Center field is a position with a lot of competition. Picking the greatest Sox center fielder ever was easy. Selecting the next four, not so much. Two through four were obviously going to make the top five, but determining an order was difficult. Again, at number five there were a few guys vying for the one spot, so pay attention to the honorable mentions at the end.
Tris Speaker is not only the greatest center fielder in Red Sox history, he is one of the very best of all-time. Although he put up better numbers after being traded to Cleveland, Speaker was already one of the best players in baseball with the Red Sox. From his first full season in 1909 until he was traded following the 1915 season, Speaker batted .342 with a .909 OPS. During this time he averaged 34 doubles, 15 triples and 38 stolen bases per season.
Speaker’s best season with the Sox came in 1912, when he won the MVP Award. That season he batted .383, leading the league with 10 home runs and 53 doubles. Speaker had 222 base hits and stole 52 bases that season while scoring 136 runs. Always a huge extra base guy, Speaker followed that season with a .363 average and 22 triples in 1913. He put up a 55.5 WAR over his seven full seasons.
My choice for the second spot on the list goes to the underrated Dominic DiMaggio. Overshadowed his entire career by his big brother Joe, Dom was a great ballplayer. He was widely considered the best defensive center fielder in the game, running balls down 460 feet from home plate. In addition to his great reads off the bat and his range, DiMaggio had a cannon for an arm for such a small guy. DiMaggio averaged over 13 assists per season.
Overshadowed some by Ted Williams during his career as well, Williams realized how important DiMaggio was to the team. Williams trumpeted Dom DiMaggio’s Hall of Fame case until he died, even having a pamphlet available at his museum covering why he believed Dom should be in the Hall. When the greatest hitter of all-time believes so strongly in that, who is anyone else to argue? Part of what hurt DiMaggio’s case is that he missed three seasons to the war. He finished with just 1680 base hits, but if the war hadn’t happened that number would easily surpass 2000. Couple that with his great fielding and his .298 batting average, he certainly has a case.
DiMaggio was the catalyst atop some vaunted Red Sox lineups, scoring over 100 runs six times and leading the league in that category twice. He also led the league in triples and stolen bases in 1950, in what was an outstanding season. His career 162 game average came out to .298 with 10 home runs, 36 doubles, 195 base hits and a .383/.419/.802 triple slash. He made seven all-star teams in 10 seasons.
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Lynn should never have left the Red Sox. Fred Lynn spent the first six full seasons of his career in Boston and was on a Hall of Fame path. Fenway Park suited him perfectly. After leaving his production dropped off considerably. He was still a solid player, but no longer the potential Hall of Famer he had been.
Lynn came up late in 1974 and hinted at what was to come. He batted .419 with a 1.188 OPS in 43 at-bats. The next season he became the first player to ever win the Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player Awards in the same season. Lynn batted .331 that season and led the league with 47 doubles and a .967 OPS. His best season however was arguably in 1979. Lynn was a monster that season, leading the league in batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS. In addition to that he hit 39 home runs and won the Gold Glove Award.
Fred Lynn batted .308 as a member of the Red Sox, hitting 124 home runs. He had 944 base hits and a slash line of .383/.520/.902. In addition to his Rookie of the Year and MVP, Lynn won four Gold Gloves and made six All-Star Games.
Another player who had his best seasons after leaving the Red Sox. The Red Sox made a mistake trading him as Smith went on to have two top five MVP finishes. Smith had plenty of good seasons in Boston though, hitting over 20 home runs in five consecutive seasons and batting over .300 during three of them. An underrated player, I have Smith as a top 20 center fielder of all-time.
While with the Red Sox, Smith batted .281 and hit 149 home runs out of 1064 base hits. Over his final five seasons with the team, Smith averaged a season of .294 with 24 home runs, 81 RBI and an .867 OPS. He also led the league in doubles in both 1968 and 1971. Smith made two All-Star Games and won a Gold Glove Award with the Red Sox.
Ellsbury was always good with the Sox when he was healthy. Since leaving, he has continued to do a wonderful job by eating up a bunch of the Yankees money to be a below average player. What a guy! Ellsbury came up late in 2007 and showed very well down the stretch. He earned his way onto the playoff roster and batted .438 during the World Series. It was the first of two World Series he would win with the team.
2011 was far and away his best offensive season. Ellsbury had a huge second half of the year and probably would have won the MVP had the team not collapsed in September. He had 212 base hits that season, batting .321 with 32 home runs, 46 doubles and 39 stolen bases. He ended up the runner-up to Justin Verlander for the MVP Award.
Ellsbury was always a huge threat on the base paths, leading the league in steals three times. He had a career high 70 stolen bases in 2009. In 2013, his final year with the team, Ellsbury stole 52 bases while only being caught four times. Ellsbury made one all-star team, won a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger Award.
Ellis Burks, Johnny Damon, Chick Stahl, Ira Flagstead, Tony Armas, Jimmy Piersall