WAR Lords of the Diamond (Center Field)

Previous Sessions in the WAR Lords Series:

C (with methodology) I 1B I 2B I 3B I SS I LF

For the next step in my ongoing quest to quantify the greatest Rockies ever by position, I'm revealing the best performers at the center field position.

Once again, I'm using Sean Smith's historical WAR database (not Fangraphs) to compile these numbers (with a big assist to the fabulous Baseball Reference; here is the glossary of the terms Smith uses and an explanation of how WAR is calculated.

Center Field, according to Tom Tango's positional adjustment scale, is given a rank of +2.5, ranking center field as the most difficult outfield position to play defensively--which makes sense given the extra amount of territory they are expected to cover. 

Center fielders are expected to not only to catch fly balls but also to deny baserunners advancing to an extra base. Particularly desired traits for center fielders include speed, instincts (depth perception and tracking skills), and quickness to react to the ball--not to mention the best combination of any outfielder of speed and arm strength/accuracy. The center fielder is also the captain of the outfield, orchestrating the action to avoid imminent collisions.

Due to these defensive requirements, center fielders usually possess great speed and a strong arm, but also often hit less for power at the plate. As a result, these speedy players are often thrust into the leadoff role regardless of their ability to work counts or hit the ball due to their speed.

The defensive capabilities of a center fielder are especially important--and are especially taxed--in the cavernous outfield of Coors Field. As such, most of the players that the Rockies have trotted out to center have fit into this defense-first, speedy mold.

As for the Rockies, center field is one of the weaker positions that I've measured in this series. It has a high turnover (I ranked 22 players and none of them played longer than four years with the club) and therefore a low production rate--similar to but slightly better than Colorado's catchers. A potential reason for this low production rate might be that defensive metrics haven't quite solved the Coors Field center field conundrum--Rockies centerfielders consistently post horrible defensive rankings on advanced defensive metrics.

Interestingly, only one of the five players that lead the franchise in games played at the position even makes the top five here (largely because Ellis Burks was categorized as a left fielder). This list will probably surprise you.

Center Fielders

Note: most if not all of these players played multiple outfield positions with the Rockies. I have placed these players in this category subjectively on the basis of where I believe they provided the greatest impact to the Rockies. In case of an average rank tie, career WAR is the tiebreaker.

1. Juan Pierre

Career WAR: 3.0 (1st)
Top Three Seasons: 3.0, 2000-2002 (1st)
Top Season: 2.4, 2001 (1st)
Average Rank: 1

Juan Pierre tops the list of Colorado centerfielders, largely on the strength of a fine 2001 season. He was drafted in the 13th round of the 1998 draft out of South Alabama and he moved quickly through the minor leagues, making his major league debut in August 2000.

In 2001, his first full season, a 23 year-old Pierre batted .327/.378/.415/.353 with 46 SBs. Pierre's MO with the Rockies was his low walk and strikeout rates (41 & 29 respectively in 683 PAs in 2001) as well as his good range on defense (TZ of 9 in Coors). If it weren't for his famously poor arm (-5 OArm), he'd fit the Coors CF mold to a T. In all, Pierre produced 2.4 WAR in 2001, one of just two above league-average seasons by a Rockies center fielder. 

After a disappointing 2002 campaign (0.4 WAR), the 24 year-old Pierre was the currency necessary for the Rockies to rid themselves of Mike Hampton and His Contract for a trade package from the Florida Marlins, including Charles Johnson and Preston Wilson, which wasn't a bad deal when one considers the salary relief Colorado got.

Since then, Pierre earned a World Series ring with the Marlins in 2003 and cashed in on a 3.3 WAR 2006 with the Cubs to receive a 5 year, $44 million contract from the Dodgers to be their fourth outfielder. Let's be happy that the Rockies never overpaid for Pierre's services. 

2. Willy Taveras

Career WAR: 2.8 (2nd)
Top Three Seasons: 2.8, 2007-2008 (2nd)
Top Season: 1.9, 2007 (3rd)
Average Rank: 2.33

Well, this ranking certainly surprised me. For as much deserved crap as Willy T has gotten on this site over the last two years, he remains a phenomenal defensive player with elite speed--traits that were perfect for Coors Field. Unfortunately, Taveras doesn't really possess the patience and hitting gene to go with his prodigious athletic gifts. The upside of this equation is that with even offense that approaches a mediocre level a player with Taveras' skill set becomes a valuable one.

The Rockies acquired the 25 year old Taveras after the 2006 season in the famous Jason Jennings trade and he responded with an excellent 2007. Willy T hit .320/.367/.382/.344 with 33 SBs (worth 1.8 WAR) and helped to propel the Rockies to the World Series with a fantastic diving catch in the NLCS.

Unfortunately, Taveras could not sustain this offensive success (he benefitted from a .371 BABIP in 2007) in 2008, producing one of the worst-ever offensive seasons by a full-time Rockie starter (-30 batting runs), but his excellent baserunning (68 steals leading to 12 runs above average) and defense (TZ of 5) actually balanced out his poor batting line in the end (0.9 WAR). This wasn't enough to save Taveras from being non-tendered after 2008--but he suckered in the Cincinnati Reds into taking him for 2 years and $6.25 million.

3. Ryan Spilborghs

Career WAR: 1.7 (3rd)
Top Three Seasons: 1.7, 2006-2008 (3rd)
Top Season: 2.1, 2007 (2nd)
Average Rank: 2.67

While his function with the team has varied often throughout his four year career and he is now mostly a corner outfielder, Spilly has started more games in center field than anywhere else. Spilborghs was drafted by the Rockies in the 7th round of the 2002 draft out of UCSB and made his debut in July 2005 (the only game he played in 2005).

Spilly's 2006 and 2008 campaigns were actually found by Smith to have negative value due to poor performances in defensive metrics, but his 2007 season was good for second-best in franchise history by a CF. In 300 PA, Spilborghs hit .299/.363/.485/.366 with 11 homers and a good fielding season (TZ of 8).

Deciding what to do with Spilborghs will be an interesting topic of discussion for the Rockies' front office after this season. The 30 year old Spilborghs will be entering just his first year of arbitration eligibility, so he has some value to opposing teams, but the Rockies could opt to trade the more pricey (and less productive, but that's another article) Brad Hawpe and keep the cheaper outfield.

4. Mike Kingery

Career WAR: 1.6 (T-4th)
Top Three Seasons: 1.6, 1994-1995 (4th)
Top Season: 1.7, 1994 (5th)
Average Rank: 4.33

Ah, Mike Kingery, a man who I have irrationally fond baseball memories of.

I'm unsure of his relation to the Rockies' radio play-by-play man, but Mike played two seasons for the Rockies in the pre-humidor era after signing with them as a free agent as Ellis Burks insurance in the twilight of his career--one at Mile High Stadium and one at Coors. His 1994, in which he hit .349/.402/.532/.392 in 346 PA, was a career year offensively (14 BRAA) and led to 1.7 WAR. Kingery was worth -0.1 WAR in a poor 1995 and was not re-signed.  

5. Tom Goodwin

Career WAR: 1.6 (T-4th)
Top Three Seasons: 1.6, 2000 (T-4th)
Top Season: 1.6, 2000 (6th)
Average Rank: 4.67

Tom Goodwin (not to be confused with Curtis Goodwin, who also played center field for the Rockies) only played 91 games in 2000 for the Rockies after signing as a free agent before being traded at the deadline to the Dodgers in exchange for a package headlined by Todd Hollandsworth. However, the 31 year-old Goodwin maximized his time with the Rockies (which made him a valuable enough trade asset for the Dodgers to want him).

He hit .271/.368/.394/.350 for the Rockies in what was one of the finer seasons in his 13 year career.

6. Preston Wilson 

Career WAR: 1.4 (6th)
Top Three Seasons: 1.4, 2003-2004 (6th)
Top Season: 1.8, 2003 (4th)
Average Rank: 5.33

I made this list six names long to include Wilson, because not only did he play regularly for the Rockies for the equivalent of two seasons but also because there's a large dropoff in quality after him.

Wilson, acquired with Charles Johnson in the Juan Pierre-Mike Hampton trade, had his best Colorado year when he was healthy in 2000, hitting .282/.343/.537/.374 with 36 HRs, a league-leading 141 RBIs, and a place on the All-Star roster.

After an injury marred 2004, Wilson was losing steam in 2005 while making $12.5 million. This fact was astutely recognized by Dan O'Dowd, who traded Wilson to the Nationals for Zach Day, J.J. Davis, and cash (essentially a salary dump). Had Wilson kept up his 2003 pace and stayed healthy, he would probably have led this list.

Others of Note

These players started for the Rockies in center field for the majority of at least one year: Cory Sullivan (-1.4), Darryl Hamilton (0.5), Quinton McCracken (0.6), Alex Cole (-0.1)

Bottom of the barrel: Choo Freeman (-1.5), Steve Finley (-1.1)

Next week: Right Fielders 

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