Hall of Fame Index: Top Five Centerfielders

As we move to the center fielders it is high-time we do a reset. We have been covering fantasy baseball for a while now and have gotten out of our normal routine of looking at the index. So, we are going to re-eningeer this thing to show why we use something like the index in the first place. So, instead of starting with the index we will start with the conventional numbers and move from there.

A lot of fans use the counting numbers to grade players and determine who the best player of all time at a particular position or period. Some branch out to the rate statistics, but both of those categories bring two major problems. In short, they don’t account for the effects of time and place. Where did those numbers occur and during what time period? That has a dramatic effect on what those numbers mean. We are looking at who many consider the top five center fielders of all time. All five are in the Hall of Fame and no one doubts their place there. Still, how we parcel out their value depends greatly on the methodology we use.

Ty Cobb4189117101922431944
Ken Griffey Jr.278163056216621836
Mickey Mantle241553641616761509
Willie Mays328166066320621903
Tris Speaker3514117101418821531

I’ve talked before about my Facebook “friend” who rates everyone according to hits. Well, in that scenario we would surmise that Mickey Mantle stands in fifth place on this list. The fact that Mantle has more walks than the other four apparently doesn’t matter. Let’s consider each of these numbers as being equal. We will focus our energy on Griffey for reasons that will become obvious later.

Griffey ranks fourth in hits, second in home runs, fourth in extra base hits, fifth in runs scored, and third in RBI. So, no one in their right mind would claim he was the best center fielder of all-time, but he definitely would belong in this group. The problems are all plain to see. First, simply listing the numbers above assumes all numbers carry equal weight. We know they don’t. A simple hit doesn’t have the same value as a home run or even a double or triple. Those don’t carry the same weight as runs or RBI.

Furthermore, we don’t know any context around any of those numbers. Were they accomplished in 12 seasons? 15? 20? How easy was it it to put up numbers during the era they played? How well did they run the bases? How well did they avoid outs? We can begin to answer some of these questions when we look at numbers that distill out the effects of time and place. When we look at those numbers we begin to see some separation between Griffey and some of these other guys.

Ty Cobb16852.809165.445
Mickey Mantle17250.804170.428
Tris Speaker1571.778157.436
Willie Mays15677.748154.409
Ken Griffey Jr.13616.663131.384

One of the beauties of something like this is that you really don’t even need to know what you are looking at it to see the problem. Griffey clearly doesn’t belong in this group. The explanation is easy enough. Each of these numbers compare players to the average player from their era. We distill out the effects of home ballparks as well to give a truly neutral outlook on each player.

As you might imagine, these numbers don’t prove that a player is ranked where he should be overall. These are just the offensive numbers. We know that Willie Mays had quite the reputation as a great defensive player. Cobb has the reputation as the best hitter in the history of the game. Whether either of those reputations are deserved is neither here nor there. The point is that while these breakdowns are helpful, they don’t necessarily tell us much about value in a real sense.

However, before we skip to value we should find out if Mays really is the best defender in this grouping. We can see that Cobb has some competition here from Mantle, but this listing doesn’t show how long they did it for. That is where the value questions comes into play. We will get there eventually, but let’s look at fielding first.

Willie Mays18518.2191103.610
Tris Speaker922.591117.811
Ken Griffey Jr.32.2-3760.24
Ty Cobb0-10.8082.63
Mickey Mantle-37-9.6-2855.13

The fielding numbers give us a little clearer picture of value, but even then it depends on which source you are looking at. Rfield and total zone runs are more or less the same thing. The total zone version looks at their performance solely as outfielders. Griffey has the biggest difference because of the switch to universal zone runs (UZR). They are supposedly more accurate than their predecessor and happened to capture him late in his career when he clearly was not the same fielder he was in the 1990s.

The implication is pretty clear though. Mays and Speaker were in a class by themselves defensively. It is important to note that the numbers above don’t absolutely indicate who was the betterdefensive center fielder. They peg who the more valuabledefensive player was. That is done in part by comparing players with their contemporaries. So, we are looking at the gap between each player and the other center fielders and not at an absolute cataloging of skills. There was no way to have Speaker and Mays have a foot race or a skills challenge. Most scouts and historical observers would probably tab Mays as the better of the two, but we are trying to arrive at value.

This brings us to the ultimate question. How does one account for both offensive and defensive value? How do we combine the two to come up with one number? There have been numerous critics of any particular WAR formula or that of win shares. You are taking something that is inexact and placing an exact looking value on it. The numbers were never meant to be gospel, but to give us a general overview of the value of a particular player or group of players.

For those just joining us, the Hall of Fame index was designed to measure the fitness of someone for the Hall of Fame by comparing him to those already in the Hall of Fame. We do that by combining bWAR (baseball-reference WAR), fWAR (Fangraphs WAR), and win shares divided by five. We combine a career value element and a peak value element to come up with the total index. Let’s take a look at the career value breakdown.

Ty Cobb151.1149.3144.4444.8
Willie Mays156.4149.9128.4434.7
Tris Speaker134.1130.6126.0390.7
Mickey Mantle110.3112.3113.0335.6
Ken Griffey Jr.83.877.778.4234.9

It’s important that we talk about what these numbers mean. Essentially, they combine the value a player brings with his bat and his glove to give a total amount of wins they were worth over a replacement level (AAA) player. The index is not meant to say that Cobb is better than Mays. After all, different sources disagree here. Each brings their own brand of secret sauce to come to their ultimate conclusion.

The index was never designed to pick Cobb over Mays or vice versa. It is meant to find gaps in data to determine where a player belongs in context. As we will see, Griffey definitely belongs in the Hall of Fame, but he doesn’t belong with this group. He fits better with the Joe Dimaggio’s and Duke Snider’s of the world. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. However, this is simply looking at career value. Peak value considerations add some context we don’t see here.

For instance, we know Mickey Mantle had a shorter career than the other four. Griffey’s career also was not consistent over the full course of his career. So, what we do is take the best ten year stretch of their careers to see how they fared in terms of value. Then, we can combine the two to get a total look at the player.

Willie Mays96.993.675.0265.5
Ty Cobb88.788.080.6257.3
Mickey Mantle82.683.177.8243.5
Tris Speaker78.075.173.6226.7
Ken Griffey Jr.67.767.352.2187.2

So, we can see that some players move around when we count only their best ten seasons. Mantle moves ahead of Speaker in terms of peak value and Mays moves ahead of Cobb as well. However, the results are close enough to keep us from declaring one as better than the other. The key for the index is that we want to find gaps in data. Griffey is well below the other four. That is a significant gap. In point of fact, the index was designed to create gaps, so when we see data this close we would be foolish to start making declarative statements. We can see how close when we combine the career and peak value numbers.

Ty Cobb444.8257.3702.1
Willie Mays434.7265.5700.2
Tris Speaker390.7226.7617.4
Mickey Mantle335.6243.5579.1
Ken Griffey Jr.239.9187.2427.1

Anyone willing to pick Cobb over Mays on the basis of less than two wins is deluding themselves. That’s not what the index was designed to do. It essentially says that when all things are considered they are nearly equally valuable in terms of value. How they arrived at that value was wildly different. So, it really has to be a personal preference as to which guy you would ultimately pick.

If you have paid any attention to the previous index articles then you know that all five of these guys are more qualified. The fun is when we get into the next set of players. However, you can see how this list is a more accurate accounting of their value than the simple counting numbers that many rely on. There is just more context in these numbers than the basic ones.

Author: sbarzilla

I have written three books about baseball including The Hall of Fame Index. I also write for thefantatasyfix.com. You can follow me on twitter @sbarzilla.

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