Why Julio Rodríguez Is the Best Center Fielder in Baseball

Aaron Judge ran away with the top spot on Just Baseball's annual positional rankings, but here's why I chose Julio Rodríguez instead.

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - JULY 03: Julio Rodriguez #44 of the Seattle Mariners gestures after hitting an RBI double during the sixth inning against the Oakland Athletics at T-Mobile Park on July 03, 2022 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

Earlier today, Just Baseball released our ranking of the top 10 center fielders in the game. Of the six senior staff members to cast a ballot, I was the only one to rank Julio Rodríguez in first place. Here’s what I was thinking.

In his 2022 MVP season, Aaron Judge was the best hitter the game has seen since Barry Bonds. Similarly, over the last five years, his 170 wRC+ is the top mark in baseball. It might be cliché to call him a force to be reckoned with, yet it feels like those words were written just for him.

Julio Rodríguez can’t hit like Judge. Over his first two seasons, he has a 135 wRC+ and 60 home runs. Just to be clear, that’s phenomenal. But Judge has hit 99 long balls in 120 fewer games.

However, in nearly every other aspect of the game, Rodríguez has the edge: speed, defense, youth, and durability. With all that in his corner, there is a compelling case to be made for the youngster over the veteran. It might be controversial, but I think J-Rod is going to be the best center fielder in baseball.

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J-Rod stole 37 bases last year. He tied for second in the AL in baserunning runs (BsR), per FanGraphs. With his elite sprint speed, I wouldn’t be surprised if he swiped another 10 or 15 bags in 2024.

Judge is a capable runner, but outside of his superhuman 2022 season, he hasn’t provided much value on the bases. He also lost significant footspeed last year, falling into the 33rd percentile in sprint speed. At his age, it’s hard to imagine those extra feet per second are coming back.

PlayerSBSprint Speedhp TO 1B TIMEBsR
Julio Rodríguez3796th percentile4.28 sec.7.0
Aaron Judge333rd percentile4.80 sec.7.0
2023 stats. Sprint speed and HP to 1B via Baseball Savant. BsR via FanGraphs.


Rodríguez is a strong defensive center fielder. With 90th-percentile arm strength and 12 OAA, he provided +8 runs of defensive value last season, according to Baseball Savant. Not every metric is quite as high on his defense, but it’s clear from watching him play that he can handle the position if nothing else. His youth and speed give him a high floor, and his OAA is proof of his high ceiling.

Judge has been a good fielder throughout his career, finishing as a Gold Glove finalist in 2017 and ’18. He has held his own in center field, too. However, he only has 131 games of professional experience at the position – 120 in the majors and another 11 in the minor leagues. At his age and with his lack of experience, I’m not sure how he’ll handle more regular playing time at the most demanding outfield position.

In the Statcast OAA era (2016-present), only three full-time center fielders have provided positive defensive value (per FanGraphs) in their age-32 season or older: Lorenzo Cain, Kevin Kiermaier and Starling Marte. Cain and Kiermaier are all-time great defenders. Marte was never quite at that level, but still, he entered his age-32 campaign with high-level sprint speed and thousands of innings of experience in center. That’s not Judge.

Youth and Durability

Speaking of age, at a bright young 23, Rodríguez has his whole future ahead of him. As terrific as he already is, it’s conceivable that he’s only going to get better over the next several seasons. On a similar note, he has been healthy and durable thus far in his career. Last year, he ranked 10th in the majors with 714 PA.

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Judge, on the other hand, is at an age where it’s reasonable to expect some decline. I’m not saying his offensive skills are likely to drop off in 2024, but it’s a possibility we have to consider. Another unwelcome truth is that injury-prone players don’t often get healthier with age.

Judge has spent several stints on the injured list throughout his career, including two last season that limited him to 106 games. He was still worth 5.3 fWAR in two-thirds of a season, but Rodríguez bested him with 5.9 fWAR. On a per-game basis, Judge was the far superior player. Yet staying on the field is just as important as any other skill.

It’s impossible to predict freak injuries, but if one of Judge or Rodríguez is more likely to miss significant time this coming season, there is no doubt which one of them it is.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – APRIL 22: Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees celebrates his solo home run in the fifth inning against the Cleveland Guardians at Yankee Stadium on April 22, 2022 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Judge has upside through the roof. If you like to take risks, he’s a good bet to be the best center fielder in baseball. (If you really like taking risks, may I introduce you to a center fielder named Mike Trout?)

Personally, however, I tend to opt for the safer choice. In this case, that’s Rodríguez.

And for a safe choice, Julio Rodríguez might be as exciting as it gets.

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