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Center Fielders on the Veterans Committee Bubble

On Wednesday, Jerry Crasnick posted a column at ESPN arguing that Carlos Beltran is worthy of the Hall of Fame. I wholeheartedly agree. But he has ample company in his era. How many of his peers are worthy of Cooperstown, and how many of them will make it?

Among players who have played the bulk of their careers since 1980, exactly 12 center fielders have amassed at least 44 WAR. Three of them are already in the Hall of Fame: Kirby Puckett, Andre Dawson, and Robin Yount (whom I’ll consider a centerfielder for my purposes). Here are the other nine:

Ken Griffey Jr. 77.4
Andruw Jones 67.8
Jim Edmonds 64.2
Carlos Beltran 63.9
Kenny Lofton 62.2
Mike Cameron 49.7
Ellis Burks 44.7
Dale Murphy 44.3
Bernie Williams 44.3

Puckett was elected with 44.9 WAR — a bit more than Burks and Murphy, and less than Cameron — but his career ended with a glaucoma diagnosis when he was 35, and so the voters clearly expected that he would have otherwise continued to be productive. We don’t need to discuss the bottom three members of the list. Ellis Burks doesn’t have a prayer of making the Hall, and Bernie Williams doesn’t have much of one. On the other hand, Dale Murphy’s case has been endlessly debated over the last 15 years, and basically comes down to a philosophical question of how much you value peak vs. career value. I won’t wade into those waters here.

In my view, the top five names on that list are worthy of the Hall of Fame, and while I don’t believe Mike Cameron is Hall-worthy, he was a wonderful player for a very long time and he had a better career than several players in the Hall. So it’s worth discussing Beltran’s four peers — this won’t be the last time they’ll be mentioned in the same breath.

First, Griffey. He’s the only player on the list who was regularly mentioned as a future Hall of Famer by virtually everybody. Generally speaking, when others have trumpeted Hall of Fame cases for the other players on the list — as with Beltran in Crasnick’s column, or a piece I wrote this offseason about Kenny Lofton — it has essentially been couched as an apologia, as a formal defense of the rightness of their claim against the presumption that they are unworthy. I believe Griffey, Jones, Edmonds, Beltran, and Lofton all deserve the Hall, but many baseball fans would disagree with at least some of the names on the list, all except Griffey.

Ken Griffey, Jr. was, as Bill James pointed out in the New Historical Baseball Abstract, “the second-best left-handed hitting, left-handed throwing outfielder ever born in Donora, Pennsylvania on November 21.” It just so happened that Griffey shares a birthday and a birthplace with Stan Musial. (For what it’s worth, he also shares a birthday with undeserving Hall of Famer Freddie Lindstrom, as well as Jayson Werth‘s uncle Dick Schofield, and 19th-century hurler Bobby Mathews, who at 297 wins is the winningest eligible pitcher who is not in the Hall of Fame.)

Griffey hit 630 home runs, played brilliant defense as a young man, and was arguably the most popular player in the game for several years in the 1990s, a five-tool player with a thousand-watt smile. Of course, he basically had two careers, a decade in Seattle that cemented his legacy as one of the most brilliant players in the history of the game, and a decade in Cincinnati that was lost in injuries and frustrated expectations.

In his first eleven seasons in Seattle, Griffey was worth 68.4 WAR; in his last eleven seasons in Cincinnati, Chicago, and then back to Seattle, Griffey was worth 8.9 WAR. His bat was still reasonably good when he was on the field, but his defense underwent a disastrous decline, sapping nearly all of his value. (Not only that, but he was typically flanked by Adam Dunn in left field.) It was sad to watch Griffey struggle to stay on the field, the kid for whom baseball had seemed so effortless. But it was hard to blame him. He wanted to play. As with Kirby Puckett, it is hard to imagine that voters will penalize Griffey for his injuries. Instead, they’ll remember his brilliance as a young man.

The thing is, Andruw Jones had a somewhat similar career arc, though even more pronounced. He played his first 12 seasons in Atlanta, generating 65.1 WAR. But in the six years since he left Turner Field, Andruw Jones has only managed 2.5 WAR in the major leagues, and he is a Rakuten Golden Eagle this year. (He’s picked up where he left off, hitting .226 but popping 17 homers in 414 PA. He’s second on his team in homers, behind Casey McGehee, who has 20. In third place on the team is Kaz Matsui, who has eight.)

During his years in Seattle, Griffey averaged 6.1 WAR per 600 PA, while Jones averaged 5.4 WAR per 600 PA in Atlanta. After he left Seattle in 2000, Griffey dipped to 1.2 per 600 PA, while Jones dropped to 1.0. Basically, Jones was a somewhat better fielder while Griffey was an even more than somewhat better hitter. All the same, Jones was the best defensive player of his era, a five-time All-Star who has the fifth-most homers among all center fielders, behind Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr., Mickey Mantle, and Andre Dawson, and ahead of Duke Snider. Like Griffey (and, to some extent, Dale Murphy), Jones didn’t do much to add to his legacy once he was done as an elite player, but in my view, his decade plus as an elite player should have been enough to secure him a place in Cooperstown.

Edmonds is remarkable because he had nearly the opposite career arc. He did not do a good job of staying on the field in his 20s, and managed only 20 WAR in parts of seven seasons before departing Anaheim for St. Louis. Suddenly, he became a vastly better hitter. In his eight seasons as a Cardinal, his ISO was 64 points higher than it had been as an Angel, and his OBP was 44 points higher. His defense remained quite good, but he played a few more games each year, popped several more homers, took a bunch more walks, and all of a sudden was perennially one of the best players in the league, along with his teammate Albert Pujols. He was past his prime by the time of the Cards’ 2006 World Series win, but prior to that he was truly devastating: he averaged 6.6 WAR a year from 2000-2005, and not coincidentally, the Cardinals had four first-place finishes in six years, the first time that the club had done that since 1942-1947.

Edmonds’s candidacy really rests on that six-year peak, and that’s sort of the trouble: hitters aren’t supposed to have their best seasons from age 30 to 35, especially not when they immediately blossom after becoming Mark McGwire‘s teammate. Please note: I am not saying that Edmonds took steroids, only that he is likely to face the same skepticism that has greeted other eminently qualified candidates from the era like Jeff Bagwell. The only other thing against Edmonds is that his career was somewhat abbreviated: his first full season occurred when he was 24, he had reasonably regular injury problems, and as a result, he only had 7980 career plate appearances over 17 seasons. That would be a very low total by modern standards: in the 162-game era, the only Hall of Fame position player with that few plate appearances is Puckett, who obviously had extenuating circumstances. By the same token, he only played 2011 games, which likewise would be the lowest modern total other than Puckett; the only Hall of Famer who comes close is Jim Rice, who played 2089 games, the equivalent of another half season’s worth. Edmonds’s rate stats are phenomenal, but his counting stats are a little light.

Lofton is the final candidate worth mentioning. Unlike the other three, he exemplifies career longevity rather than career peak. His peak was certainly good: with his excellent defense and fine offense, Lofton was selected to the All-Star game six years in a row, from 1994-1999. But he was never the best center fielder in baseball: during his career, that was usually Griffey or Jones, and sometimes Edmonds. Still, he was always good. And his career also demonstrates the value of counting stats. Like Edmonds, he played for 17 years and retired after his age-40 season. But Lofton had 9235 plate appearances, 1255 more than Edmonds — nearly two seasons’ worth. Even if Lofton wasn’t as good a player as Edmonds, Lofton’s teams appreciated those extra plate appearances.

Lofton’s greatest achievement, though, was as postseason good-luck charm. In his final six seasons from 2002 to 2007, he was a faded good-not-great outfielder, and as a journeyman he played for nine different teams in six years. In three of those years he switched teams at midseason and led his new team to the playoffs. Also, the Indians have been virtually incapable of winning without him. As I wrote, Lofton was on hand for six first-place finishes by the Indians — he missed the 1997 AL championship, but was there for the 1995 World Series and pennants in 1996, 1998, 1999, 2001, and 2007. He was one of the best players on all of these teams. Since 1948 — the last time the Indians won the World Series — the Indians have been to the playoffs eight times, and Lofton contributed to all but two: 1954, when Willie Mays made The Catch; and 1997, when Lofton was with the Braves.

The trouble for Lofton is that he has trouble distinguishing himself in the company of Griffey, Jones, Edmonds, and Beltran, let alone that of the two best center fielders not currently in the Hall of Fame, Jimmy Wynn and Reggie Smith.

Of course, the trouble for Beltran is likely to be similar. Every year, the ballot gets more crowded, especially as voters ineffectually register their disgust with the steroid era by unfairly casting guilt by association. Whenever Beltran reaches the ballot, there’s a good chance that he will be surrounded by ten other worthy Hall of Famers, all with a case at least as good as that of Edmonds, Jones or Lofton. That is not his fault. So I’m rooting for all of those worthy players to be inducted by the time he gets there.