in center field this season, and has a Jesse Barfield-esque 12 baserunner kills in that short time frame. Hunter has tremendous raw speed, a great break outside of the Metrodome and comes in on balls exceptionally well.

Hunter would be more fun to watch if he played somewhere like Coors Field, where he could use that speed and grace over a large area. He would be a great fit for a team needing a 3.5th outfielder behind a flyball staff. Like a lot of these guys, he's worth the price of admission.

4. Richard Hidalgo, Houston. RF%: 96, ZR%: 78

I admit to being converted. I had heard horror stories about Richard Hidalgo's defense, and the few little snippets I had seen of him in the minors didn't do a lot to dissuade me from thinking that he was awful defensively. Even last year, he didn't exactly look great in the outfield.

But damn! Hidalgo has developed into a very good defensive outfielder. Some of it might be park effects, but take a look at his numbers and then watch him in the field. His first step is average, but the speed, the lines to the ball and the positioning are all good. Subjectively, I still wouldn't rate him this high, but I am impressed with his progress. To be a serious MVP candidate, he really doesn't need to be all that great with the glove.

5. Ken Griffey, Cincinnati. RF%: 78, ZR%: 96

No one is more critical of Ken Griffey's defense than I am. During his first several seasons, he was genuinely awful. Not anymore. As his relationship with the media and fans has soured, his performance with the glove has improved. He's not as good as his reputation once was, but let's look at what's he's really doing in the field.

Griffey's .921 ZR leads the National League. He's second in the NL in assists by a center fielder. He's been healthy, dependable and has done an excellent job of making the transition to a new ballpark with entirely different sight lines. He goes back on balls well, hits the cutoff man with strong accurate throws, and shows good mobility in all directions.

For all the flak he's taken in the press, this is still a tremendous ballplayer with few peers, offensively or defensively. Just because someone has been otherworldly doesn't mean their value drops to zero if they become merely mortal.

6. Ruben Rivera, San Diego. RF%: 56, ZR%: 93

Ruben Rivera may be the streakiest center fielder in baseball. I had, if I recall correctly, about 40 plays of his to watch, and they were all over the board. On some, he looked like Paul Blair's faster cousin; on others, a Kevin Reimer/Greg Luzinski genetic experiment.

On one play, his stance would be perfect, followed by a great crossover step, rapid acceleration, a brilliant path to the ball, a textbook catch and a rapid, accurate throw back to the infield. On the next, he'd closely resemble a hippopotamus just after being hit by a Jim Fowler tranquo-dart. I don't know what to make of him subjectively, but I can understand why so many people who evaluate talent have salivated so much over him for so long.

With proper coaching and time, he may eliminate the lapses from his defensive game and become a real stud. His numbers are already excellent.

7. Kenny Lofton, Cleveland. RF%: 90, ZR%: 41

At the start of the season, Kenny Lofton was facing a very nasty and supposedly slow-healing leg problem. He was supposed to be pretty much slowed up, probably for good, as age and tired legs dragged him down. Well, it turns out that such talk was pretty much a bunch of crap. Lofton has been tremendous defensively, perhaps having his best defensive year at the age of 33. Perhaps his foot speed is down, but it sure doesn't look like it to me.

Lofton has developed a better approach to balls across his body as he's gained more experience. When he was younger, he'd take a strange line to these balls, then kind of adjust at the end of the run and stab at the ball with his glove. He takes a more direct path to the ball now, and gets there a bit earlier than he did when he was younger.

He can still go back on balls well, but his throwing motion is considerably different than it was a couple of years ago. He may be playing with a nagging shoulder injury; if that's the case, his assist numbers may pop back up in the future.

8. Chris Singleton, Chicago White Sox. RF%: 81, ZR%: 22

Chris Singleton plays a wonderful LF/CF, or at least he did most of last year when Carlos Lee was on the steep part of the learning curve. Singleton has a slow crossover step, but everything else about his defensive game is very good to excellent, except his arm, which is pretty much average. His numbers have come down a good bit from his rookie year, but the cause of that could well be beyond his control.

The more I look at defensive numbers of all varieties, the more I miss Defensive Average.

9. Juan Encarnacion, Detroit. RF%: 44, ZR%: 74

Juan Encarnacion reminds me a bit of Ruben Sierra in one way: he's a guy who will probably be described as "raw" until he's about 38. Encarnacion is very fast, takes good lines to the ball and does everything well defensively except follow up after a catch. He is almost never in position to make a throw after he catches a ball. I expect that will change with time and some coaching, at which point he'll probably be a dynamite center fielder.

One caveat: all the tapes I was able to get of Encarnacion were in Comerica Park and Tiger Stadium, which means he probably looked better than he actually is. Spacious areas tend to make one's range look a bit better than it really is.

10. Tom Goodwin, Los Angeles. RF%: 67, ZR%: 33

I'd really like to put Carlos Beltran here, but injuries--and an inner fear of cursing the Royals and having Rany Jazayerli's grief on my conscience for the rest of time--prevents that.

Tom Goodwin is an above-average defensive outfielder in almost every way. He does do one thing better than anyone else in baseball, and perhaps better than any outfielder who's ever played the game, and that's come in on balls across his body. He may be the only outfielder ever who prefers balls across his body to balls on his glove side.

The next time you see a game where Goodwin's in center field, watch him come in on balls hit to his right. He absolutely burns, his head stays still, and he nabs the ball as well as anyone. He gets to those balls better than he gets to ones hit directly to his glove side.

The Bottom

1. Jay Payton, New York Mets. RF%: 4, ZR%: 4

To call these guys the bottom isn't really fair. Jay Payton is probably the weakest of the current crop, but he's not horrible out there. To me, Gabe Kapler looks considerably worse, but observation skills are generally not to be trusted. Payton's numbers are very bad, bringing up the rear of both Zone Rating and Range Factor. Subjectively, he looked middle of the pack in terms of footwork, break, range and covering ground. Unlike...

2. Gerald Williams, Tampa Bay. RF%: 30, ZR%: 7

If Payton's numbers were slightly better, I would have had Gerald Williams ranked last. Williams is a good fourth outfielder. He can run, play a creditable corner outfield and fill in on occasion in center field. As a full-time center fielder, his defensive shortcomings become apparent. He's not as fast as he once was, takes awkward angles to the ball (particularly on balls across his body) and he is reportedly not a good communicator when it comes to balls that might be catchable by others. His "Ice Ice Maybe" moniker presumably comes from one or two memorable close calls.

3. Preston Wilson, Florida. RF%: 26, ZR%: 11

Preston Wilson is a tremendously fast outfielder. I was very surprised to see his numbers come out near the bottom of both leagues.

Wilson reminds me of Dave Henderson defensively; he's a pretty fast guy, but it takes him about two steps longer than some of the waterbugs to get up to speed. His form is pretty good, so I think these numbers might be a one year fluke.

4. Brady Anderson, Baltimore. RF%: 70, ZR%: 41

At this point in his career, Brady Anderson is a true tweener. He's a very competent defensive corner outfielder who is taxed in center field. His form and movement are still good, but his legs have some mileage on them and he's overaggressive in his defensive adjustments. That's probably because he's trying to cover a large amount of ground and doesn't have a ton of faith in the defenders around him. (Warning! That's really just mindless speculation.)

Anderson's numbers make me curious about park effects on ZR and RF numbers. Camden Yards is not a bandbox relative to the rest of the league, and I think it's possible that defensive numbers might be very sensitive to park effects. If you want to do a study on this and get it published here, send us an e-mail. We're not about to start looking at that one week before we steamroll into the production of Baseball Prospectus 2001: Harry Potter and the Persistent Cellmate.

5. Marquis Grissom, Milwaukee. RF%: 7, ZR%: 48

Marquis Grissom used to be an excellent defensive outfielder. In the strike-shortened 1994 season, Montreal's success was due in no small part to Grissom's tremendous defensive effort. From 1992 through 1994, Grissom was probably the best or second-best center fielder in the game.

Since then, he's dropped off a bit to a level that's reasonable defensively, and if there were fewer really good defensive center fielders, he wouldn't be ranked this low. Grissom is, at this point, a pretty good extra outfielder/pinch-runner, but can't really help a club beyond that.

If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions, please e-mail me at huckabay@baseballprospectus.com. Due to time constraints, I will not able to personally respond to most e-mails, but know that every one of them is read and given thought. Thanks for reading.

Gary Huckabay can be reached at huckabay@baseballprospectus.com.

Gary Huckabay is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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