As you know by now, I love centerfield play. So I did a comparison between two great defensive centerfielders.
This is an excerpt from my recent analysis.
Richie Ashburn was passed over for the Hall of Fame until 1995 (mainly due to lack of power statistics), but he defined what a leadoff batter was in the #1 Philly uniform. His tenacious play, reckless abandon and ultimate toughness in a town wanton of that grit, encourage teammates and garnered praise in the midst of less-than-successful seasons that usually beset the Phillies after 1950. A five-time All Star over his career (with Mays, Snider, Bell and Pinson sometimes making it in his stead in the National League), he racked up more seasons with 400 putouts (9) than any other centerfielder in baseball history.
Richie Ashburn’s greatness on defense, lifetime .308 BA and .394 OBP certainly should have been honored sooner by the National Baseball Hall of Fame than 1995. In reflection, this author would rate him the 5th best centerfielder of this group (behind Mays, Mantle, Joe DiMaggio and Duke Snider) if only because his defense was near the top amongst all Centerfielders in MLB History in as much as putouts, assist records and fielding percentage do reflect that. To further this point of view, an analysis of why this holds merit comes from examination against the standard which all Centerfielders in the post racial-integration era are measured:
The fairness of this analysis comes from certain measurements:
- Utilizing 1951-1957 Records. Both players were in the same home ballparks each season; were both at the prime or near prime of their defensive abilities; each had roughly the same players flanking them during the time.
- Pitching Staffs were very close in ERA (3.71 NY to 3.74 Philly) and gave up close to the same amount of Home Runs (977 NY to 948 Philly.)
- Adjustments were made for higher percentage of balls hit to outfield. The Phillies did use the fly ball out more than New York. New York though turned significantly more double plays from both the outfield and infield. Phillies had mediocre corner OF defense (Del Ennis, Johnny Wyrostek, Rip Repulski and Elmer Valo amongst the group) whereas, Monte Irvin, Don Mueller and Bobby Thomson patrolled around Willie Mays. This does help Richie’s totals, but his high Fielding % reflects he made catches consistently even under a likely lack of support from his corners. Even if Mays was much more daring, he didn’t amass the same amount of catches from just poaching his counterparts’ chances.
Philadelphia did have an imbalance of Outfield Putouts made during this span of time. (Table 4.6) The benefit was most egregious in 1951 and 1957. However, the true measure of one players’ contribution to a team’s defense comes from the percentage of outs he is responsible for. And adjustments can be made for obtaining more opportunities than other outfields or centerfielders.Willie Mays lost two prime seasons (1952 & 1953) to serving his country in the Korean conflict. It is not hard to imagine what could have been the final totals of Mays if not for losing this time (over 700 home runs for certain.) But the fairest defensive comparison of these men can be seen from 1954 to 1957 when both played over 150 games and compiled staggering numbers of chances and putouts.
To adjust for Ashburn’s fly ball pitching staff, the additional Total chances were multiplied by his percentage of Total Outfield Chances, halved and then subtracted from his real Total Chances. And Mays received the same benefit but those chances were added to his totals. This adjustment gives both the same number of potential opportunities in the outfield.
 Sconiers D. Defensive Centerfield. Unknown: http://www.haloblog.com/oct1504.html; 2004 October 15. 9. Last Accessed: August 2, 2006.
 Goldman Steve, editor. Mind Game: How the Boston Red Sox Got Smart, Won a World Series, and Created a New Blueprint for Winning. New York: Workman Publishing; 2005. 56.