Giving Mike Cameron His Due

Not long after Mike Cameron hinted at retirement, the Marlins gave him his walking papers, letting him begin his post-baseball life a few weeks early. At 38-years-old, this is probably the end of the line for Cameron, who has spent most of his career as one of the game’s most consistently underrated players. It’s time he got his due.

He’s not going to make the Hall Of Fame. He probably won’t even get more than a handful of votes, and he’ll be off the ballot after his first year of eligibility. But if there was a Hall Of Very Good, Cameron would a charter member. While he’s probably not going to remembered as fondly, he was basically this generation’s Devon White.

Yes, he’s a career .249/.338/.444 hitter, and those numbers simply don’t stand out as anything that need to be celebrated, especially in the context of the offense-infused era in which he played most of his career. But, like White, Cameron didn’t derive most of his value at the plate, but instead in the field, where he was one of the best defensive outfielders of his time.

You don’t have to buy into defensive metrics (which, incidentally, rate only Andruw Jones and Darin Erstad ahead of him among center fielders from 1995-2011) to understand just how good Cameron was defensively. He’s the kind of guy whose skills in the field were obvious to anyone who watched him play, with enough range to cover gaps to both sides and jumps that allowed him to run down nearly anything hit to center field.

He anchored the 2001 Mariners outfield – perhaps the best defensive team in recent history – and was the driving force in the team holding opponents to a ridiculous .260 BABIP on the season. In fact, if you look at Cameron’s trek through the Major Leagues, you see a consistent pattern of his arrival coinciding with the career rebirth of some mediocre starting pitcher who magically posted a low BABIP out of nowhere.

But, Cameron wasn’t just the center field version of Omar Vizquel. Despite being a superlative defender, he was also a good hitter, and is perhaps the best example on earth of why you need to pay attention to park effects when judging a player’s abilities. Cameron’s career .344 wOBA is more than respectable for an up-the-middle player, but it’s actually even more impressive than it sounds – 31.3% of his career plate appearances came in Safeco Field, Petco Park, or Shea Stadium. Petco is the worst place on the planet for hitters, and Safeco isn’t far behind when it comes to right-handed pull power guys. Shea was also a notorious pitcher’s park, and since he spent a large portion of his career playing half his games in those three parks, it shouldn’t surprise us that Cameron’s career road OPS (.804) was significantly better than his mark at home (.758), despite the fact that most players perform better with home cooking over larger samples.

That’s why we have metrics like wRC+, which not only adjust for park effects, but also align the numbers to the league averages of the time period. During Cameron’s time as a starter, he posted a wRC+ of 110, meaning that his offense was 10 percent better than a league average hitter. Not a league average center fielder. Not a league average player with good defense. Just a straight up, normal, league average hitter. Cameron was 10 percent better than that, just at the plate.

For comparison, he has a better career wRC+ than Johnny Damon (108) or Torii Hunter (107), and he’s not that far off the marks put up by Andruw Jones (112), Kenny Lofton (114), or Robin Yount (115). This is pretty good company, and we’re only discussing the offensive performance of a guy whose bat was his second best asset.

From 1997 to 2009, Cameron ranked 18th in baseball in Wins Above Replacement. Not among outfielders, but among all players. During the 12 years he was basically an everyday player, he created essentially the same amount of value as the likes of Lance Berkman, Jeff Kent, and Jim Thome. He didn’t have any crazy great peak seasons that put him on the map, and his career wasn’t long enough to justify Hall of Fame enshrinement, but when Mike Cameron was on the field, he was consistently one of the best players in baseball.

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Dave is a co-founder of and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

60 Responses to “Giving Mike Cameron His Due”

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  1. grandbranyan says:

    I seem to recall popular sentiment at the time was that the Reds didn’t really give up all that much to acquire Ken Griffey Junior but it would appear they would have been better off just keeping Cam Boogie.

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    • Eric R says:

      2000 onward
      Griffey 10.9 fWAR

      Cameron 41.6 fWAR
      Tomko 9.0
      Perez 0.2

      Hell- in the year before the trade:
      Cameron+Tomko 7.1 fWAR
      Griffey 5.0

      Three years,
      Griffey 21.5 fWAR
      Cameron+Tomko 17.8

      Given a tool like WAR, it might not have looked like too lopsided a trade then either and that is before tacking on the huge [for the time] contract it took to lock him up for a decade…

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  2. Mike B. says:

    I had the pleasure of seeing Cammy play a dozen or so games at Safeco field during his tenure with the M’s. The outfield duo of he and Ichiro was always a blast to watch and made outfield defense exciting. Cammy also had plenty of pop at the plate and smacked a few huge HRs. Great memories of him as a Mariner.

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  3. Nate says:

    Doug Melvin’s best move in Milwaukee was signing Cameron at that below market value contract.

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  4. bluejaysstatsgeek says:

    I love great defense, and Cameron has been one of the very best recently. I hope he still has a passion for the game and tries to teach and mentor younger players.

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  5. Mike says:

    Cameron also had 900 AB’s for the White Sox in the late 90’s when New Comiskey played as a pitcher’s park, prior to the fences being moved in.

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  6. JimNYC says:

    Jim Thome will make the Hall of Fame because of voters obsessed with round numbers, but I don’t seek Berkman or Kent ever making the Hall (unless Berkman’s career rejuvenation lasts beyond this year, which I don’t really see happening). Other than “yeah, this guy was pretty good for a while” — which I don’t think anybody would dispute — there’s not much worth saying about Cameron’s career.

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    • Josh says:

      Jim Thome will make the Hall because he was one of the most dominant hitters in the game for a decade and a half. He was elite at the plate for 15+ years; that deserves enshrinement.

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    • Jeff says:

      You DON’T think Kent will make the Hall? crazy…

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    • Mark says:

      Just for fun, I wanted to see where Berkman ranked by wOBA for hitters of the past 30 or so years. Between 1980 and 2011, his wOBA ranks 9th.

      Maybe Berkman doesn’t have the counting stats to get in. If you want to argue that, I probably wouldn’t disagree. But this guy has around 11 years of being one of the best hitters in the game, and while he’s never been an asset with his glove he wasn’t exactly Adam Dunn out there defensively.

      I’m probably one of the few people who think he belongs in the HoF. He’s never really been appreciated for what he is – one of the best hitters in the league.

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  7. Ken says:

    Any relation, Dave?

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  8. CoolPapaE says:

    Cammy was overrated as a defensive ballplayer. His asset of speed allowed for him to make some spectacular plays on balls that had been misjudged. As a lifelong M’s fan, I saw him make many a wrong first step and then fly once he figured out where the ball was going. Griffey did not make those missteps, and this gave him about a 20% increased range when you compare both in their primes. He got a big push out here because he replaced a Griffey that the town was hurt by. It’s like being dumped by a 10 and calling your next girlfriend a 9, when she’s really about a 6.

    Indeed, the one thing I looked forward to when Cammy played here was the chance of seeing the Golden Sombrero.

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    • Jamie says:

      Bad analysis, with just a dash of misogyny. Just like ESPN!

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      • CoolPapaE says:

        I’m sorry, where is the misogyny?

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      • CoolPapaE says:

        For that matter, where is the bad analysis. Maybe if you turned off McCarver and Buck and watched the games at the stadium, you’d have a clue.

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      • LTG says:

        The misogyny comes from using a misogynistic practice as an analogy to explain something (which didn’t need the analogy anyway). Do you need to have it explained why it is misogynistic to objectify women through a judgment of their purportedly merely physical appearances?

        The bad analysis comes from using a number (20% increased range) without citing any statistic that backs up the claim. Did you eye-ball that or is there evidence that shows Griffey had such an improved range over Cameron in comparable prime years?

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      • The Nicker says:

        Superficiality/shallowness is not the same thing as misogyny. Both men and women judge people on their looks and make fun of people for being fat and ugly (although I’m sure guys use the “numbers system” more).

        He didn’t make some “back in the kitchen” reference.

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      • LTG says:


        I agree with each sentence but deny that it entails CoolPapaE’s use of the rating system is not misogyny. Context is crucial here. We still live in a male-dominant society in which men can be value for a diversity of characteristics but women tend to be reduced to one (“physical” looks). Moreover, the judgment of a woman’s physical attractiveness is developed within certain expectations of what counts as attractive and what doesn’t. Taste (even taste in physical features) is primarily nurtured not natured. The rating system tracks the misogynistically established expectations for female beauty. To use it is to participate in a wider misogynistic practice that ought to be eschewed. Why do reasonable men fail to realize this? Well, the male-dominant social norms are bad at tracking what is really misogyny.

        Besides, even if men and women do it to each other (and men to men and women to women and whatever other more complex gender-types are in play here), it only follows that it’s misogyny in one case and misandrony in the other, not that it is neither in both cases.

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      • LTG says:

        Maybe this will help:

        Misogyny, like racism, is systemic and not dependent on the individual’s hatred of a certain type of person. So, participating in misogynistic practices is misogyny whether you mean it or not. In contrast, see Louis C.K. on being white and male: “I’m a white man; you can’t even hurt my feelings.”

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    • Ken says:

      CoolePapaE – you are mistaken here. I’ve been an M’s season ticket holder for 17 years and watched just about every game from 1994-2004, about 30% from Safeco Field. Cameron was a better defensive CF than Griffey. For all his grace and athleticism, Griffey seemed to play too deep, and it always felt like too many balls fell in shallow CF. He got better at that later. Cameron got to more balls. They both made a lot of great plays.

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      • Ken says:

        Yes, Griffey’s games were almost all in the Kingdome, Cameron’s were in Safeco. Maybe there was some park affect as well? My 30% live action estimate included Kingdome until they moved. Cameron was better on defense.

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    • Max says:

      Where did you get the 20% number? Are you saying you were measuring UZR before anyone else did? How do you call yourself a Mariners fan if you look forward to seeing the golden sombrero? What analysis did you use to determine that Mike Cameron was worth 6/10 of Griffey, rather than 9/10 which you claim other people thought he was?

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  9. Guy Smiley says:

    He did have a piece of equipment in the HoF after his 4 HR game, which also featured back-to-back HRs twice in the same inning for the first time in history (Cameron & Bret Boone). Plus, I was at the game, so that should help his chances.

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    • Joser says:

      He came very close to five in that one, flying out to the warning track. He said after the game he wasn’t sure he should even be trying for five, since that could look like running up the score in a blowout to pursue a personal achievement. I have wondered what might have happened had he not gone to the plate with those doubts (maybe just tried too hard and struck out instead)

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      • Llewdor says:

        Also recall that that final flyout to the warning track (it was more of a fliner, and it was to the opposite field) came after he took a 3-0 pitch right down the middle in his fifth plate appearance, because he thought it was inappropriate to swing at a 3-0 pitch.

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      • Robbie G. says:

        This may be the first time in my life that I have read/heard someone say “I have wondered” rather than “I have often wondered.” I have wondered (although not often) if people who say that they have “often wondered” something have actually wondered it often or just once or twice.

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      • joser says:

        I’m actually quite sensitive to this, and always ask myself if “often” is appropriate (it usually isn’t). There’s too much hyperbole on the internet as it is.

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  10. Guy Smiley says:

    I should also add that he was about 15 feet away from hitting his 5th HR in that game when he flied out to Jeff Leifer in deep right.

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  11. j-bones says:

    anyone happen to have a list of those pitchers that had career rebirths? i’m interested but there has to be an easier way than checking the roster of each team he played for and then cross referencing the careers of each pitcher on the roster

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  12. sam says:

    great post. killa cam is one of my fav players

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  13. Lucky Bucky says:

    Mike Cameron will always be my kids’ favorite player. On June 17, 2008 my wife, 5 year old daughter, 4 year old son, and I had front row seats halfway down the rightfield line at Miller Park to cheer on our Brewers.

    Cameron made a nice catch on a line drive to end the top of the 6th. As he jogged towards the dugout you could see him looking into the stands for someone to toss a ball to. He was about ready to toss it to some young teens a few rows behind us when he spotted my kids standing in the front row. He stopped as if to toss it to them, then probably thought twice about the catching ability of these two young kids. Instead, he jogged over to us and handed the ball to my daughter with a smile on his face.

    Today that ball is proudly displayed in a ballholder with a Mike Cameron baseball card mounted next to it. The kids take turns keeping it in their rooms.

    One simple act turned my kids into huge Mike Cameron fans. In my eyes he’ll always be a class act.

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    • MNzach says:

      Great story.

      I’ve always been a Cameron fan. He is not a hall of famer, but rather a great player I’ll never forget. I wish him well.

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  14. CoolPapaE says:

    TO LTG, who prevented replies…there is no hatred of women in rating a women, just like there is none in rating a man. That you would choose to be offended by this goes some way to showing that the analysis is spot on. To make it clearer for you, it would be like saying my comparing apples to apples (range) is bad because I compare pomegranates to pomegranates later.

    The 20% is unproveable, to be sure, kind of a “you had to be there.” But I had seen him muff enough fly balls that Griffey never did to know I would rather have had Griffey (uninjured, of course) out there more than Cammy. So if you can give me a little latitude on the ridiculous use of numbers, I will give you and Jamie a break for idiotically defending those poor women from my words of “anger.”

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      • LTG says:

        1) Fangraphs only allows a 3rd level of replies on the comments and not a 4th, so I did not in fact prevent replies, the site did. If you spent more time here you would know this.

        2) I already responded to your points re: misogyny above in the context of a more reasonable reply than yours. So look there for why your own lack of hatred does not entail that your words are not misogynistic. Unfortunately, you live in a society that tends towards misogyny and you are a victim of its effects too. Those who are aware of it simply try not to participate in those practices (which is difficult) and find other ways of expressing ourselves.

        3) No, I don’t believe your eyeballing is better than the defensive metrics that were available at the time, or were not available as the case may be. Plus, your eyeballs are in disagreement with other people’s eyeballs; so, we’ll need a different source to arbitrate the dispute.

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      • LTG says:

        Again, I can’t be succinct the first time through. Perhaps this clarifies:

        When Oscar Wilde was accused of heresy and asked about it, he responded “There is no such thing as heresy.”

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      • LTG says:

        And, I’m pretty sure that last sentence, where you mock the plight of women in the United States at least, is more misogynistic than your previous post. Do you think only men read this site?

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      • wobatus says:

        LTG, you’re being a little holier-than-thou. Analytically, you’re a 10. OK, maybe a 9.

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  15. Nathaniel Dawson says:

    Baserunning, too.

    I don’t know what any of the baserunning metrics would say about it, but watching him, I thought he was a terrific baserunner. Could really fly rounding the bases, excellent base-stealer, seemed to know when to be aggressive and when not to be.

    The only thing he was not particularly good at on the baseball field was hitting singles. He was never that good at hitting singles, but in everything else, he excelled.

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  16. LTG says:

    By the by, do only men write for this site? I can’t find a list of writers and, even if I could, names would not be unambiguous trackers of sex (not to mention gender).

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  17. coolpapae says:

    LTG, how do you know if I am a man or a woman, if not clicking the link to my site. Many eyeballs disagreeing with one set makes not that one set wrong. Many of these sets of eyeballs are spurned by Griff’s leaving, and although I have nothing against Cammy, I saw both of them enough to know that Cammy was a far inferior player until injuries compromised him.

    As for your quotes I have some of my own,

    “Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders. ”
    “‘It is because a fellow is more afraid of the trouble he might have than he ever is of the trouble he’s already got. He’ll cling to trouble he’s used to before he’ll risk a change.’”
    “A mule will labor ten years willingly and patiently for you, for the privilege of kicking you once.”
    All the same source.

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    • LTG says:

      Is this like Jeopardy? Am I supposed to guess the source in the form of an a question? What are quotes from the Mary Tyler Moore Show? (Sorry, perhaps the Wilde quote was obscure. The point was that one does not have to choose to express oneself within the conceptual scheme presented by the public. One can also choose to reject the scheme itself, as one might reject the misogynistic conceptual scheme of rankings of physical attractiveness for both men and women.)

      I did in fact click the link to your site earlier, although I was not looking for gender-information, which could be just as spurious there anyway. I inferred male-identification from your ken for acting as if in an all-boys’ club and your attachment to a nickname with the term ‘papa’ in it. You follow American male norms very well.

      The point about disagreeing eyeballs was not to say you are wrong. I only said it requires a different source to arbitrate. And it further substantiates the bad analysis criticism, since good analysis gives good reasons for the answer, even if wrong, while bad analysis can be right without any good reasons. Similarly, an illiterate fool can pull William Faulkner’s name out of thin air.

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      • j bones says:

        no one wants to read his completely subjective views on cameron or your unnecessary off-topic white-knight complex ramblings. get a room you two

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      • LTG says:

        Ah, yes, “get a room,” i.e., do whatever you want so long as I don’t have to see it or think about it, with the added bonus of suggesting some sort of intimate contact or sexual intrigue to stigmatize the unwanted activity. You know, you could have scrolled past and not read or responded. Might have saved you time.

        As far as I can tell, our exchange is not unusual. CPE objected to a criticism, I explained it further, and some back and forth in this vein (vane, vain?) occurred. Further, what constitutes misogyny is not ungermane to sports or sports journalism. So, unless those who run the site discourage me from posting these sorts of things in the future, I’ll take the referent of “no one” to be too indefinite to give me a reason to change behavior.

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      • coolpapae says:

        Well, the illiterate fool thing is a little far, LTG. Sorry if I hurt your feelings with the quotes, they were more meant for Jamie, Bones or both if he is the same guy. I knew you would and could Google any one of the quotes. And although I can’t say I understand everything Faulkner writes, (ever try The Sound and the Fury? Argh.) those quotes and the tales they come from are pretty apt for many occasions.

        J bones, Jamie, or whomever. Sorry you had to read this. I know it hurt.

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  18. coolpapae says:

    before injuries compromised Griffey, that is.

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  19. j bones says:

    you could’ve saved some time by not spending 45 minutes perusing your thesaurus and constructing a post to make yourself sound smarter on a message board. my point was, if you want to debate the relative level of misogyny in comparing griffey to an ex-girlfriend, take it elsewhere. it’s not contributing to the discourse here, however much you want it to. by the way, cameron would definitely not have been a 9, not after he broke his face

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    • coolpapae says:

      It was not apparent that you had a point, J bones. I likewise was not aware you were the ombudsman (read: judge of grievances or in this case, appropriateness of content) for the site.

      Learn what words mean, perhaps, before writing flip responses or reading into the responses on this or other message boards. It is not the job of others to talk to your level. You should aspire (read:try) to be better and admit when you are ignorant, as I admitted with my overreach and retraction of the stats.

      When I said 20% I was approximating distance covered based on what I had seen. There is a difference between casually approaching a ball and someone else that has to make a spectacular dive to make the same catch. I will give you a hint, Jaime, take your eye off the ball and watch the feet. WAR does not prove everything.

      PS, I did not mean to hurt your feelings about Cammy, but the discussion of his fielding talents definitely had a place here. And everyone except you knew that the rating of girlfriends had not a shred of hatred behind it. Congratulations on your usage of the word, “discourse.”

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  20. Tyson says:

    Defense is overrated. Fangraph is a website for baseball nerds who seem to have an unhealthy obsession with run prevention and defense, but the fact is most of the flyballs and groundballs are all routine play that almost anybody can make. I’ll live with Lance Berkman as my outfielder as long as he can slug and I don’t want Franklin Gutierrez anywhere near my everyday lineup no matter how good his defense is. He can’t hit a lick. Good pitchers can thrive with bad defense. Good defense can’t thrive with bad pitching. WAR is a dumb metric that overrate defense and does not translate to winning. And get that BABIP crap out of here. If that stuff actually works, Ricky Nolasco and Aaron Harang would be Cy Young winners and Livan Hernandez and Mark Buehrle should be out of the league.

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  21. Tyson says:

    Cameron is a decent player but offensively he’s no Jim Edmonds. Edmonds did it all. Offense, defense, hit for average, hit for power, took walks, got on base, high OPS. He was still among the leader in OPS among centerfielder last year at age 40 even though he only got part time duties due to injuries.

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  22. JRoth says:

    Cameron drove me nuts because I thought that the Mets were right to get rid of him when they did – he was bound to begin age-related decline, right? Right?

    No, apparently not. That he produced for the Brewers added injury to insult (I’m a Pirates fan).

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  23. I always thought he and Torii Hunter were about the same player. Turns out, they weren’t too dissimilar at all.

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  24. Hurtlocker says:

    I saw Cameron play in San Diego and he was still a very good outfielder, I suspect he was great when he was younger. He was never a great hitter, mayber 25 Homers, hit .250 and strike out a lot. Not HOF but a pretty good player.

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  25. CircleChange11 says:

    Another thing that hurts Mike cameron is lack of team identity.

    I’m an avid baseball fan, loves stats, follow thegame closely, etc … and even I struggle to “picture” a team for Cameron when I think of him as a player.

    Most often, my mind sees him as a Brewer, since I live in Illinois and have seen him most in a Brewers uni … and it’s more recent than his White Sox days.

    Team Name (# of Seasons)
    White Sox (4)
    Reds (1)
    Mariners (4)
    Mets (2)
    Padres (2)
    Brewers (2)
    Red Sox (1.5)
    Marlins (.5)

    Even looking at his mariners days, he was not often in the top 5 hitters on his team (or just barely in the top 5). Certainly that does not hurt his value, but rather his reputation or his perceived value. Normally, i wouldn;t bring that up, but we are discussing him being under-rated, So the topic of his perceived value or reputation is the heart of the matter.

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    • Hurtlocker says:

      Good points, I agree. I think the “not even the best player on his own team” weighs in on lots of players. Cumulatively they look good, specifically they do not.

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