Why Willie Mays Is The Greatest Centerfielder Ever
by Lincoln Mitchell
February 15, 2021
The question of who is the greatest centerfielder of all time is a fascinating and difficult one, but the answer is still clear. The greatest centerfielder ever was Willie Mays. Anecdotal evidence, conventional statistics and advanced metrics all support that finding. I know many people who saw Mays play and they all describe him as the best player they ever saw. They speak of his extraordinary defense in centerfield, speed on the bases, hitting ability, power, presence and deep understanding of the game. Conventional statistics and honors support this description. Mays hit 660 home runs, had more than 3,000 hits and a .301 batting average. He played in every All Star Game from 1954-1972. Had he not missed all of 1953 and three fourths of 1952 due to military service he would have easily had 700 home runs, 3,500 hits and 2,000 RBIs. His rate statistics would be slightly better too. An overview of advanced metrics makes a similar case. He is fifth in career WAR behind only Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Cy Young and Barry Bonds. He also led the NL in WAR an amazing ten times. Among outfielders only Andruw Jones and Paul Blair had more defensive WAR.
The larger discussion about who is the greatest centerfielder is fascinating because the top two candidates are from very different eras and because there is one active and mid-career player who is in the mix. Other than Mays, there are five candidates for greatest centerfielder ever. Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Mickey Mantle, Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Trout.
Ken Griffey Jr. is easy to eliminate from the discussion. Through his age 29 season, Griffey had accumulated 70.1 WAR, slightly more than Mays’s 68.1 at the same age. However, Mays’s number would have been between 75-80 if he had not missed time serving in the military. At that point, Griffey was a contender for best centerfielder ever. However, over the rest of his career, which lasted 11 more seasons, Griffey only had 13.1 WAR. Griffey had one of the longest decline phases of any great player and over the last half of his career was essentially a replacement level player.
This brings us to Mike Trout who just finished his age 29 season and has 76.1 WAR. If you round that up to 78 due to the Covid season, he is well ahead of where Mays was and about equal if you give Mays credit for time he missed in the military. By the end of his playing days it is possible that Trout’s career will exceed that of Mays, but it too early to tell. A couple of things to keep in mind: Trout is not close to being the defender that Mays was and could end up in a corner outfield position. Second, Mays was a very good older player accumulating fully 36 WAR from his age 35 season on. Trout will not be able to do that easily especially in the current baseball climate where fewer older players are given the change to play every day.
Mickey Mantle could not field or steal bases as well as Willie Mays and his body broke down earlier forcing him to move to first base when he was 35 and then into retirement a year later even though he could still hit-but that was not so easy to see in the pitching dominated late 1960s. However, for a decade or so, he was the best hitting centerfielder ever. Mays’s best year with the bat was 1965 when he has a fantastic 185 OPS+. Mantle exceeded that number in six different seasons. Mays led his league in that category six times, Mantle eight. If Mantle had stayed healthy, it would be a much different conversation, but he couldn’t and was not the all around player Mays was.
Tris Speaker and Ty Cobb were both deadball era players. Speaker was the better defender, but despite his .344 batting average and OPS+ of 158, Cobb was the better player. So, Cobb is the only other player who could be called the greatest centerfielder ever. Comparing the two is very difficult because they were such different players. Cobb never hit more than 12 home runs in a season. Mays never hit .350 in a season, but Cobb hit .366 over his career. Cobb’s offense was too good to dismiss. He led the AL in stolen bases seven times, batting average 12 times, OBP seven times, slugging percentage eight times and OPS+ 12 times. He played a different game, but he was, for his time, every bit as good, probably even better, than Mays with the bat and on the bases. Defense was a different story. Cobb is almost never described as a great defender, accumulated negative WAR in the field and played over 750 games in either left field, right field or first base because his teams had better defensive options in centerfield. Mays only played about 110 games in those positions.
At this point, the race is close, but there are two more issues. First, Cobb played in a segregated league where some of the best players around were excluded. Had Mays been born fifty years earlier than he was, he would not have been allowed to compete with Cobb, so Mays clearly played against better competition. Lastly, who do you want in your clubhouse for two decades. For me the answer is clear and in a close race is enough to convince me that-along with a whole lot of other reasons, Willie Mays is the greatest centerfielder-and one of the two greatest players-ever to play the game.