July 7, 2003

The Most Underrated Player in Baseball

Deciding who is "underrated" and who isn't is a difficult thing to do.

Is an underrated player someone who is a bench player but should be a starter? Or a starting player that should be considered a star? Or a star player who should be considered one of the best players in baseball?

And why are they underrated? Is it because the general public doesn't think they are as valuable as they are? Or that they simply aren't well-known because of where they play? Or is it that the things they do well do not show up in the statistics that most fans look at and know about?

There is one other main way that a person can be underrated (or overrated), and that is to play in a ballpark that impacts their stats in a big way.

I think pretty much everyone who follows baseball closely is aware that the numbers Todd Helton, Larry Walker and the rest of the Colorado Rockies put up in Coors Field should be downgraded significantly and, if you don't do so, they become overrated players. The opposite is true for Jason Jennings, Shawn Chacon and Colorado pitchers, who have almost no shot at low ERAs, but often times are still good pitchers. People see their 4.50 or 5.00 ERA and assume they stink, which makes them underrated players.

Well, I believe I have found a player who has been hurt by his home ballpark as much as Todd Helton and Larry Walker have been helped by theirs.

His name is Mike Cameron and he plays centerfield for the Seattle Mariners.

Cameron is considered to be one of the best defensive centerfielders in all of baseball and, in my opinion, he is the best (and that's coming from a guy who watches Torii Hunter play everyday). In fact, I will go a step further and say that I think he is the best defensive player - regardless of position - in Major League Baseball.

Cameron won the AL Gold Glove in 2001, Diamond-Mind has given him an "EXCELLENT" rating (the highest possible) in CF for each of the last 2 seasons and Michael Lichtman (of Baseball Primer) has Cameron as +28 and +25 runs defensively the last 2 seasons, according to his awesome defensive metric, "Ultimate Zone Rating."

In addition to that, he's a hell of a hitter. So far this year, he is batting .272/.365/.483 and is on pace to hit 22 homers and 35 doubles, while driving in 100 runs.

At the same time, Mike Cameron is not very well known. He is almost never brought up in "best centerfielder" discussions, despite the fact that he is extraordinary defensively and tremendous offensively. In the recently completed all-star voting, Cameron finished 8th among American League outfielders in the fan voting, despite playing for a team whose fans voted more than most teams, and he also did not place in the top 6 AL OFs in the "player vote." All of that makes him a very underrated baseball player.

The fact that he is absolutely killed by the ballpark he plays half his games in is what takes him from simply being very underrated to being the most underrated player in baseball.

Take a look at Mike Cameron's hitting at home (Safeco Field) and on the road this season:

2003

AVG OBP SLG
Safeco .213 .310 .425
Road .319 .407 .528

That is huge. At home, he hits like Terrence Long and on the road he hits like Gary Sheffield.

In fact, his home OPS (on-base % + slugging %) of .735 would rank 133rd among the 172 players with enough playing time to qualify for the batting title. His road OPS of .935 would rank 18th on the same list.

133rd to 18th. It just doesn't get much different than that.

I used the Todd Helton/Larry Walker example for hitters who are helped a ton by their ballpark (Coors Field). Let's take a look at how they are doing at home and on the road this year:

TODD HELTON                               LARRY WALKER

AVG OBP SLG AVG OBP SLG
Coors .390 .473 .718 Coors .350 .489 .569
Road .280 .384 .427 Road .246 .376 .446

If anything, I think the current thought of how much Coors Field inflates hitting stats isn't nearly strong enough.

So far this year (and yes, I realize it is a relatively small sample-size), Todd Helton and Larry Walker are hitting .390 and .350 at home and .280 and .246 on the road. Their OPSs go from 1.191 and 1.058 in Coors to .811 and .822 everywhere else.

Let's try to look at this another way, by comparing the percentage of AVG, OBP and SLG that Cameron loses when he plays at home, to the percentage of AVG, OBP and SLG that Helton and Walker lose when they play on the road.

% LOST

AVG OBP SLG
Cameron 33.2 23.8 19.5
Helton 28.2 18.8 40.5
Walker 29.7 23.1 21.6

In other words, Mike Cameron gains a larger percentage of batting average and on-base percentage when he goes on the road than Helton and Walker do by playing in Coors Field. Think about that for a minute.

And this is far from a one year thing for Mike Cameron and Safeco Field. Check out his numbers for the other 3 years he has played there:

2002

AVG OBP SLG
Safeco .218 .334 .370
Road .258 .345 .509

In 2002 at Safeco, Cameron's AVG was down 15.5%, his OBP was down 3.2% and his SLG was down 27.3%.

2001

AVG OBP SLG
Safeco .220 .310 .359
Road .310 .392 .591

In 2001 at Safeco, Cameron's AVG was down 29.0%, his OBP was down 20.9% and his SLG was down 39.3%.

2000

AVG OBP SLG
Safeco .220 .340 .337
Road .309 .388 .528

In 2000 Safeco, Cameron's AVG was down 28.8%, his OBP was down 12.4% and his SLG was down 36.2%.

Those decreases in production are real, they are consistent, they are across-the-board and they are massive.

Okay, so let's add it all up. Cameron has been playing his home games in Safeco Field for the last 3 and a half seasons now. Here are his combined numbers over that time:

2000-2003

AB AVG OBP SLG
Safeco 903 .218 .329 .364
Road 1015 .297 .385 .540

That really is almost unbelievable.

Since joining the Mariners, Cameron has played 3.5 seasons with Safeco Field as his home ballpark. During that time at Safeco, compared to playing on the road, his AVG is down 26.6%, his OBP is down 14.5% and his SLG is down 32.6%.

If you were to only count Cameron's performance on the road for since 2000, a span that includes over 1,000 at bats, here is where he ranks among MLB centerfielders...

.297 Batting Average - 4th (behind Bernie Williams, Juan Pierre and Jim Edmonds)

.388 On-Base Percentage - 3rd (behind Edmonds and Williams)

.540 Slugging Percentage - 2nd (behind Edmonds)

Basically, if you take only his performance on the road into consideration, Mike Cameron has been the 2nd best offensive centerfielder in baseball since 2000, behind only Jim Edmonds.

Let's go back to the two Colorado sluggers and see what they've done at home and on the road since 2000.

TODD HELTON                               LARRY WALKER

AVG OBP SLG AVG OBP SLG
Coors .385 .483 .730 Coors .373 .472 .674
Road .302 .404 .550 Road .284 .394 .495

Now let's bring back the old "percentage lost" table once again, to see how much of a dropoff Cameron experiences at home, compared to what Helton and Walker lose on the road.

% LOST

AVG OBP SLG
Cameron 26.6 14.5 32.6
Helton 21.6 16.4 24.7
Walker 23.9 16.5 26.6

Todd Helton and Larry Walker have nothing on Mike Cameron.

I'll say it again, think about this for a moment. Mike Cameron has lost more of his offensive since 2000 by playing his home games at Safeco Field than Todd Helton and Larry Walker have lost when they leave Coors Field, the best hitter's park in baseball history, to play on the road. I've got to say, I am not sure how you feel about this, but I am absolutely shocked and amazed.

There is another interesting aspect of the effect Safeco Field has on Mike Cameron. While Coors Field boosts the offensive stats of all hitters to a huge degree, Safeco field has some negative impact on hitting statistics for all players, but it's impact on Mike Cameron is above and beyond the overall dropoffs.

Here's a look at how Seattle has done at home and on the road:

2003 MARINERS

AVG OBP SLG
Safeco .253 .326 .380
Road .297 .364 .463

So far this year, when the Mariners go home, their AVG drops 14.8%, their OBP drops 10.4% and their SLG drops 17.9%. Their overall OPS (on-base % + slugging %) drops 14.6%. That is a big dropoff, but those numbers include Mike Cameron and his 21.4% OPS dropoff.

Here's what Safeco Field has done to the Mariners in the past:

2002 MARINERS

AVG OBP SLG
Safeco .264 .346 .397
Road .285 .354 .440

In 2002, AVG was down 7.3%, OBP was down 2.3%, SLG was down 9.8% and OPS was down 6.4%

2001 MARINERS

AVG OBP SLG
Safeco .283 .355 .436
Road .293 .365 .454

In 2001, AVG was down 3.4%, OBP was down 2.7%, SLG was down 4.4% and OPS was down 3.4%.

2000 MARINERS

AVG OBP SLG
Safeco .248 .352 .408
Road .289 .370 .472

In 2000, AVG was down 14.1%, OBP was down 4.9%, SLG was down 13.6% and OPS was down 9.7%.

Overall, since 2000, here are the Mariners' team-wide dropoff in OPS when at home, compared to Mike Cameron's:

OPS % LOST

2003 2002 2001 2000
Cameron 21.4 17.6 31.9 26.1
Mariners 14.6 6.4 3.4 9.7

Clearly, Mike Cameron is hurt much more by Safeco Field than the Mariners are as a whole. But why? Why are his numbers so completely ruined by Safeco Field, much more so than his teammates?

There are probably any number of potential reasons for this, but the two that I thought of right away were that 1) Mike Cameron is a right-handed hitter and 2) Mike Cameron is an extreme fly ball hitter.

Safeco Field has a very large left-centerfield area, so the theory is that right-handed hitters in general are hurt playing there, but right-handed fly ball hitters, dependent on their long fly balls flying over fences for homers, are particularly hurt by Safeco, because a large percentage of the homers end up in the gloves of left fielders and centerfielders.

Cameron's actual numbers from 2000-2003 definitely support this "theory"...

            AB/HR     HR/550 AB

Safeco 36.1 15.27
Road 18.1 30.35

Cameron is one of the most extreme fly ball hitters in baseball. His GB/FB ratios since joining the Mariners in 2000 are 0.86, 0.64, 0.80 and 0.79 this year.

Those 0.79 ground balls for every fly ball so far this season make him the 8th most extreme fly ball hitter in the American League. Among right-handed AL hitters, he is the 4th most fly ball dominant.

In 2002, he had the 13th most extreme fly ball ratio in the AL, 7th among right-handed hitters.

In 2001, he had the most extreme fly ball ratio in the AL and the 2nd most fly ball dominant ratio in all of baseball.

In 2000, he had the 9th most extreme fly ball ratio in the AL, 5th among right-handed hitters.

So, I think it is safe to say that, if Safeco Field hurts right-handed hitters overall and right-handed fly ball hitters in particular, then Mike Cameron is just about the #1 candidate to be hurt by playing his home games there.

Of course, that only works if Safeco does actually hurt right-handed fly ball hitters a ton. So, does it?

Unfortunately, the ballpark is only about 4.5 years old and the amount of right-handed fly ball hitters on the Mariners during that time are not very plentiful. And, to be able to draw significant conclusions from the data, the player would need to have a lot of at bats in Safeco, which rules out visiting players.

From 2000-2003, the only right-handed hitters with over 1,000 plate appearances as a Mariner are Cameron, Edgar Martinez, Bret Boone, Dan Wilson and David Bell.

Let's take a look at the GB/FB ratios of those 5 hitters during their time with the Mariners from 2000-2003, to see if they are similar:

               GB/FB

Cameron 0.76
Martinez 0.96
Boone 1.33
Wilson 0.96
Bell 0.75

Basically, Bret Boone is wrong for this little "study" because his ratio of GB/FB is nearly double Mike Cameron's. Additionally, the difference between Martinez and Wilson's 0.96 ratio and Cameron's 0.76 ratio may appear to be small, but it is actually quite significant. First of all, it is a 26% difference, which is pretty huge when you are trying to look for something very similar. Also, the difference between a 0.76 GB/FB ratio and a 0.96 GB/FB in the AL this season is the difference between having the 6th most extreme fly ball ratio in the AL and the 30th most extreme.

So really, the only guy that fits Cameron's mold of a right-handed, very extreme fly ball hitter, is David Bell. But, since there is a very limited pool of players to work with here (read: one), let's compare how all 5 were impacted by Safeco anyway.

% LOST AT SAFECO

AVG OBP SLG OPS
Cameron 26.6 14.5 32.6 25.1
Martinez 7.3 + 1.9 11.6 5.9
Boone 3.5 5.1 3.7 4.3
Wilson 11.4 10.0 13.8 12.1
Bell 2.3 1.3 4.9 3.3

Once again, no one has a dropoff anywhere close to Cameron's. At the same time, every single stat for all 5 players falls at home, except for Edgar Martinez's on-base percentage, which somehow manages to go up 1.9% at Safeco.

So what the heck does all this stuff mean exactly?

Well, first of all, Mike Cameron is a very good player. Regardless of ballpark, he is a top-notch defensive centerfielder and a very good offensive player.

Beyond that, Safeco Field has had more of a negative effect on his hitting than the positive effect Coors Field has had on Larry Walker and Todd Helton's hitting. In addition to that, Cameron is uniquely impacted by Safeco Field, even when compared to right-handed hitters on his own team.

You stick Mike Cameron in a different ballpark and he's going to put up huge, MVP-type numbers and he's going to be a household name. Heck, if you kept him on the Mariners and only let him play on the road, he would put up giant numbers.

And if he ever got to play his home games in Coors Field...


Mike Cameron - The Most Underrated Player in Baseball

Today's picks:

St. Louis (Haren) +140 over San Francisco (Rueter)

Total to date: + $1,665

W/L record: 165-159 (1-2 yesterday for -100.)

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

No Comments

No comments yet.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.