This is easily the most interesting chart I'll show in this series of posts reviewing players by position:
If you haven't read my previous posts, this is a two-axis scatter graph that plots 2013 salary on the horizontal axis and 2013 FanGraphs player value on the vertical. Players above the dark line are outplaying their contracts and players below are underperforming. The further away from the line, the better/worse the magnitude of play, suggesting that Mike Trout is the best center fielder this year (by a freakin' mile) and Matt Kemp the worst. Not all data points are labeled.
Mike Trout, where to begin? I'll start with how Trout's 2012 season ranked in baseball history:
Trout does something to the chart that only Miguel Cabrera was able to do, distort it to the point where it understates the play of other players. His value is almost 33% better than the next-best, Carlos Gomez, a ridiculous gap between #1 and #2 in ANYTHING. I'll state here that WAR values for center fielders (as well as catchers, shortstops and to a lesser extent, second basemen) have an artificial bump to reflect they play an important position. It is NOT a measure of their fielding ability--that's measured as well, but a bump to allow for inter-position comparisons. I try not to compare players across positions for precisely that reason, and also why WAR-riors tend to be center fielders, shortstops and second basemen. It's not to denigrate the stat but to explain it, and as long as I keep comparisons within positions, it's irrelevant.
It's safe to say that teams are in very good shape at center field as a whole. 15 of these players are delivering right at $10 million worth of value, with only a handful not playing up to their contract (B.J. Upton, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Chris Young and to a lesser extent, Angel Pagan). In any other chart that didn't have a true outlier like Mike Trout that stretches the axis, it would be easy to observe the excellent seasons of Carlos Gomez, Colby Rasmus, Andrew McCutchen, Jacoby Ellsbury, Shin-Soo Choo and Adam Jones, but they look like they're just a lump in the middle. They're not, they're just not in the stratosphere like Trout. I'll return to these players later and review their contract status.
There is a solid core of young (and cheap) center fielders after Trout that begins with Desmond Jennings and includes A.J. Pollock, Lorenzo Cain, Marcell Ozuna, Justin Ruggiano and Peter Bourjos. In any other year Pollock might have had a shot at NL Rookie of the Year, but he (along with everyone else) is just playing for second behind
Junior Lake Yasiel Puig and has cooled off somewhat after a decent start. Nothing about Lorenzo Cain jumps out at me--even for a center fielder he doesn't hit, but he does field the position well. If the Royals are to become the next version of the Rays, he'll need to increase his offensive production. Peter Bourjos is the man who plays center so well he exiles Trout to left even though FanGraphs defensive metrics rate Trout higher. He's not going to displace Josh Hamilton in right, and he's essentially the same as J.B. Shuck. Marcell Ozuna is only 22 and I don't have the slightest idea what his ceiling is, just that it wouldn't surprise me if that ceiling is realized on a different team.
Here's the contract status for all the higher-paid players:
How lucky are the Dodgers to have both Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp locked up for the bargain price of around $250 million? Makes Yasiel Puig expendable (this is sarcasm). I'm not anywhere near ready to write off Matt Kemp, but unless the nagging injuries are resolved, that huge contract will be a millstone, even for a team with revenue streams like the Dodgers. As soon as Puig showed that he was for real, I thought that made Ethier instantly available, but that can't be done with Kemp's question marks. It's a strange situation. It will be very interesting to see the market for Colby Rasmus when he's eligible--he seems to have stabilized at the 20 HR/75 RBI mark, very good for center fielders, but shows that offense alone won't propel a team to success. On a side note, the 2012 Marlins and 2013 Blue Jays will give future historians loads of material on how teams tried to buy or trade their way to the playoffs and failed--and effectively ended that trend.
Shin-Soo Choo and Jacoby Ellsbury are free agents after 2013 and will be good tests for the center field market. Choo's fielding is...not good, Ellsbury's is slightly above average, but both are quality center fielders that bring value to teams--the question will be who will be willing to pay, particularly when the market appears glutted with good center fielders. Carlos Gomez may be a one-year blip, but the year he's having for the Brewers has to have them laughing over he's being paid, at least when they're not crying over losing Ryan Braun. It's a very real possibility that B.J. Upton is just having an off year, and the Braves have enough talent to overcome it, but they'll need him in the playoffs. If he stays healthy, Adam Jones has every possibility of being what Matt Kemp briefly was, and he's done it so far.
Which leaves Andrew McCutchen. Earlier this year I predicted he'd win the NL MVP and not much has changed to back me off that prediction. He's lost a little pop from 2012, which could mean that season was an outlier and he's really a 20/75 guy, and there's nothing wrong with that. To say he's affordable is an understatement, and I believe he has every chance to be the face of a franchise that will make not just sporting news, but NEWS if (more like when--see Baseball Prospectus playoff odds) the Pirates make the playoffs.
This is truly a golden age of center fielders. Take this chart for what it's worth, an attempt to show the relative value of modern-day center fielders when compared with the past:
This takes the cumulative WAR values for center fielders by year and divides that value by their plate appearances and multiplies it by 1,000 to make it a real number. All this does is normalize data, and that uptick in 2012 places the current crop of center fielders among the best to ever play the game. Are they the equivalent of the 1960s which had Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle? Probably not, since both are in any discussion of the best players to ever play the game, but after those two, the 1960s center fielders were very ordinary. I have no idea how it is that so many good center fielders are playing today, but it will have an impact on the market, since a lack of demand won't drive up prices. Jacoby Ellsbury won't even reach the free agent market, but for Shin-Soo Choo to get a big contract, there has to be a team with a need and a willingness to spend. The teams with true needs (Astros, Mariners, Marlins and Mets) either won't spend given their situation or won't spend PERIOD and the teams that might spend (Braves and Cardinals) won't do anything at center field for many reasons. It's great for baseball to have so many good center fielders at once, not so good for center fielders looking for new contracts.