Best MLB Center Fielders Of All Time: Top 5 Legendary Outfielders, According To Sports Fans

Playing center field is loads of fun, but it’s also the most important position in the outfield. Center field sees a lot of action and is responsible for helping to situate the other two outfield positions, left field, and right field. Center field has the green light to go after any ball hit to the outfield, so players at the position should be speedy yet powerful enough to contribute to the lineup. Unsurprisingly, some of the best MLB center fielders of all time are also some of the most prolific hitters.

Speaking of the best hitters in MLB history, engineers have discovered a new way to accurately measure home runs. A recent study by a team of engineers from Washington State University and Delft University of Technology has come up with a brand new way of accurately knowing how far a baseball goes off the bat. The team says their technique improves on the traditional home run measuring systems which use a wind tunnel to figure out how a baseball cuts through the air. Now, home runs can be more accurately measured using lasers to determine certain flight properties of a baseball off the bat. The laser-guided speed measurement is able to precisely measure changes in speed and then figure out acceleration, the force on a ball, and the ball’s lift and drag. 

And according to another study, MLB fans in ballparks everywhere might be treated to more and more home runs, especially as the climate changes and global warming persists. Researchers at Dartmouth College say that the recent surge in home run totals may be due to warmer, thinner air that helps baseballs travel greater distances. Great news for any up-and-coming center fielders with power-hitting tendencies, bad news for the fight against global warming. 

So, who are the greatest players to ever grace center field? StudyFinds did the research, consulting 10 sports and baseball-oriented websites in an effort to bring you the best MLB center fielders of all time. Our list comprises the five most frequently recommended players across these sites. As always, feel free to share your thoughts with us in the comments section below! 

person holding baseball ball in black leather baseball mitt
Baseball in a glove (Photo by Benjamin Hershey on Unsplash)

The List: Best MLB Center Fielders of All Time, Per Experts

1. Willie Mays

Topping the list of the best MLB center fielders of all time is none other than Willie Mays. For decades, Willie Mays’ name has been synonymous with playing center field in professional baseball, and for good reason. Willie Mays was the quintessential MLB center fielder of his generation and beyond. 

Willie Mays statue at AT&T Park in San Fransisco
Willie Mays statue at AT&T Park in San Fransisco (“Willie Mays” by perry.michael.e is marked with CC0 1.0.)

“The greatest center fielder in the history of baseball, Willie Mays spent the majority of his big league career with the San Francisco Giants. A ridiculous 24-time All-Star and 12-time Gold Glove winner, Mays was simply the best at the position he loved. After winning 1951 NL Rookie of the Year, Mays captured the NL MVP Award in 1954 and 1965, as he helped the Giants defeat the heavily favored Indians in the 1954 World Series. No baseball fan will ever forget ‘The Catch’ Mays made in Game 1 of that series, creating a highlight that still flashes across televisions to this day,” writes Bleacher Report.

Willie Mays was the primary player for his 1954 Giants team that won the World Series over the Indians. Still, Mays began his career playing in the Negro Leagues, before eventually making his debut with the Giants in the 1951 season. 

“He was the rookie-of-the year that season. The following year, Willie played only 34 games before being drafted into the Army. Mays returned with a bang in 1954, winning the batting title and the first of his two MVPs…. Mays continued to dominate offensively, demonstrating his power and speed by leading the league in home runs and stolen bases four times. Willie was the definition of the ‘five-tool’ player. He could hit for power and average, steal bases, was an excellent fielder, and had a marvelous arm. In 1957, when the Gold Glove award was initiated, Mays was one of the first recipients. He would win 12 in total, but this doesn’t do justice to how superior he was as a defender,” explains Pitcher List

Willie Mays was one of the greatest defensive outfielders of all time. His ability to track the ball and make a spectacular catch is well documented throughout Mays’ career. It was common for players to serve in the armed forces during prime years of their career, and we see this a lot with MLB players from the ’40s and ’50s due to World War II and the Korean War. Clearly, Mays didn’t let that impact his legacy.

“The honor of the greatest center fielder of all time has to belong to Willie Mays. No center fielder has ever dominated in all phases of the game the way Mays did. He was an all-star every year from 1954 to 1973, winning two MVPs (11 years apart no less) along the way. While Mays only won a single batting title, he was a career .302 hitter with over 3,200 hits. He also led the National League in home runs four times and stolen bases four times, racking up 660 career home runs and 338 career stolen bases. Of course, it’s the 12 consecutive Gold Gloves Mays won that separates him from everyone else. He was an elite defensive player and made arguably the best defensive play in World Series history. Mays did it all, which is why he’s the greatest center fielder in baseball history,” adds Franchise Sports

2. Ty Cobb

Hitting in the second spot in the lineup of the best MLB center fielders of all time is the legendary Ty Cobb. Like Mays, Ty Cobb is widely regarded as one of the best players in MLB history, regardless of position. Cobb played in the early part of the 20th century during MLB’s ‘dead ball era’ but is still considered one of the best hitters of all time. 

“Baseball fans would have a tough time finding a more consistent and productive hitter like longtime Detroit Tigers center fielder Ty Cobb. Owner of the best all time career batting average at .366, Cobb claimed 11 batting titles throughout his career. In addition to his hitting prowess, he also became one of baseball’s best base stealers, finishing his career with 892 SB, good for third all time. His 1911 MVP Award was a no brainer, as he ended the season hitting .420 with 8 HR and 127 RBI while also stealing 83 bases. Cobb was a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame’s First Class when he was officially elected in 1936, along with baseball greats Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson,” explains Bleacher Report

Ty Cobb’s list of accomplishments goes on and on, too. Cobb’s ability to see the baseball and hit to any part of the field is unmatched. In fact, Ty Cobb only had one season over the course of his storied career where he hit under .320 and he played until he was 41 years old. 

“He was simply the most dominant hitter in the game in the first two decades of the 20th century. In addition to the batting titles, Cobb led the league in OPS ten times, hits/SLG eight times, OBP seven times, stolen bases six times, runs five times, triples/RBI four times, doubles three times, and HRs once (with nine). ‘The Georgia Peach’ also won the Triple Crown in 1909 and the MVP in 1911,” writes Pitcher List

The Triple Crown in baseball consists of leading MLB in home runs, average, and RBIs, and although Cobb wasn’t known for his power, he led MLB in home runs during his record-breaking 1909 season. However, it’s well documented that Ty Cobb was not the best person. 

“While the details of his personal life are somewhat controversial and up for debate, there’s no denying that Ty Cobb is one of the best players in baseball history. During his career, Cobb set nearly 100 different records, many of which he still holds today. That includes the most batting titles won with 12 and the highest career batting average at .366. There has probably never been a better pure hitter than Cobb, who also had nearly 900 career stolen bases, leading the American League in that category six times Despite only hitting 117 career home runs, Cobb led the American League in homers the year he won the Triple Crown. More importantly, he amassed over 4,100 career hits. The fact that he was a solid but unspectacular defensive player is the only thing keeping him from being the best center fielder of all time,” adds Franchise Sports

3. Mickey Mantle

Mickey Mantle is a New York Yankees legend, and he’s widely considered one of the best Yankees players of all time as well as one of the best switch hitters in history. 

“To Yankee fans, Mickey Mantle could simply be known as No. 7. No matter what he may be known by, he is an absolute legend. A remarkable 20-time All-Star, Mantle led the Yanks to seven World Series Titles and won the AL MVP on three occasions. He won the prestigious Triple Crown in 1956, when he hit .353 with 52 HR and 130 RBI and owning a 1.164 OPS, an amazing feat considering he was only 24 at the time. Mantle was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974. While he may not be the best center fielder of all time, one could certainly make the claim that he is the best switch hitter of all time,” explains Bleacher Report

Unfortunately, Mantle battled injuries for parts of his career, or he may have ended up higher on the list of the best MLB center fielders. Regardless, Mantle put together some of the most electric seasons of any player during his time. 

“He won three AL MVP [Awards] and probably should have won six. His 1956-57 seasons are arguably the best consecutive seasons a position player ever had, and he won the Triple Crown in 1956. He wasn’t the center fielder that Willie Mays was, and his career was shorter because his knees went bad, but the worshipping was justified,” writes ESPN

Mickey Mantle was a winner, bringing home a staggering seven World Series titles over the course of his career with the Yankees. Furthermore, Mickey Mantle owns hitting records for his World Series performances including the record for the most home runs in championship history. Mantle’s record of 18 home runs in the World Series will probably never be broken. 

“Mickey Mantle dealt with injuries during his career, but when he was healthy, he was just as good as anyone. He won three MVPs and led the league in home runs four times while also combining that power with blazing speed and defense. He also led the league in runs five times, OBP three times, and OPS six times. Mantle was also one of the greatest switch hitters of all time, having power from both sides of the plate. Mantle also helped the New York Yankees win seven World Series and totaled 18 World Series Home Runs which is the most of all time. Mantle also led the league in walks five times,” explains Baseball Spotlight

4. Joe DiMaggio

The fourth spot on the list of the best MLB center fielders of all time goes to Joe DiMaggio. Before there was Mantle, there was DiMaggio, another legendary Yankees center fielder and one of the most beloved baseball figures in the history of the sport. Joe DiMaggio isn’t just a legendary MLB center fielder, he’s an American icon

“Joe DiMaggio was an American icon at a time when the country needed it. He debuted with the Yankees in 1936 and was an All-Star immediately. In fact, DiMaggio was an All-Star every season of his 13-year career. DiMaggio was a graceful fielder and a deadly hitter. He led the league in batting average, HRs, RBI, and SLG twice during his career and won three MVPs. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment came in 1941, when ‘Joltin Joe’ put together his famous 56 consecutive game hitting streak. This record still stands, and no one has come particularly close to breaking it. Yankee fans were fortunate to move from Ruth to Gehrig to DiMaggio,” writes Pitcher List.

Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak will likely not be broken anytime soon, if at all. However, Joe DiMaggio’s stats aren’t as impressive as some of the other players on this list and there’s a reason for that. Joe DiMaggio lost three years in the prime of his career when he signed up to fight in the Air Force during World War II. Like many of the players of his time, DiMaggio sacrificed professional glory for the sake of his country, and he’s an American hero for doing so. 

“In his 13 year career in New York, ‘Joltin’ Joe” DiMaggio was a 13-time All-Star and nine-time World Champ. He also became a real fan favorite before and after World War II. Serving in the Air Force for three years after the 1942 season, DiMaggio still managed to come back after the war and have an excellent career. A three-time AL MVP, his No. 5 Yankee jersey was retired in 1952. DiMaggio also put up his best numbers in 1941, hitting .357 with 30 HR and 125 RBI in 139 regular season games. Any player who could also win over a woman like Marylin Monroe definitely tells you something,” writes Bleacher Report.

Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe together is one of the greatest American romances of all time. Despite his relationship status, DiMaggio was a consummate professional and he delivered on the baseball field. DiMaggio smacked over 350 home runs, amassed more than 2,200 hits, and accounted for more than 1,500 RBIs. 

“In baseball history, Joe DiMaggio was perhaps the first example of a center fielder who thrived on both sides of the ball. Unfortunately, the Gold Glove award came into existence after DiMaggio’s career, although historians consider him among the best defensive players at his position to ever play. Of course, DiMaggio was also among the best hitters in baseball history, most notably his 56-game hitting streak. If he hadn’t missed three seasons in the middle of his career during World War II, DiMaggio’s legacy could have been even greater. Nevertheless, he was an all-star in all 13 seasons he played, winning two batting titles and three MVPs. He also helped the Yankees win nine World Series titles in those 13 years. That success is no coincidence because DiMaggio played a huge role in that success as a center fielder who did everything at a high level,” adds Franchise Sports

5. Ken Griffey Jr. 

Griffey was one of the most electric players of the 1990s and deserves his place beside the all-time greats at the center field position. For a stretch of time during the 90s, Ken Griffey Jr. was perhaps the most feared hitter in baseball. 

Ken Griffey, Jr. June 2009 (cropped)
Ken Griffey, Jr. 2009 (“Ken Griffey, Jr. June 2009 (cropped)” by Keith Allison is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.)

“Once the 90s hit, Griffey became a superstar. He won a Gold Glove and was an All-Star every year of the decade, and he only missed winning the Silver Slugger twice. ‘The Kid,’ as he was also dubbed, was a fan favorite and a premier power hitter. He led the AL in HRs four times, including back-to-back years with 56. The first time he hit 56, in 1997, he was the MVP. He also led the league in runs, RBI, and SLG that season. The Mariners never made it to the World Series with Griffey (or ever), but in 1995 they did upend the Yankees in the ALDS. Griffey hit five HRs in the five games,” writes Pitcher List.  

Griffey’s name was never mentioned with steroid use, and that seems to be a big reason why he’s considered one of the best players of his generation. Still, Ken Griffey Jr. dealt with a lot of injuries, so his career numbers could have been even higher. 

“Griffey was the ultimate five-tool player and had the smoothest swing of all time. Griffey led the league in home runs three times despite being in the steroid era without using steroids himself. He also won 10 gold gloves and might be the greatest defensive center fielder of all time. Griffey totaled 630 career home runs, over 500 doubles, and over 1,800 RBIs, all of which could have been higher without injury. Griffey also had one of the strongest arms in the outfield, which made him the complete defender,” explains Baseball Spotlight

Ken Griffey Jr’s father, Ken Griffey, played for the Cincinnati Reds alongside Johnny Bench on the ‘Big Red Machine,’ arguably one of the best MLB teams in the history of the sport. In fact, Ken Griffey Jr. got the chance to play with his father early on in his career with Seattle. The two Griffeys became the first father-son duo to appear in an MLB lineup together and on September 14th, 1990, they became the first to hit back-to-back home runs in a game.  

“[Ken Griffey Jr.] played in 13 All-Star games over his long career, winning a Gold Glove in 10 consecutive years and taking home the 1997 AL MVP Award as well. Griffey’s best season came in 1997, when the sweet swingin’ center fielder hit .306 with 56 HR and 147 RBI, stealing 15 bases and scoring 125 runs during the season. It’s just a shame his career was, in a sense, cut short due to injury, as Griffey played over 150 games in just six of his 22 big league seasons. Will he be a first ballot Hall of Famer? Absolutely,” adds Bleacher Report

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  1. No argument with this list. When I read the headline, I went through a mental review of who I would Include, and these are the 5. If anyone suggests that some other player should be on this list, ask them who they would remove.

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