Elite center field defense was in the news this week. One player who plays it is moving on to another team. Another player expressed his desire to be an elite defender despite never having played the position before as a pro.
Michael A. Taylor is the elite center fielder. Taylor was just traded by the Royals to the Twins for two minor leaguers.
Taylor has led center fielders in Defensive Runs Saved in each of the last two seasons. His 38 Runs Saved since 2021 lead the position and there’s a huge gap between him and No. 2 Myles Straw. Taylor won both a Fielding Bible Award and a Gold Glove in 2021 and narrowly missed winning the former again last season.
Taylor rates particularly well at chasing down fly balls hit to the deepest part of the ballpark and using his throwing arm to deter baserunner advancement.
This gives the Twins the luxury of two elite defensive center fielders in Taylor and Byron Buxton, who will now likely get a fair amount of playing time as a DH. The Twins should be strong up the middle this season with Carlos Correa returning at shortstop, newcomer Christian Vázquez at catcher and either Buxton or Taylor playing center fielder.
The elite center field aspirant is Jazz Chisholm Jr. of the Marlins. After showing considerable potential playing second base and shortstop the last three seasons with the Marlins, Chisholm is embracing the challenge of switching positions.
Simply put: It’s going to be difficult, even for an elite athlete.
In the 20-season history of Defensive Runs Saved, there are eight examples of players who transitioned from second base or shortstop to center field the next season within the following criteria:
A)Played no more than 250 career innings in center field prior to moving there.
B)Played at least 300 innings at either middle infield position one year and then played at least 300 innings in center the next.
You may remember some of these. Hall, Marte, Ackley and Strange-Gordon had played a good amount of middle infield and done well, with Strange-Gordon winning a Gold Glove.
Hall and Marte fared okay initially. They were the only players in the eight-player sample to have a positive Runs Saved in the season in which they made the move. But these are not long-term success stories.
Hall saved 2 runs in center field in 2007 but moved to third base the next year and played only 49 innings in center field the rest of his career.
Marte saved 4 runs there in 2019, moved back to second base for 2020, then his return to center field in 2021 went poorly (-15 Runs Saved). In 2022, he returned to second base.
It didn’t go well for Ackley, Desmond or Gordon, with each playing center at a rate of -10 Runs Saved per 1,000 innings or worse in their first season at the new spot. Same for Alexi Amarista of the 2013 Padres.
Chris Owings and Scott Kingery were the other two players in our grouping. Owings got a look in center field with the Diamondbacks in 2016 and had -1 Runs Saved in just over 400 innings. When managers have put Owings in the outfield since then, it’s usually been right field.
Kingery, who had played center field in college, got close to 500 innings in center field in 2019 and tallied 0 Runs Saved. He’s played 69 innings there since.
Chisholm has fully embraced the move, telling new manager Skip Schumaker he wants to win a Gold Glove. He’s been watching video of Ken Griffey Jr. play center field because he says he wants to learn from the best.
He’d do well to watch some video of Taylor too.