2020 MLB Top Ten: Center Fielders

Last week, we analyzed the top ten left fielders in the MLB, but outside of Juan Soto, there weren’t any true MVP candidates on this list. That won’t be the case in center field- the AL and NL MVPs make up the top spots on this list, while there are plenty of All-Star caliber players making the list. Unlike left field, it’s definitely more of a defensively-oriented position, as every player ranked in the top ten had above-average sprint speed last season, so in a way, offense is the x-factor; the players on this list who can mash AND field their position are the ones that stood out above the rest in the ranking process. We have some controversial exclusions, and much more to get to, so without further adieu, let’s take a look at who I’m projecting to be the top-ten center fielders in 2020!

Stats Used (Via Fangraphs and Baseball Savant):

wrc+= Weighted Runs Created Plus; 100 is league-average (Ex: A player with a 111 wrc+ is 11% better than league average offensively, while a player with a 93 wrc+ is 7% worse)

xwOBA= Expected Weighted On Base Average

xSLG= Expected Slugging Percentage

drs= Defensive Runs Saved

UZR= Ultimate Zone Rating

ISO= Isolated Power (slugging percentage minus batting average)

OAA= Outs Above Average

WAR= We will use Fangraphs’ WAR metric

Before we get to the list, let’s look at the players who just missed the cut:

  • Aaron Hicks (NYY) would’ve ranked 6th or 7th on this list if healthy, but he’s expected to miss at least the first 2-3 months of the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and it’s unclear how he’ll perform upon returning.
  • Harrison Bader (STL) was on this list last year, but his offense regressed to below a .300 xwOBA, and his defense wasn’t elite enough to make up for it.
  • Ender Inciarte (ATL) and Kevin Kiermaier (TB) are both starting to decline, and after being on this list last year, they may never get back onto it. In Kiermaier’s case, it’s Manuel Margot (TB) who has a better chance ranking on this list in the future.
  • Ian Happ (CHC) was excellent down the stretch last season, but played most of the season in the minors and isn’t strong defensively in center field.
  • Luis Robert (CHW) is an extremely well-regarded prospect, but I’m not sure he finds immediate success; he has major plate discipline issues and his defense isn’t great.
  • Brett Gardner (NYY) produced in an unsustainable fashion last season, and I don’t see him having more than a 2-2.5 WAR, which isn’t enough to have him listed among such a talented group of players.
  • Whit Merrifield (KC) is easily the most controversial exclusion from this list, but to be honest, I really don’t know how he’d be included. He doesn’t hit the ball hard, lacks a standout skill, and in center field, is about average defensively. He’s also 31-years-old, and several projections aren’t kind to him; it’s safe to say the Royals missed their chance to capitalize on his peak and trade him.

#10: Mike Yastrzemski, San Francisco Giants

YAZ
Photo Cred: San Francisco Chronicle

Age: 29

2019 Rank: N/A

2018 Stats: N/A

2019 Stats (107 Games): .272/.334/.518 121 wrc+ 8 drs 0.8 UZR 3 OAA 2.2 WAR

2020 Projected Stats: .261/.323/.512 115 wrc+ 5 drs 0.9 UZR 4 OAA 2.6 WAR

When Farhan Zaidi was the general manager of the Dodgers, he and Andrew Friedman excelled at finding steals on the waiver wire or trade market, whether it was Max Muncy, Chris Taylor, or other key role players. Now that he’s the President of Baseball Operations for the Giants, he took a similar approach last season, acquiring many low-level outfielders with the hope that one could emerge as an impact contributor. It may have taken longer than he maybe had hoped for, but in Mike Yastrzemski, he may have found his first major stole on the open market. Acquired from the Orioles in exchange for minor-league pitcher Tyler Herb, Yastrzemski never truly dominated the minor leagues, and at the 29-years-old, clearly wasn’t someone Baltimore general manager Mike Elias was keen on keeping. Heck, he was even almost demoted to Triple-A before the All-Star break, before Zaidi decided to give him one last chance. Well, it’s safe to say he took advantage of that opportunity. Yastrzemski was a monster in the second half, posting a 136 wrc+, and during that stretch, improved on his walk and strikeout rates. He still needs to work on striking out less (26%), but that was still encouraging, especially for someone who hits the ball with as much hard contact (42.9%) with the type of launch (18.5%) that he does. Overall, he’ll never be the type of player who gets on base at a super high clip, but his power (.510 xSLG) elevates him into being an above-average hitter. Considering that he also rated out well defensively in the outfield, including a solid 4% success rate added in center field (where he’ll likely play this season), that makes him a valuable, all-around player- I expect him to post a WAR in the 2-3 range. Now, we’ve seen plenty of players peak at a random time of their career and regress immediately after, but there’s nothing to suggest that Yastrzemski falls in that same category. The Giants are in desperate need of any player who could be apart of their next contending team, and even at his age, there’s a chance that the grandson of Carl Yastrzemski could fill that role.

#9: Brandon Nimmo, New York Mets

nimmo
Photo Cred: http://www.si.com

Age: 26

2019 Rank: 8 (RF)

2018 Stats (140 Games): .263/.404/.483 148 wrc+ -6 drs -3.6 UZR 5 OAA 4.5 WAR

2019 Stats (69 Games): .221/.375/.409 114 wrc+ -1 drs -0.9 UZR 3 OAA 1.3 WAR

2020 Projected Stats: .230/.384/.388 116 wrc+ -7 drs -2.6 UZR 2 OAA 2.7 WAR

Baseball players serve as role models for the next generation of young athletes, especially in big markets. Therefore, it’s super ideal that the Mets are able to have a player like Brandon Nimmo on their team; he plays the game with such pure joy, that it’s impossible to not immediately root for him. However, Nimmo is far more valuable than what he brings from a character standpoint- he’s also a quality outfielder for the Mets. Nimmo’s walk rates (18.1%) may actually be his most valuable contribution, but it’s certainly not something to diminish- even with a .221 batting average last season, he was able to post a .375 on-base percentage, which is just absurd. Therefore, even when he can’t rely on a high batting average on balls in play, or will never hit for much power,  his offensive profile contains a very high floor. Defensively, it’s more of a mixed bags, as both drs and UZR see him as a below-average defender, especially in center field, while OAA sees him as slightly above-average. I’ll be conservative and say that Nimmo is about average defensively overall, but with terrific sprint speed, he has the tools to get better. The main question with Nimmo is his durability, which certainly is compromised by his hard playing style. Upon returning in September from his neck injury, he was fantastic, but he’ll have to deal with two bulging discs in his neck throughout his playing career, which is certainly not ideal. Here’s to hoping that Nimmo is able to stay healthy in 2020, as he still has plenty of room to grow, and with his unbelievable plate discipline, could easily post a .400 on-base percentage in any given season- he’s a young building block for the Mets, rather than a trade piece.

#8: Victor Robles, Washington Nationals

robles
Photo Cred: USA Today

Age: 22

2019 Rank: N/A

2018 Stats (21 Games): .288/.348/.525 131 wrc+ 1 drs 0.6 UZR 2 OAA 0.5 WAR

2019 Stats (155 Games): .255/.326/.419 91 wrc+ 24 drs 7 UZR 23 OAA 2.5 WAR

2020 Projected Stats: .243/.314/.390 86 wrc+ 22 drs 6.9 UZR 22 OAA 2.4 WAR

A top-five prospect heading into the season, Victor Robles was a major reason why the Nationals didn’t make a greater effort to re-sign Bryce Harper, as he was able to replace him in the outfield. The 22-year-old’s rookie season probably can’t be defined as a major success, but at the same time, he did post a 2.5 WAR, and was a key part of a World Series championship team. He may have not won the gold glove, but by every defensive metric, Robles was as superb as a defender as he could’ve been, and should continue to be in the future- his defense makes him a very reliable player since he’s guaranteed to be at least a 2 WAR player in theory. The main question with him is his offense, and the early results weren’t promising. His walk rate (5.7%) and hard-hit rate (23%), for example, were absurdly low, and had it not been for a little bit of luck, he may have been an offensive liability. At the same time, he was given 60 or 65 grade for his hit tool as a prospect, so the talent is clearly there for him to improve; it’s reasonable to expect him to go through natural progression, and be much better in his second season. However, considering that he produced at a level that may have been slightly unsustainable, being better this season may still mean a slight decline in his offensive numbers, which limits his overall upside. Robles’ defense is incredible, and there’s always the chance that he could break out offensively, but I’m not a 100% believer in him doing so- 8th feels like a safe spot for him on this list.

#7: Byron Buxton, Minnesota Twins

buxton
Photo Cred: Duluth News Tribune

Age: 26

2019 Rank: N/A

2018 Stats (28 Games): .156/.183/.200 -2 wrc+ 2 drs 2.2 UZR 2 OAA -0.3 WAR

2019 Stats (87 Games): .262/.314/.513 111 wrc+ 10 drs 8.7 UZR 12 OAA 2.7 WAR

2020 Projected Stats: .252/.304/.449 92 wrc+ 14 drs 10.1 UZR 16 OAA 3.1 WAR

When you’re the second overall pick of the 2012 MLB draft, and then proceed to be ranked as MLB Pipeline’s #1 prospect in consecutive seasons, expectations are going to be extremely high for you to be a franchise-saver. That, in a way, has plagued Byron Buxton. He was supposed to be a five-tool superstar, but he’s played 100 games in a season, just once, and in three seasons, he has compiled a total WAR of 7.4. Yet, at the same time, the 26-year-old has by no means been a complete letdown, and remains a top-ten player at his position. Buxton’s offense (.309 xwOBA) remains underwhelming, but he did make substantial improvements to his launch angle (19.5 degrees) and hard-hit rate (38.7%); he also swung at more pitches both outside the zone and in the zone, thus employing a more aggressive approach. While that approach doesn’t work for many hitters, he was able to decrease his strikeout rate (23.1%) from his last healthy season in 2017, so at least for him, the benefits could be seen. Regardless, it’s Buxton’s 100th percentile sprint speed (30.3 ft/sec), and his prolific defense that comes from it, that stems most of his value; if he can just be an average hitter, he could be an All-Star. Durability is a major question mark with Buxton, but if he can just stay healthy, he’s at least a three-win player, with the potential to be so, so much more. After all, he’s only played one full season, so there’s a likely chance that he’ll be able to develop his skill set further.

#6: Ramon Laureano, Oakland A’s

laureano
Photo Cred: kthk.com

Age: 25

2019 Rank: N/A

2018 Stats (48 Games): .288/.358/.474 130 wrc+ 4 drs 3.7 UZR 2 OAA 2.1 WAR

2019 Stats (123 Games): .288/.340/.521 126 wrc+ -1 drs 0.7 UZR -5 OAA 3.9 WAR

2020 Projected Stats: .276/.328/.487 115 wrc+ -1 drs 0.8 UZR -6 OAA 3.5 WAR

As a 16th round pick who was traded as a 23-year-old after struggling in Double-A, Ramon Laureano appears to play with a chip on shoulder, and who can blame him? He has been overlooked in the past, but now, he’s found his home in Oakland. The 25-year-old is easily most famous for his cannon arm, which may the strongest in the MLB. Yet, he actually struggled defensively in center field last season, so despite the defensive highlights, it’s his offense that generates most of his value. He slightly overachieved last season, based on his expected statistics, but nevertheless, his .342 xwOBA and .487 xSLG were both solid, especially among a group of middling offensive producers. Improving his plate discipline (5.6% BB) will be critical for him, but on the bright side, he did just that in the second half of the season, as he was spectacular down the stretch. Plus, considering he ranks 90th and 84th percentile in outfielder jump and sprint speed, respectively, he has the traits necessary to be a strong defender, and if that can happen, he could be a star. Heading into his second full season, the future looks bright for the Athletics’ center fielder.

#5: Lorenzo Cain, Milwaukee Brewers

lorenzocain
Photo Cred: Kenosha News

Age: 33

2019 Rank: 4

2018 Stats (141 Games): .308/.395/.417 124 wrc+ 20 drs 8.7 UZR 22 OAA 5.7 WAR

2019 Stats (148 Games): .260/.325/.372 83 wrc+ 20 drs 7 UZR 14 OAA 1.5 WAR

2020 Projected Stats: .286/.351/.399 97 wrc+ 18 drs 6.6 UZR 16 OAA 3.5 WAR

When the Brewers signed 31-year-old Lorenzo Cain to a five-year contract prior to the 2018 season, they clearly were gambling that his production on the front-end of the deal would make up for any regression at the back end. After posting a 5.7 WAR in this first season, he appeared to be well on his way to do so. However, things certainly didn’t go as planned this past season, as he played through a lot of injuries, and struggled to the tune of a 83 wrc+ and 1.5 WAR. Is this a sign of things to come for the 33-year-old? Yes, I’m a little concerned about his age and durability, especially since his sprint speed (27.8 ft/sec) declined last season. However, Cain is a much better player than he showed last season, and I expect him to more than double his WAR in 2020. Though Cain posted just a .302 wOBA, that came with a .330 xwOBA, as his .301 BABIP was much lower than it had been in previous seasons; considering his hard-hit rate (42.1%) and launch angle (6.6 degrees) both improved, that appears to be a fluke. Plus, as showed by rightfully winning his first Gold Glove in 2019, he’s still an incredible defender, and has shown no signs of slowing down in that regard. By the final year of his contract, I don’t expect Cain to be an impact contributor, and even now, it’s significantly unlikely he’ll ever get back to his 2018 form. Yet, he still is well-equipped to post a WAR in the mid 3s, and for a Brewers team that is trying to compete in a difficult division, they’ll undoubtedly be satisfied with that. For next season alone, he’s still a top-five center fielder.

#4: Starling Marte, Arizona Diamondbacks

marte
Photo Cred: NJ.com

Age: 31

2019 Rank: 7

2018 Stats (145 Games): .277/.327/460 112 wrc+ 1 drs 3.2 UZR 10 OAA 3.7 WAR

2019 Stats (132 Games): .295/.342/.503 119 wrc+ -9 drs -7.6 UZR 2 OAA 3 WAR

2020 Projected Stats: .292/.339/.491 115 wrc+ -2 drs -1.4 UZR 5 OAA 3.5 WAR

The only player on this team to change teams this offseason, Starling Marte has been one of the more underrated players in the MLB. He’s not very flashy, but he’s consistent and reliable, so naturally, he went to one of the most frequently overlooked teams in baseball- the Arizona Diamondbacks. Partnering up with Ketel Marte, it’ll be a “Marte Partay x2” in Arizona, and in the end, Starling should be an excellent acquisition for them. Sure, his regressed all-around defensively last season, but he also played for an analytically-opposed Pirates organization, his sprint speed (29 ft/sec) is still fantastic, and since his jumps graded out very well, I expect him to be better with a much smarter organization. What we do know for a fact, however, is that Marte projects to be a strong offensive presence. His .361 xwOBA, 119 wrc+, and .511 xSLG all paint the picture about the type of hitter he is. Sure, he’ll never walk much (4.3%), yet he gets on-base enough with his pure contact skills, and better yet, perhaps Arizona can help him be more selective- he absolutely demolishes fastballs (11.7 runs above average). Perhaps I wouldn’t be so high on Marte if he hadn’t been traded, though now that he is with the Diamondbacks, I’m super bullish about his upside heading into 2020. Regardless, he’s posted back-to-back three-win seasons, is one of the more dependable players on this list, and definitely deserves more recognition than he currently gets.

#3: George Springer, Houston Astros

spiinger
Photo Cred: Yardbarker.com

Age: 30

2019 Rank: 5

2018 Stats (140 Games) .265/.346/.434 118 wrc+ -5 drs -2.2 UZR 0 OAA 2.9 WAR

2019 Stats (122 Games): .292/.383/.591 156 wrc+ 11 drs 8.8 UZR 8 OAA 6.5 WAR

2020 Projected Stats: .276/.367/.530 140 wrc+ 7 drs 4.9 UZR 4 OAA 5.7 WAR

The Astros’ sign-stealing scandal rightfully is drawing all the headlines, but at some point, the games will be played, and they have some serious baseball questions to answer. One of them is in center field; obviously, George Springer is an elite player, but he’s also a free agent after the season, and Houston may not have the finances to bring him back. In that case, that makes this upcoming season a critical one for Springer, as if he produces like he did in 2019, he could be looking at least a $200 million contract. Coming off a World Series MVP in 2017, the expectation was that the 30-year-old would become a star, but he regressed to a 118 wrc+, which is a little discouraging. So naturally, he had the best season of his career in 2019, posting career-highs in every category, including wrc+ (156), WAR (6.5), xwOBA (.398), and xSLG (.578). What changed for Springer? To be frank, everything. His plate discipline (22.8% chase) was better, he hit the ball harder (44.8%), and to top it all off, he suddenly become an above-average defender in the outfield. Had he stayed healthy, Springer would’ve been in contention for the AL MVP award, or at least a top-three spot, and best of all, it doesn’t appear to have been a fluke. No matter what team he is playing for at this time next season, his spot in the top three of this list shouldn’t be in question anytime soon.

#2: Cody Bellinger, Los Angeles Dodgers

MLB: JUL 03 Diamondbacks at Dodgers
Photo Cred: Dodgers Nation

Age: 24

2019 Rank: 2

2018 Stats (162 Games): .260/.343/.470 120 wrc+ 6 drs 0.4 UZR 6 OAA 3.6 WAR

2019 Stats (156 Games): .305/.406/.629 162 wrc+ 22 drs 10.3 UZR 7 OAA 7.8 WAR

2020 Projected Stats: .302/.403/.589 157 wrc+ 19 drs 8.9 UZR 7 OAA 6.9 WAR

Though the next player on this list is the undisputed best player in baseball, the title of the game’s second base player is a much better debate. There are plenty of strong candidates for that spot, including Christian Yelich and Mookie Betts, but it’s Betts’ new teammate that has emerged as potentially the future of baseball. Cody Bellinger may have “disappointed” with a 3.6 WAR after winning the Rookie of the Year award in 2017, but he was always regarded as a premier talent, and showcased his five-tool ability in phenomenal fashion in 2019. That included a 7.8 WAR and 162 wrc+, which earned him the NL MVP, and heading into 2020, there’s no reason he can’t repeat. Once seen as an all-out slugger with major strikeout concerns, the 24-year-old put those criticisms to bed, walking (14.4%) nearly as much as he struck out (16.4%); he managed to chase fewer pitches and swing at more pitches in the zone, which is extremely impressive. Furthermore, Bellinger got back to hitting the ball hard (45.7%) and a suitable launch angle (17.7 degrees), so in the end, his MVP season may have just been the beginning. Heck, he actually UNDERACHIEVED, as his .429 xwOBA and .638 xSLG were actually higher than his actual numbers, which is simply absurd. Oh, and quietly, Bellinger is definitely one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball, as he’s a natural athlete with amazing arm strength and technique. Bellinger may not even be the best player in baseball, but he’s the best player in the National League, and playing in such a big market, he’s become one of the faces of baseball. Just 24-years-old, he’s just getting started on what figures to be a career that ends with him in the Hall of Fame, and given his age, he may the most untouchable player in the game.

#1: Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels

MIke Trout
Photo Cred: ocregister.com

Age: 28

2019 Rank: 1

2018 Stats (140 Games): .312/.460/.628 190 wrc+ 8 drs 4 UZR 6 OAA 9.8 WAR

2019 Stats (134 Games): .291/.438/.645 180 wrc+ -1 drs -0.9 UZR -2 OAA 8.6 WAR

2020 Projected Stats: .302/.449/.639 181 wrc+ 1 drs 0 UZR 0 OAA 9.2 WAR

Do we deserve Mike Trout? It’s a legitimate question, as somehow, the 28-year-old is almost underrated- we’re always looking for the next top player in baseball, that we never sit back and appreciate his greatness. With a career 73.4 WAR through eight seasons, he’s already booked his ticket to the Hall of Fame. The better question is if he’s the greatest player in baseball history, and right now, I think he may be. Outside of a 2017 season in which he managed a 6.8 WAR in just 114 games, his lowest WAR in a season is 8.3, while his lowest wrc+ is 167. Perhaps even scarier, he actually had his best offensive season last year, as his .455 xwOBA and .669 xSLG each ranked in the 100th percentile. Sure, he’s probably an average defender in center field, but he remains a tremendous athlete, and at just 28-years-old, has at least 5-6 more seasons at this level. That means 5-6 seasons before any other player has a serious case for being the top player in the MLB, and hopefully, he can get some more help by then. The Angels made some splashy moves to build a winner around Trout this offseason, but will it be enough? Either way, at least they can rest easy knowing they have an iconic figure under team control for the next 11 seasons, which gives them a chance to win a World Series in each year of the next decade.

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