In the first inning of yesterday’s game against the Mets, Yankees center fielder Curtis Granderson ripped a low and inside pitch well over the right-field wall at Yankee Stadium. It was his 16th home run of the year, just two behind the torrid pace Jose Bautista has set. Most stories written about Granderson marvel at the turnaround he has made: since he and hitting coach Kevin Long tweaked his swing last August he has hit 30 home runs, which is the second most in baseball during that span (to Bautista, of course). What I haven’t yet seen is how Granderson’s spot on the defensive spectrum makes his run more remarkable.
Throughout history we have seen a few center fielders hit for tremendous power. The most notorious era came between 1952 and 1966, the former date marking Larry Doby‘s 32-homer season and the latter marking Willie Mays‘s final 30-homer effort. In that span a center fielder — as defined by playing 90 percent of his games at the position — hit 30 or more homers 26 times. The usual suspects appear on that list: Mickey Mantle (7), Mays (11), Duke Snider (5), and Doby (2). For good measure, Gus Bell sneaks in there with a 30-homer season in 1953. It was quite a 15-year run for major-league center fielders.
Things changed a bit once those generational talents left the game. From 1967 through 1992, there were only 17 instances of a center fielder hitting 30 home runs in a season. Gorman Thomas was the most prolific, making the list four times, including the top two spots (45 and 39). A few other players — Dale Murphy, Jim Wynn, and Eric Davis — made the list multiple times, but this was no era of Mantle, Mays, and Snider. There was no pantheon of power-hitting center fielders in that 25-year span. There were a few guys who hit them, but no one who so obviously dominated.
Why 1992 as the cut-off? There are a few reasons, though the least of them is that it makes a neat 25-year window. In 1993, things started to change. In 1992, hitters smacked home runs one every 47.4 at-bats. That number had fluctuated a bit in the preceding years, but it was normally between once every 42 and once every 48 at-bats. In 1993, that number dropped to one every 38.5 at-bats. From there it dipped and dipped, until we got to the height of the power era. From 1999 through 2004, hitters smacked homers at a rate of one every 30.9 at-bats. It’s unsurprising, then, that many more center fielders had 30-homer seasons.
From 1993 through 2009, there were 42 instances of a center fielder hitting 30 or more homers in a season. Ken Griffey Jr. was the tops here, hitting 56 in both 1997 and 1998, and making the list a total of seven times. Also making multiple entries were Andruw Jones (also 7), Jim Edmonds (5), Steve Finley (4), and Carlos Beltran (3). Even Vernon Wells, Ray Lankford, Preson Wilson, and Jose Cruz made the list twice. Granderson made that list once, with his 30 homers in 2009. But that just isn’t as impressive as the run he’s making this year.
Last year we saw a slight movement in the at-bats per home run ratio. For the first time since 1993 it crossed the 35 mark. It wasn’t a hugely drastic shift — in 2008 a home run was hit once every 34.2 at-bats. There is no surprise that only one center fielder, Vernon Wells, hit the 30-homer mark; really, it’s a surprise that even one did it. This year hitters are belting homers at a pace of one every 38.7 at-bats, which is basically on par with 1993. Granderson has hit one every 10.7 at-bats. That’s not quite as impressive as Bautista’s pace of one every 7.6 at-bats, but then again the point is that Granderson is a center fielder, a position not known for enormous power.
Throughout history we have lauded the great center fielders of the game. Mays, Mantle, Snider, Jones, Griffey, Edmonds — they all bashed homers at torrid rates. While there is no need to take away from their achievements, I hope that we can honor center fielders such as Gorman Thomas, Dale Murphy, and, if he can keep up a semblance of his pace, Curtis Granderson, for swatting homers in periods where they weren’t so common — were there weren’t a trio of prolific ballplayers in New York, or homers weren’t being smacked at record paces. It’s a tribute to the rarity of a center fielder possessing this type of power. That’s what makes seasons like Granderson’s so special.
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