When Carlos Beltrán retired after winning a World Series title with the Houston Astros in 2017, he was seen as a pretty likely Hall of Famer.
A nine-time All-Star, Beltrán is right on par with the bWAR, WAR7 and JAWS of the average Hall of Fame center fielder. He won the 1999 American League Rookie of the Year Award as a member of the Kansas City Royals, and went on to win three Gold Glove Awards during his six-and-a-half seasons with the New York Mets. In between those two tenures, Beltran spent the second half of the 2004 season with the Astros, hitting .435 with eight home runs and 14 RBIs in one of the most dominant individual postseason runs in MLB history.
On paper, Beltrán has a resume worthy of Cooperstown. However, he also had a resume that made the Mets think he would be a good MLB manager, only for them to fire him before he ever led the team for a game after the Astros' 2017 sign-stealing scandal emerged. Will Beltrán be denied entry to the Hall of Fame for his role in one of the biggest scandals in MLB history? He won't appear on the ballot for the first time until 2023, but the guess here is that many voters will have a hard time overlooking the sign-stealing scandal when Beltrán's name appears in front of them.
Beltrán wasn't kept off this list because of the aforementioned cloud on his legacy, but simply because there were nine other center fielders with better resumes. Here are the nine greatest center fielders in MLB history:
9. Andruw Jones - Atlanta Braves, Los Angeles Dodgers, Texas Rangers, Chicago White Sox & New York Yankees (1996-2012)
Best Season: 2000 - .303/.366/.541 with 36 home runs, 104 RBIs, 59 walks, .907 OPS, 5.9 defensive WAR, 2.7 defensive WAR and 8.2 bWAR
Career Summary: .254/.337/.486 with 434 home runs, 1,289 RBIs, 1,933 hits, 891 walks, .823 OPS, 111 OPS+, 39.8 offensive WAR, 24.4 defensive WAR and 62.7 bWAR
Because he didn't keep himself in great shape, Jones, a five-time All-Star, may never be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. However, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone that doesn't believe Jones was a Hall of Fame-caliber player during his peak with the Atlanta Braves. It's not hyperbolic to say Jones is one of the greatest fielders in MLB history - between 1998 and 2007, Jones won 10 Gold Glove Awards and graded out as the best fielder in baseball at any position. On top of his fielding prowess, Jones hit 34 or more home runs six times in his career, peaking at 51 in 2005. You could make a case that contemporaries like Carlos Beltrán or Kenny Lofton were better in the totality of their careers, but Jones' peak was so dominant that he had to be on this list.
8. Duke Snider - Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets & San Francisco Giants (1947-1964)
Best Season: 1953 - .336/.419/.627 with 42 home runs, 126 RBIs, 82 walks, 1.046 OPS, 8.6 offensive WAR, 0.6 defensive WAR and 9.2 bWAR
Career Summary: .295/.380/.540 with 407 home runs, 1,333 RBIs, 2,116 hits, 971 walks, .919 OPS, 140 OPS+, 70.1 offensive WAR, -5.9 defensive WAR and 66.0 bWAR
Snider was one of the most complete players of his era, leading the league in hits, runs, home runs, RBIs, walks, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS at least once. An eight-time All-Star, FanGraphs says that Snider was the fourth-most valuable offensive players of the 1950s, trailing only Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial and Willie Mays.
7. Joe DiMaggio - New York Yankees (1936-1942; 1946-1951)
Best Season: 1941 - .357/.440/.643 with 30 home runs, 125 RBIs, 76 walks, 1.083 OPS, 8.6 offensive WAR, 0.7 defensive WAR and 9.4 bWAR
Career Summary: .325/.398/.579 with 361 home runs, 1,537 RBIs, 2,214 hits, 790 walks, .977 OPS, 155 OPS+, 74.5 offensive WAR, 3.2 defensive WAR and 79.1 bWAR
DiMaggio was so dominant, that despite losing his age-28-30 seasons to military service, he cracked a list that multiple Hall of Famers fell short of. DiMaggio made 13 All-Star teams in 13 major league seasons, won two batting titles and three American League MVP Awards. Oh, and he won nine World Series titles as well. The owner of the longest hit streak in MLB history would have come in much higher on this list if not for World War II, but that he was so prolific in 13 years that he still managed to be on this list is a testament to his greatness.
6. Ken Griffey Jr. - Seattle Mariners, Cincinnati Reds and Chicago White Sox (1989-2010)
Best Season: 1997 - .304/.382/.646 with 56 home runs, 147 RBIs, 76 walks, 1.028 OPS, 7.6 offensive WAR, 1.6 defensive WAR and 83.8 bWAR
Career Summary: .284/.370/.538 with 630 home runs, 1,836 RBIs, 2,781 hits, 1,312 walks, .907 OPS, 136 OPS+, 84.6 offensive WAR, 2.2 defensive WAR and 83.8 bWAR
One of the most popular players in MLB history, Griffey Jr. was the second most valuable offensive player of the 1990s, trailing only Barry Bonds. Despite being limited to just 72 games in 1995, Griffey Jr. averaged over 43 home runs per season between 1993 and 2000. In some senses, Griffey Jr.'s career leaves you feeling like it could have been even better, as injuries limited him to just 554 of a possible 972 games between 2001 and 2006. If he had better luck health wise during that stretch, it's possible he could have chased the all-time home run record. Still, "The Kid" is seventh in MLB history with 630 career home runs, making him one of the most dominant offensive players that the league has ever seen.
5. Mike Trout - Los Angeles Angels (2011-Present)
Best Season: 2016 - .315/.441/.550 with 29 home runs, 100 RBIs, 116 walks, .991 OPS, 9.9 offensive WAR, 1.0 defensive WAR and 10.5 bWAR
Career Summary: .305/.417/.582 with 295 home runs, 777 RBIs, 1,351 hits, 812 walks, 1.000 OPS, 176 OPS+, 72.5 offensive WAR, 3.1 defensive WAR and 73.5 bWAR (statistics current as of August 2020)
Trout isn't even 30 years old yet and already has numbers that would make him a lock for the Baseball Hall of Fame if he never played another game. In Trout's first eight full seasons, he won three American League MVP Awards, while finishing as the runner-up for the honor three other times. The lowest he's finished in American League MVP Award voting to this date came in 2017, when he finished fourth in voting, despite only playing 114 games. Trout's story is still very much being written, and he has a legitimate chance to finish his career in the top two on this list.
4. Mickey Mantle - New York Yankees (1951-1968)
Best Season: 1956 - .353/.464/.705 with 52 home runs, 130 RBIs, 112 walks, 1.169 OPS, 10.6 offensive WAR, 0.5 defensive WAR and 11.2 bWAR
Career Summary: .298/.421/.557 with 536 home runs, 1,509 RBIs, 2,415 hits, 1,733 walks, .977 OPS, 172 OPS+, 116.2 offensive WAR, -9.6 defensive WAR and 110.2 bWAR
How great of a player was Mantle? Between 1950 and 1999, the only players that graded out as more valuable than Mantle offensively were Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. "The Mick" was one of the most complete offensive players in the history of baseball, winning the Triple Crown in 1956. That was the only batting title Mantle ever won, but he led baseball in runs scored, total bases, home runs, walks, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS and OPS+ three or more times.
3. Tris Speaker - Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, Washington Senators and Philadelphia Athletics (1907-1928)
Best Season: 1912 - .386/.464/.567 with 10 home runs, 90 RBIs, 82 walks, 1.031 OPS, 9.2 offensive WAR, 0.4 defensive WAR and 10.1 bWAR
Career Summary: .345/.428/.500 with 117 home runs, 1,531 RBIs, 3,514 hits, 1,381 walks, .928 OPS, 158 OPS+, 124.4 offensive WAR, 2.5 defensive WAR and 134.3 bWAR
Babe Ruth is the most notable superstar that the Boston Red Sox organization allowed to leave, but trading Speaker to the Cleveland Indians after the 1915 season because of a salary dispute went down as one of the worst transactions in MLB history. All Speaker did the next season was hit .386. When the .345 career hitter was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1937, he went into Cooperstown as an Indian, as he ultimately spent 11 seasons in Cleveland. Speaker was teammates with a teenage Babe Ruth for parts of the 1914 and 1915 season in Boston. Oh, what could have been...
2. Ty Cobb - Detroit Tigers and Philadelphia Athletics (1905-1928)
Best Season: 1917: .383/.444/.570 with six home runs, 106 RBIs, 61 walks, 1.014 OPS, 10.6 offensive WAR, 0.2 defensive WAR and 11.3 bWAR
Career Summary: .366/.433/.512 with 117 home runs, 1,944 RBIs, 4,189 hits, 1,249 walks, .944 OPS, 168 OPS+, 151.2 offensive WAR, -10.8 defensive WAR and 151.0 bWAR
There's a variety of reasons why players in Cobb's era didn't hit home runs at the same clip that they do today, but "The Georgia Peach" still managed to drive in more runs during his illustrious career than Jimmie Foxx, Eddie Murray, Willie Mays, Mel Ott, Ted Williams, Ken Griffey Jr., Rafael Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez, Frank Robinson and David Ortiz, among other members of the 500 home run club. We'll never know for sure, but with an MLB-record .366 career batting average, Cobb probably could have thrived in any era.
1. Willie Mays - New York/San Francisco Giants, New York Mets (1951-1952; 1954-1973)
Best Season: 1965 - .317/.398/.645 with 52 home runs, 112 RBIs, 76 walks, 1.043 OPS, 9.6 offensive WAR, 1.6 defensive WAR and 11.2 bWAR
Career Summary: .302/.384/.557 with 660 home runs, 1,903 RBIs, 3,283 hits, 1,464 walks, a .941 OPS, a 156 OPS+, 136.6 offensive WAR, 18.2 defensive WAR and 156.2 bWAR
In 22 major league seasons, Mays hit .302, slugged 660 home runs and won 12 Gold Glove Awards. The author of the most famous catch in MLB history, Mays, who also led baseball in stolen bases four times, is arguably the most complete player that the sport has ever seen. Mays made won a Rookie of the Year Award, an MVP Award, a batting title and made 24 All-Star teams. With how much Mays accomplished as a player, you'd never know that he had to deal with unthinkable racism as one of the first African-American stars in the history of the sport.