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Is this a Golden Age of center fielders?

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Why does it seem like every team has a competent center fielder these days? Probably because they do.


Early in the offseason, Michael Bourn was expecting a big contract. Like, a big contract. He thought he was going to stand on his hotel-room balcony at the Winter Meetings and watch GMs climb the walls after him like something out of the trailer for World War Z. That didn't happen.

There were a few reasons. One of them was that Bourn was going to cost the best teams a first-round pick, and the worst teams a second-round pick. Another is that the Twins launched Plan Cost Michael Bourn Millions, which consisted of them dealing their two speedy center fielders to teams expected to bid for Michael Bourn.

But there's more to the last one, because once the Twins flooded the market, just about everyone was set with center fielders. Which seems ... odd. How many teams out there are satisfied with their center fielders? As of right now, a lot of them, which isn't something you often see at any position. But maybe it's just a perception bias thing -- maybe there are always this many good center fielders. To the crime lab! Or Baseball-Reference's Play Index.

The first thing to determine: What's a good center fielder. Baseball Reference puts that information on every player page: Any player at two wins or over is considered to be at least average, so we'll search for a list of seasons with the most two-win center fielders across both leagues:

Rk Year #Matching
1 2012 26
2 2010 21
3 2009 21
4 2003 21
5 1998 20
6 2011 19
7 2005 19
8 1992 19
9 1990 19
10 1988 19
11 1986 19
12 1984 19

There you go. Baseball Reference says it's the most. Do a search, paste in a table, go find an Olive Garden for a glass of wine and some delightful meatballs. It's Friday, everybody.

Except, wait, that seems weighted toward recent seasons. Are we in a Golden Age of center fielders? It's clearly not the same kind of Golden Age as when kids in New York would get into fistfights over Mantle/Mays/Snider, but when it comes to competent outfield play, maybe there's something that teams have figured out over the last 20 years or so. Maybe athletes are getting better and there's a bigger pool of good-to-great center fielders to choose from. Maybe this can tell us something about society and athletes everywhere!

Or maybe there are more teams now than there used to be, which means there are more opportunities for center fielders to put up a WAR over two.

Dang it.

But there's a way to account for that, which is to take the number of two-win center fielders and divide by the number of teams in the league at the time. Does the 2012 class of center fielders still rank as the best (or, at least, the most competent) of all time?

Year (Ratio of two-win CFs to MLB teams)
1. 1914 (.88)
2. 2012 (.87)
3. 1966 (.85)
4. 1904 (.75)
4. 1950 (.75)
4. 1960 (.75)
4. 1963 (.75)
(Five seasons tied at 73 percent)

Warning: English major attempting math. Be careful. But not as careful as you'll need to be when the same fool attempts a graph.

In 1914, Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker were roaming center field, but there were 12 others who gave substantial value to their team -- 14 two-win center fielders in a 16-team league. So by raw numbers, the 2012 season has it. By adjusted numbers, go with the season from 99 years ago … but it says something that 2012 is the only post-expansion season on there. Exactly what, well … I make knock-knock jokes around here. Don't ask me.

But if you were thinking that there are a lot of good center fielders out there right now -- just check the FanGraphs positional rankings to see how close all of them are -- you were right. It wasn't just you. And if your team doesn't have a good center fielder, you should feel bad.