Major League Baseball’s winter meetings have concluded, and the hot stove is running white hot at the moment. Perhaps there is nothing more coveted by MLB general managers than the five-tool player. So, let’s have a little fun with this concept over the weeks ahead. If there’s one thing the baseball world knows best, it’s debating who is/was the best at a certain position.
Today, let’s complete the task of building a five-tool center fielder using the ghosts of players past. This is maybe a little different concept than usual, but it would be fun to make an eight-man roster of five-tool players, using past player’s attributes.
What would that roster look like? Whose attributes would you use? These are the debates that keep baseball fans busy, and why the game is more than just a game.
So, let’s get to it then. Let’s build our prototypical center fielder.
Before we begin, a five-tool player is one who hits for average, hits for power, excels with his glove, has speed to burn and an arm like a piece of field artillery. These are the “five tools” of baseball: throwing arm, speed, glovework, hitting for average and hitting for power. A player that’s superior in talent for each category is said to be a five-tool player.
Hitting for average
There’s absolutely no doubt whose plate discipline and batter’s eye we want for our prototype center fielder. The answer here must be, unequivocally, Ty Cobb.
This might be the easiest of the tools to consider when building a five-tool center fielder. When you ask most baseball fans who the greatest hitter of all-time is, if they don’t say Ted Williams, they will most likely say Ty Cobb. Being that we’re not building a left fielder in our laboratory, Teddy Ballgame is out of the picture.
So, that leaves us with Cobb, the sweet swinging Georgian. Much has been said about Cobb off the field, but we know on the field, the man was a master at the dish. In Cobb’s 24 seasons, he recorded 11,434 official at-bats, which still ranks fifth all time in that category. When you also realize that he’s the game’s all-time leader in batting average (.366), the at-bats become a lot more significant.
Cobb also had nine seasons with over 200 hits and lead the American League in that category an impressive eight times. All told, Cobb racked up 4,189 hits, a record since surpassed by the notorious Pete Rose (4,256). It does need to be said that Rose played in over 500 more games and accumulated over 2,600 more at-bats than Cobb did. This isn’t to take anything away from Rose, but let’s just say Cobb had those 2,600 at-bats on his line. If you assume Cobb only hit .350 over those at-bats, that would add over 900 hits to Cobb’s line. It isn’t a stretch to assume this either.
As far as center fielders are concerned, Ty Cobb will forever remain the greatest pure hitter of the lot. There will never be anyone better with the bat, and you can take that to the bank.
The Willie Mays factor
When building a five-tool center fielder, one would expect Willie Mays to come to the forefront of any discussion. There is a legitimate argument that Mays was the prototypical center fielder, and for some, the debate would end there. But that’s no fun.
Mays has a legitimate argument to be the standard for three of the five tools we’re looking for. He hit for power, his glove work was phenomenal (considering the cavernous ballparks of his time) and he is widely recognized as having one of the best arms that has ever thrown a baseball. All things considered, for our prototype, we’re going to take his thunderous bat and his golden leather.
First things first, Mays’ glove is legendary. Much has been said about his crazy over-the-shoulder catch in the 1954 World Series, and if you haven’t seen it, check it out here.
Mays’ career fielding percentage doesn’t fully tell the whole story. He didn’t have the benefit of playing the band boxes of the modern era. He played six seasons at New York’s Polo Grounds before moving with the Giants to San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. We’re talking about a park (Polo Grounds) that was 483-feet to dead center, 455-feet to left center and 449-feet to right center. No matter what way you cut it, that’s a lot of outfield grass for anyone to cover. Along the way, he racked up a record 12 Gold Glove Awards.
Then, there’s Mays’ power. Some might like to favor Ken Griffey Jr. in this category, and it would be an interesting debate to have, but the nod must go to Mays. Again, look at the ballparks that Mays played in. Start with his home parks where he did most of his hitting.
Let’s start with Polo Grounds. It was a short flight down the lines to get one out, but the power alleys evaporated into power vacuums. Quite quickly too. It’s not a stretch to imagine Willie Mays hitting well over 700 homers had he played in more friendly ballparks.
If playing in the Polo Grounds wasn’t daunting enough, Mays then moved into Candlestick Park in San Francisco. The dimensions at Candlestick were certainly more conducive to the long ball, but the atmosphere was not. A few of the adjectives that might be used to describe Candlestick Park are cold, blustery, windy, damp and foggy. This is not just a semantic word game, these words had real impact on hitters. In a park with these conditions, a player has to hit the ball a ton, and Mays smashed balls through the boggy Bay Area air time and time again.
With 660 homers, 1,903 RBI, 523 career doubles and a slugging percentage of .557, Mays is the consummate power-hitting center fielder.
Speed to burn
There really is no contest when it comes to speed on the base paths. Here’s another category that many would just shout out Ty Cobb’s name.
Not so fast! There’s another center fielder that is the, pardon the pun, runaway winner in the speed department. If you’re a Cardinals fan, you might be screaming in your mind “Vince Coleman!”
You’re right. It’s Vince Coleman. Had Coleman not fallen from grace like he did (see No.18 on the list) after he left St. Louis, we might be talking about the greatest base thief of all time. At the very least, he would have given Rickey Henderson something to look at in his rear-view mirror. But, various injuries and silly suspensions sabotaged what was fast becoming a very bright career.
Coleman still stands as the last man to steal over 100 bases in a season, a feat he accomplished three times in consecutive years from 1985-87. It’s hard to imagine anyone ever eclipsing that plateau again in the age of the homer. The simple fact is, no manager in the modern game would ever allow a player to steal the amount of times required to crest the century mark in swipes. Watch Coleman circle the bases in under 15 seconds.
Coleman was a rare breed though. He was pure thoroughbred when he got on base, and everyone knew he was going. It might shock some fans out there to hear this, but Coleman still ranks sixth all-time on the stolen bases list. This is even more impressive when taking into account he played fewer than 100 games in five of his 13 pro seasons.
Coleman stole 752 bags in 1,371 career games and led the National League in that category his first six professional seasons. Just to put that into perspective, that’s an 89 steal average per every 162 games. Digest that for a minute.
Installing Coleman hyperjets now.
The arms race
Throwing arm is a category that many will find to be most debatable. Who really did have the best throwing arm among major league center fielders? It’s a perfectly legit question, and the answers will vary widely. Many would shout Mays, others would say Griffey Jr. and yet others would throw out a Kenny Lofton or a Kirby Puckett. On our player though, we’re going with the great Tris Speaker’s cannon of a left arm.
To settle the debate on whose throwing arm we put on our five-tool center fielder, it’s probably most prudent to look at two categories. First, we look at assists. Then, we see how many double plays he was involved in. Both categories are, for outfielders, probably the greatest measure of how potent and accurate their throwing arm was.
Check this out. Speaker had 322 career assists as a center fielder. The next closest to him is Max Carey at 216. That is an astounding total. Take into consideration for a minute the equipment that Speaker had available and the larger dimensions of the ballparks that he played in during the early 1900s. We’re talking about a player who most likely was asked to make some very long throws.
Next up, Speaker, as a center fielder, was involved in 107 double plays. Think about the last time you saw an outfielder turn two. I bet he most likely made a long throw for the second out. Willie Mays had the second most ever at 59 double plays turned. While Mays might have the power and the leather, Speaker has the arm.
There is absolutely no way, based off the raw numbers, that Speaker didn’t have arguably the greatest throwing arm of all center fielders to play the game. Speaker’s plaque in Cooperstown acknowledges this very fact, calling him the “greatest center fielder of his day.”
With Cobb’s eye, Mays’ power and golden glove, Coleman’s thoroughbred speed and Speaker’s howitzer left arm, I challenge anyone to make a center fielder that could out-hit, out-run and out-throw this prototype.
Featured image from bleedingyankeeblue.blogspot.com
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