The end appears close for Mike Cameron. The 38-year-old, hobbled by injuries over the past two seasons, was designated for assignment by the Red Sox on Thursday. Cameron could well end up on another club’s bench if he is released and only costs the pro-rated portion of the major league minimum, but his immediate future isn’t the purpose of this post. Rather, I want to celebrate the career of one of the least-appreciated stars of the late 1990s and the new millennium.
With 51.6 WAR, Cameron ranks 19th among all position players since he became a big league regular. Yet, Cameron hasn’t received anywhere near the same level recognition as the other stars close to him in total value.
With All-Star rosters set to be unveiled this Sunday, let’s take a look at how players close to Cameron in WAR have been judged by the fans, players and managers. The 10 players directly above Cameron in position player WAR made an average of slightly more than six All-Star teams from ’97 to the present. The 10 players right below Cameron in WAR (Kent, Jason Giambi, Jeff Bagwell, Chase Utley, Gary Sheffield, Carlos Delgado, Johnny Damon, Miguel Tejada, Sammy Sosa and Mike Piazza) made an average of about five All-Star teams. Cameron, meanwhile, made his only Midsummer Classic squad back in 2001.
When you examine Cameron’s career closely, the All-Star snubs start to make more sense. It’s not that he wasn’t deserving. But his skill-set, and the parks that he played in, gave him the kind of covert credentials that are frequently overlooked.
A career .249/.338/.444 hitter, Cameron’s offensive talent was often muted by the pitcher’s parks in which he played. U.S. Cellular Field is known as a hitter’s haven now, but back when the venue was still called Comiskey II and before the fences down the foul lines were moved in, it favored pitchers. Cameron spent four seasons toiling in Safeco Field, and two more hitting in PETCO, whose dimensions are slightly smaller than Yellowstone Park. His ability to work the count and hit for power made Cameron a quality batter, low batting average aside: his career park-and league-adjusted line is nine percent above average (109 wRC+).
Cameron never really posted gaudy stolen base totals, but he has been a high-percentage thief whose career stolen base success rate is 78 percent. Cameron added value in other facets of the running game as well, ranking in the top 20 among major leaguers in Ultimate Base Runs dating back to 2002 (the first year for which there’s UBR data). Cameron rarely posted type of SB numbers that make fantasy baseball players giddy, and going from first to third or second to home on a single isn’t the sort of play that leads SportsCenter, but he has been a definite asset on the bases.
And then, of course, there’s Cameron’s sublime defense. UZR has Cameron saving nearly 110 runs more than an average fly catcher during the course of his career. Some might view that total skeptically. But whether you gauge Cameron’s D by UZR, Total Zone (which has him saving +96 runs) or the naked eye, the man could cover serious ground. With apologies to Franklin Gutierrez, Cameron was the original Death To Flying Things while patrolling center in Seattle, and he remained one of the best defenders in the game into his mid-thirties.
By taking his cuts in cavernous parks and accumulating much of his value in the field and on the bases, Cameron rarely had the flashy raw numbers of his contemporaries on the WAR Leaderboard. Cameron became known as a .250ish hitter with a good glove — the sort of player you’d like to have, but not the sort that should be showcased in a prime-time gathering of the game’s best. He didn’t “feel” like an All-Star to most, though he topped the four-win threshold on nine occasions and had five-win seasons four different times. While Cameron made just one Midsummer Classic, he’d have a starting spot on the Rodney Dangerfield All-Stars.
A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at firstname.lastname@example.org and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.