With the season over and the clock ticking towards the beginning of free agency, you’re going to see a lot of rankings of the available players. I would imagine that every single one of them will have Jason Bay slotted in as the #2 position player on the market, behind only Matt Holliday. And there’s every reason to expect Bay to pick up the second biggest check of any free agent position player this winter.
However, there’s another right-handing hitting outfielder on the market that is a better player than Bay and yet will still demand a fraction of the price. That player? The chronically underrated Mike Cameron.
Did you know that, since 2002 (the first year we calculate WAR for), Mike Cameron has been worth +29.6 wins, or about the same as David Ortiz, Aramis Ramirez, and Jim Thome? Or that Cameron has posted a WAR of +4.0 or higher in three of the last four seasons? Yet, due to a slew of factors that include accumulating a large portion of value on defense, spending most of his career in extreme pitchers parks, and posting a low average with a lot of strikeouts, Cameron has never gotten the recognition he deserves.
That will continue this winter, when Bay signs a contract that dwarfs what Cameron will receive, despite the fact that there’s really no argument for Bay being a better player.
Bay is a better hitter – that much is clear. Bay’s career wOBA is .384 versus a .347 mark for Cameron. A 40 point gap in wOBA is significant, and is the obvious driving force for the difference in perception between the two. But how much more value does Bay provide with the bat than Cameron in any given year?
Bay has produced +28 runs above average per 600 PA with the bat since 2002, while Cameron is at +13 runs above average per 600 PA over the same time frame. That’s a 15 run per season gap. It’s a real difference, but probably smaller than the perception of their relative offensive abilities.
That’s just the offensive side, of course. On the other side of the ball, Cameron is one of the better defensive center fielders in the game, while Bay is a bad defensive corner outfielder. You don’t have to trust UZR to agree with those assessments. Those aren’t controversial statements.
If we want to look at the numbers, Cameron is +6 UZR/150 over the last eight years, while Bay is -8 UZR/150. But, of course, they aren’t being compared to the same average baseline, since Cameron plays CF and Bay plays LF. Historically, the gap between an average LF and an average CF is about 10 runs, so the gap is actually 24 runs over their careers.
Even if you don’t like UZR, and you want to cut that number in half to account for your uncertainty about defensive value, you’ll still come out with a total value that makes them about equal. And, given the samples we have, you should trust UZR a lot more than that. With a correct amount of regression, the defensive difference comes out larger than the offensive difference, making Cameron the better player overall.
So, if Cameron has been the better player, why are teams going to pay more for Bay? Overvaluing offense is certainly one factor, but there’s also the age issue. Cameron is going to be 37 next year, while Bay just turned 31. That changes the way we project them going forward.
However, the primary factor in any aging curve has to be the starting point of a player’s value. Cameron may be older, but he’s also better, and he has a skill set that ages significantly better. He’s shown little to no erosion in skills over the last few years. At worst, you could use the age gap to make them have fairly similar projections in value for 2010.
Yet Bay is going to get a three to five year deal for something in the neighborhood of $15 million per season, while Cameron is probably going to have to settle for a one year deal for around the $10 million he made last year.
That’s nutty. If you think Cameron’s on the verge of collapse (he’s shown no signs of it) and you don’t trust defensive metrics (in this case, the conclusions are pretty obviously true), then you think that they’re similarly valuable. In reality, the odds are pretty good that Cameron is going to outperform Bay next season, just as he’s done in most every season recently, and he’s going to do it for far less money.
If you want a right-handed hitting outfielder this winter, and you don’t want to pony up for Matt Holliday, Jason Bay is not the alternative. Call Mike Cameron instead.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.