The “five best” series continues today with a look at the five best center fielders in Chicago Cubs history. This series is based on last year’s all-time top 25 rankings. Unless otherwise noted, statistics are for each player’s tenure as a Cub, and references to WAR are to the Fangraphs version unless otherwise noted.
This group skews Jurassic. The most recent top 5 center fielder left Wrigley in 1951.
#5: Bill Lange 1893-99, .330/.401/.459, 122 wRC+, 24.8 WAR
Cap Anson’s center fielders make up three of the top five. Lange was the last of the trio, outlasting Anson by two years. A prodigious offensive force, Lange won with power and speed. His 399 steals places him second all-time for the Cubs, just one bag behind Frank Chance.
In 1900, Lange’s future father-in-law announced he would not consent to the marriage unless Lange abandoned the disreputable baseball profession. Lange did, bringing his meteoric career to a close after just seven years. The marriage ended in tears after 15.
#4: Andy Pafko 1943-51, .294/.362/.468, 124 wRC+, 25.8 WAR
Chronic hypertension kept Pafko out of World War II, but his achievements were no mere wartime illusion. From 1946-50 he hit 108 dingers, good for a 132 OPS+. Pafko was an unusual hitter whose power did not come at the price of strikeouts; he beat the league strikeout rate by three percent and finished his career with 90 fewer strikeouts than walks. The Cubs sent him to the Dodgers in June 1951 in a disastrous trade for which I’ve found no explanation. He was hitting just .264 when traded, his lowest mark as a Cub, and he had just turned 30, but he had a very solid 123 wRC+. If only FanGraphs had existed then.
#3: George Gore 1874-86, .315/.386/.434, 141 wRC+, 29.8 WAR
Chronologically the first of the Anson Three, Gore hit in the two-hole for much of his Cubs career. He had a positively ludicrous year in 1880, just his second year in the game. Gore led the planet in triple slash stats and produced a 185( OPS+, sixth on the Cubs’ all-time list. He had an outstanding eye, walking at nearly twice the league average over his career, and leading the league in free passes for three of his Cubs seasons. He appears to have been the first ballplayer to be nicknamed “Piano Legs.”
#2: Hack Wilson 1926-31, .322/.412/.590, 153 wRC+, 33.9 WAR
Hack Wilson is in the Hall of Fame, but should he be? His career WAR total puts him 53rd all-time among center fielders, right between Brett Butler and Andy Van Slyke. And if you think those guys belong in the Hall, I will definitely have what you’re having. Jay Jaffe’s JAWS Hall of Fame rating system has Wilson 45th on the center field list, which puts him out in the Hall’s parking lot. That said, during his brief Cubs career, he was the best center fielder in the majors, and it wasn’t especially close. Al Simmons was a slightly better hitter, but spent the majority of the period in left. Earle Combs, yeah, he was good, but not nearly as dominant as Wilson (153 wRC+ vs 123 for folks keeping score at home). Did anyone hit more homers over these six seasons than Wilson’s 190? Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig did, and that’s it. And Wilson still holds MLB’s single-season record for RBI (191).
Wilson is one of my faves, and I’m glad he has a plaque. But his career raises some fascinating questions about who we deem great and why.
#1: Jimmy Ryan 1885-89, 1891-1900, .307/.376/.388, 120 wRC+, 37.3 WAR
The only center fielder in the all-time top 25, Ryan was the middle of the Anson Three, and biggest power hitter of the bunch. Ryan hit 99 homers for the Cubs, still good for fourth on the Cubs all-time center field list. Of course, Ian Happ is fifth, so make of that what you will. Like Gore, Ryan got his career year out of the way early, ripping 182 hits, 36 doubles, and 16 homers (all of which led the majors) in 1888, his age 25 season. Ryan jumped to the Players League for the 1890 season, playing for the Chicago franchise managed by that noted labor activist, Charles Comiskey.
Chicago Cubs: Looking at some honorable mention candidates
Solly Hofman (1904-16, 19.0 WAR) was a utility player before taking over as the Cubs’ starting center fielder after Jimmy Slagle (1902-08, 18.8 WAR) got hurt in 1908. Hofman has his breakout season in 1910, when he finished third in the NL in OPS (.867). However, he most of his mark in the field. Hofman had a very good postseason track record filling in for the injured Slagle in 1906 and 1908, before trailing off in the 1910 series. Slagle participated in just the 1907 World Series, having minimal impact.
Just as alcohol brought Wilson’s career to an early close, so it seems anxiety did for Adolfo Phillips (1966-69, 10.9 WAR). Phillips had the fifth-best individual season for Cubs center fielders in 1967, when he hit .268/.384/.458 with 17 homers while playing stellar defense. The wheels came off after that. He was traded for career non-hitter Paul Popovich in 1969, and out of baseball by 1972. Phillips was born too soon; with today’s more advanced understanding of mental and emotional stress, the team might have provided better and more effective support.
Rick Monday (1972-76, 9.6 WAR) famously saved a flag from incineration in 1976. In addition to iconic baseball moments, Monday provided excellent power-and-patience offense for the Cubs, and indeed throughout his long career. Defensive metrics say he was seriously overmatched as a center fielder but his managers apparently disagreed: 86 percent of his career appearances came in center.