At the last turn of the century everyone rushed to make lists, and this might have been more true in baseball than anywhere else. In 1998, we saw the publication of a coffee-table book, The Sporting News Selects Baseball's 100 Greatest Players; the following year, Major League Baseball announced an "All Century Team," the best 100 players as compiled by "a panel of experts" and ranked by fans with too much time on their hands; and in 2001, Bill James published a new edition of his Historical Baseball Abstract, and of course Bill listed his 100 greatest players, too.
At that point, it looked like Ken Griffey Jr. stood a pretty decent chance of eventually hitting more home runs than anybody on this side of the Pacific ever hit, and there were people who thought he might someday be considered the greatest center fielder ever. But now we're roughly half a decade removed from all those lists. And with Griffey on the cusp of 500 homers, now's as good a time as any -- well, until the next time -- to ask, once again, how good is he?
One thing we know is this: Ken Griffey is not one of the four greatest center fielders in major league history. Griffey's career simply hasn't equaled those of Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, Mickey Mantle, or Tris Speaker. Mays, Cobb, and Speaker were all big stars for roughly two decades, which means that Griffey's still roughly a decade behind them. Mantle's comet flashed across the sky somewhat more briefly, but he was good for 17 seasons and he was the best player in the American League for roughly half that span. There's been a sort of Holy Quadrinity of Center Fielders since Mays retired, and neither Griffey nor anyone else has much chance of making it a Quinity.
The best Griffey can do, then, is No. 5. And not coincidentally, that's where he landed on the All Century Team (though it's worth remembering the All Century rankings were done by a group of people -- your friends and neighbors, mostly -- who think that DiMaggio was better than Cobb, and that a Tris Speaker is something you get at Best Buy). MLB's list went five center fielders deep, with Griffey No. 5. The Sporting News' list goes eight deep, with Mantle No. 4, Kirby Puckett No. 5, Duke Snider No. 6, followed by Griffey (they've got DiMaggio ahead of Mantle, which I regard as little more than idiosyncratic). And James goes eight deep, with DiMaggio No. 5, followed by Snider, Griffey, and Puckett.
I was going to criticize James for overrating Puckett, but if Bill's guilty of overrating Puckett, then what can we say about The Sporting News? As the memories of Kirby's smile fades, historians will be left to wonder why everybody thought Puckett was such a great player. But he's there, so we'll include him in our list of four candidates for the No. 5 slot on the all-time list: DiMaggio, Griffey, Puckett, and Snider.
How to rank them? I think it's appropriate to look at career numbers, but also at a subset of those career numbers. Think of it this way ... Who's the greater player? The one with 200 Win Shares in 10 seasons, or the one with 250 Win Shares in 15 seasons? Speaking of Win Shares, I've written about them before so I hope you'll indulge me, as I don't know of a better metric that includes both hitting and fielding. Anyway, here's our Quartet:
OPS+ Career 12 Best
DiMaggio 155 471 379
Griffey 145 330 299
Puckett 124 281 281
Snider 140 352 311
Let me say a few words about those numbers. First, OPS+ adjusts for home ballparks, and compares a player's on-base percentage plus slugging percentage to the league average. Second, for Joe DiMaggio, I somewhat conservatively credited him with Win Shares he might have earned if not for World War II. And third, that last column combines the player's 12 best consecutive seasons. One could just as reasonably grab the 12 best regardless of when they came, but if you did that it wouldn't change the results much anyway.
Conclusions? DiMaggio, once the third-greatest center fielder ever, dropped to No. 5 sometime in the 1960s, and there he remains. I rate Duke Snider just slightly ahead of Griffey, but that's probably going to change in 2005 (if Griffey stays reasonably healthy) or 2006 (if he doesn't). To catch DiMaggio, though, Griffey will have to play for a lot more seasons, and he'll have to play well.
And Kirby Puckett? Even at No. 8, he's a stretch. I'd rate him behind Slidin' Billy Hamilton (a 19th century player) and roughly even with Earl Averill (who's in the Hall of Fame) and Jimmy Wynn (who's not). Sentimentalists will talk about the way Puckett's career ended, but the truth is that when his career ended he was three seasons removed from his last great season. Luddites will talk about how Puckett's teams won two World Series ... but if he gets credit for those years, doesn't he also get a bit of the blame for all the years in which the Twins didn't win? Was Kirby a great player? No question about it. Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Yes, he does. Was he really in Griffey's class? I sure don't think so.
Summing up, then, my top 10 center fielders:
1. Willie Mays
2. Ty Cobb
3. Mickey Mantle
4. Tris Speaker
5. Joe DiMaggio
6. Duke Snider
7. Ken Griffey
8. Billy Hamilton
A note about that list: Yes, I know it doesn't include Oscar Charleston, and I know that it should. When you can figure Charleston's Win Shares -- a tough chore, considering he spent his entire career in the shadow of the game -- let me know and I'll try to figure out where he fits. But James has Charleston wedged between Mays and Cobb, and I don't know that Bill's wrong.
A note about Rob Neyer: Wednesday at 3 p.m. ET, I'll be joining Portland Beavers broadcaster Rich Burk on the radio for nine innings. If you'd like to hear a complete amateur (me, I mean) try like the dickens to avoid making a fool of himself, here's a link to the radio broadcast. If you do tune in, please don't tell me, as I'd rather pretend it's just me and Rich, talking about a ballgame. Should be fun, too, with rehabbing major leaguers Sterling Hitchcock and Shane Reynolds facing off.
Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. This spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-written with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.