Commentary

Where are all the great outfielders?

There are several possible explanations for the decline in outfield talent over the years

Originally Published: July 8, 2010
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

We have asked the same question each of the past three years, and always around the time of the All-Star Game. So, we ask again: Where have all the great all-around outfielders gone?

For those of us born in the 1950s, the All-Star Game meant seeing Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Al Kaline, Carl Yastrzemski, Reggie Jackson, Willie Stargell, Lou Brock and Billy Williams -- all outfielders. For the slightly younger, the All-Star game meant seeing Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., Tony Gwynn, Rickey Henderson, Jim Rice, Dave Winfield, Kirby Puckett, Andre Dawson, Tim Raines -- all outfielders. From those groups, all but Raines is in the Hall of Fame, and he should be.

Right now, who are the three best outfielders in the National League? Who are the three best outfielders in the American League? There are many choices, but few great ones, especially in the NL.

ESPN Stats & Information utilizes four statistical rankings. Taking the average of the four, covering all position players, the first outfielder on the list is the Rangers' Josh Hamilton at No. 12. And there were only four outfielders in the top 20.

[+] EnlargeJosh Hamilton
AP Photo/Cody DutyJosh Hamilton's skill set -- a blend of power, speed and pure athleticism -- is reminiscent of outfielders from years ago.

"There's no reason to panic, because these things go in cycles," Frank Robinson said. "It used to be, 'Where are all the pitchers?' Where are all the guys who throw 90?' Now what is missing is the great outfielder. It's going to take a few years for it to come back. It's going to take time for the Jason Heywards to come around. But it's not what it used to be."

Eight outfielders made the 2010 NL All-Star team: starters Ryan Braun, Heyward and Andre Ethier, followed by Matt Holliday, Michael Bourn, Marlon Byrd, Corey Hart and Chris Young. They are all good players; they all deserve to be on the team, but they don't exactly conjure images of the 1970 All-Star Game in which Mays, Aaron and Rico Carty started for the NL team, with Clemente coming off the bench, and Yastrzemski, Robinson and Frank Howard started for the AL team. Is it fair to compare that era to this? That was a marvelous time in baseball history; it was a confluence of great outfielders. But most eras in history have been loaded with great outfielders. The last few years, however, is not one of them.

We have future Hall of Famers playing at ballparks everywhere, from shortstop Derek Jeter to third baseman Alex Rodriguez to catcher Pudge Rodriguez, but where are the Hall of Fame outfielders? Manny Ramirez is one, of course. So is Vlad Guerrero. So is Ichiro Suzuki, after this season (all players eligible for Cooperstown must have 10 years of service time). But Ramirez was never a particularly good defensive player or baserunner. Ichiro, for all his greatness, doesn't hit home runs or drive in runs. Guerrero was once a terrific all-around outfielder, remains a productive hitter, but now is a DH. Bobby Abreu and Johnny Damon have interesting numbers, but they're not Hall of Famers.

Where are the young potential Hall of Fame outfielders? The Rays' Carl Crawford? Maybe with seven more great years, but if Raines doesn't even come close to being elected, it's hard to imagine Crawford getting in. The Indians' Grady Sizemore showed great promise, but injuries and too many strikeouts have set him back. The Rangers' Hamilton, 29, is a five-tool outfielder with talent to match almost any player from any era, but injuries and substance abuse have kept his career from skyrocketing. Braun is off to a sensational start offensively, and likely will be Hall of Fame-worthy someday, but he is a converted infielder and far from the prototype outfielder that can play defense and throw. How about the rest of the veteran outfielders? Holliday? Torii Hunter? Adam Dunn? Carlos Beltran? Maybe with a really strong finish, one of them will end up in the Hall of Fame.

Why is this happening? Where are the great all-around outfielders? Is it cyclical, as Robinson suggests, and we are just in a down cycle with the retirements of Bonds, Griffey, Henderson, Sammy Sosa and Larry Walker? There are theories, but that's all they are.

The Cal Ripken factor. In the early 1980s, Ripken was largely instrumental in making it fashionable for a big man to play the infield. When he won rookie of the year in 1982 and MVP (and a championship ring) in 1983, big athletic kids wanted to play shortstop: Jeter, A-Rod and Chipper Jones are among the many that list Ripken as the guy who showed them it was all right for a big guy to play shortstop.

"When I came up, they didn't allow the big athletic players to play skill positions," Robinson said. "It was like, 'No, you can't be a shortstop. No, you can't be a second baseman.'"

[+] EnlargeCal Ripken
Rick Stewart/Getty ImagesWhen Cal Ripken burst onto the scene in 1982, he opened the door for other big, highly skilled athletes at shortstop.

"I know, as a college coach, that everyone wants to be a shortstop; it's the glamour position," said Gwynn, who is the head baseball coach at San Diego State. "When Cal moved to shortstop, he let everyone know that it's okay for a 6-4 or 6-5 guy to play the infield."

"The way the game was scouted, and the way players were signed 40-50 years ago was this: If you were a young kid with size, and could hit the ball far, and you were an American, a black American, they put you in the outfield or at first base," said Ted Simmons, one of the best hitting catchers of all time, now a coach for the Padres. "If you had multiple skills, you had power and speed, they would make you an outfielder every time."

Chicks dig the long ball. For at least a 10-year period during the steroid era, a generation of young kids spent all day in the batting cage, pumping token after token, refining their swing, often times at the expense of their throwing arm and their running speed. It is possible that we produced a bunch of first baseman/DH types that cared only about raking, which could explain why the most productive position in baseball this season, and in the previous few years, has been first base. Yes, there have been slow-footed first basemen throughout baseball history, but it's also possible that some first basemen could have been outfielders if they had spent more time trying to be all-around players.

"I agree with that," Gwynn said. "Players today don't play as much as we did. They play the video version. But to be a good outfielder, a complete outfielder, you have to work at it."

A shortage of African-American players. Thirty years ago, 28 percent of all major leaguers were African-American. Now it's down to 8.7 percent.

"We saw it coming years ago, but now there's a crisis, people are paying attention," Robinson said. "But you can't fix this overnight. RBI [Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities] helps, but there's not one solution. We're having problems getting black athletes to play. Now they're going to other sports. There used to be a day where the outstanding young athlete played baseball. Period. Those days have passed. The talent pool isn't as deep as it used to be. Now the young African-American athlete doesn't want anything to do with baseball."

In the past 31 years, 14 African-American outfielders have been elected to the Hall of Fame: Mays, Aaron, Robinson, Brock, Williams, Stargell, Jackson, Larry Doby, Winfield, Puckett, Gwynn, Henderson, Rice and Dawson. There are several good young African-American outfielders today, including Crawford, Hunter, Matt Kemp, B.J. and Justin Upton and Andrew McCutchen, but, at least so far, none fits the profile as the great all-around outfielder.

"Five years ago, I scouted a Stanford-Florida State game at Florida State with [former pitcher] Dave Stewart," Simmons said. "Both teams lined up on the baselines before the game. Stanford had one black. Florida State had one black. Both were trainers. Dave looked at me and said, 'Ted, where are all the athletes?' I pointed in the direction of the football field where they were holding football spring practice and said, 'I bet you can find a shortstop down there, a center fielder down there.' We were looking in the wrong place."

Simmons was a multisport high school star who chose to play baseball at Michigan.

"You are a parent, and your son has to choose between football, basketball and baseball," Simmons said. "Football has, what, 52 scholarships? Basketball has, what, 11? At Michigan, there were only a handful of baseball scholarships, and they were half-scholarships, mostly for pitchers. So as a parent, what are you going to take? If you take the full scholarship in football or basketball, at least you know your son is going to college."

Gwynn knows all about that as a college coach.

"There are a lot of kids that like to play baseball, but they're not the elite players," he said. "In baseball, you have to earn your way. You don't go straight from high school or college to the big leagues, as guys do in football and basketball. There is more immediate gratification in those sports. I see a lot of kids playing baseball, but not the dominant guys."

Maybe Robinson and Gwynn and Simmons are right. Maybe it is cyclical. Maybe the great all-around outfielder will make a comeback. Maybe it has already begun with Heyward and the Marlins' Mike Stanton, two big, strong, athletic 20-year-old outfielders. Maybe we'll look back at the 2010 season and note where the renaissance began. If so, it is time.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.