December 14, 2003
Cammy in The Big Apple
Some guys have all the luck.
Take Todd Helton for example. After playing college ball at Tennessee, he gets picked in the first round by the Colorado Rockies. For a slugging first baseman like Helton, getting picked by the Rockies is like a fat kid getting a job as a "tester" at a chocolate factory.
So Helton, through pure luck and the fact that the Rockies took a liking to him and had a high pick in the 1995 draft, has now spent the first seven years of his career as a hitter in the best offensive environment in the history of baseball.
That's not to say Todd Helton isn't a very good hitter, because he certainly is. For his career, he has the following road numbers:
G AVG OBP SLG
483 .294 .385 .523
Some very nice numbers. They are comparable to the career numbers of first basemen like Ryan Klesko (.282/.370/.521), Rafael Palmeiro (.291/.373/.522), Fred McGriff (.285/.378/.511) and Mo Vaughn (.293/.383/.523).
Now take a look at what Helton has done in Coors Field:
G AVG OBP SLG
498 .378 .463 .704
The end result of his good luck, to this point at least, is that Todd Helton, a .294/.385/.523 hitter away from Planet Coors, currently leads all active major leaguers in career OPS (on-base percentage + slugging percentage) at 1.041.
Better than Bonds, Ramirez, Thomas, Thome, Giambi, Piazza, Delgado, Bagwell - you name the player and Helton has a higher career OPS. In fact, he ranks 4th all-time, sandwiched right in-between Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx.
Baseball-Reference.com lists "park factors" for every ballpark in baseball, every season. They are somewhat complicated, but essentially a number above 100 means it is a hitter's park and a number below 100 means it is a pitcher's park.
For example, Dodger Stadium hasn't had a park factor above 100 in its entire 42-year history. Meanwhile, Enron Field/Minute Maid Park in Houston has had park factors of 107, 105, 104 and 104 in its four-year history.
Helton has been with the Rockies since 1997. Coors Field has had the following park factors during his time there:
While Todd Helton has been launching balls into the friendly air in Colorado, Mike Cameron has been at the other end of the ballpark spectrum. Having just completed his seventh full-season in the major leagues, Cameron has played with home ballparks that had the following park factors:
The last four of those years were spent in Seattle, playing in Safeco Field, one of the toughest parks for a hitter in all of baseball. In addition to that, Cameron seems to have been uniquely impacted by Safeco Field, to the point that his home performance has suffered significantly more than the overall park factors would suggest.
Perhaps it is because he hits right-handed, perhaps it is because he is a fly ball hitter, perhaps it is because he has had vision problems that were only made worse by the difficult hitter's background in Seattle. Whatever the reason, Cameron has been significantly worse at Safeco than he has been on the road.
This is a subject I have written about on several occasions. I first discussed Cameron's Safeco woes back in early July, when I pointed out that, during his career with the Mariners, Cameron had been hurt as much by playing in Safeco as guys like Larry Walker and Todd Helton were helped by playing in Coors Field.
Then, last month, I checked back on the situation and found that Cameron's hitting at Safeco improved quite a bit during the second-half of last season, perhaps because the Mariners finally addressed the problem they had been having with the hitter's background in center field.
In his four seasons with the Seattle Mariners, Mike Cameron had the following splits:
G AVG OBP SLG GPA
At Safeco 301 .223 .328 .373 .240
Away from Safeco 309 .286 .364 .514 .292
That is, to me at least, absolutely amazing.
Using GPA as the judge, Cameron's offense was 18% worse at Safeco Field than everywhere else. During his career with the Rockies, Todd Helton's offense at Coors Field is 20% better than it is everywhere else.
Everything in baseball is about context. Todd Helton's career road numbers (.294/.385/.523) look very similar to Mike Cameron's numbers away from Safeco Field during the last four years (.286/.364/.514). Taking both of them out of their home environments, you get Helton with a .304 GPA and Cameron with a .292 GPA.
But, because one of them has the good fortune of hitting in Coors Field for half his games, he has the best OPS among all active players. And the other, by virtue of playing half his games in a ballpark that, for whatever reason, absolutely cripples his offense, is looked at by many fans as a bad offensive player, someone defined by their high strikeout totals and low batting averages.
Put into context however, Mike Cameron and Todd Helton aren't so different offensively. Helton is, without a doubt, a better hitter. The gap between their offensive capabilities is not nearly as massive as the raw numbers would suggest. Like many things in baseball, the truth lies not only with the numbers, but with how those numbers were made.
Had their baseball lives been reversed, I wonder how different things would be for Helton and Cameron. What if Cameron had been drafted by the Rockies and had spent his entire career in Colorado? Would his numbers in Coors Field be 20% better than his numbers on the road? If so, his offense, independent of context, would be among the best in the history of baseball for a center fielder.
And what about Helton? What if he had bounced around with a few teams, always playing in ballparks that were very tough on all hitters and particularly tough on him? Would his career numbers be even lower than his numbers away from Coors are now? Would he be a four-time All-Star or would he be thought of in the same breath as someone like Ryan Klesko?
We will obviously never know the answers to those questions and, unfortunately for Cameron (or at least his stats), he has signed a free agent deal with the Mets and will be headed to yet another pitcher's ballpark, Shea Stadium.
There are some players who are simply destined to be underrated. Maybe they played in a small-market without much media attention, maybe much of their value came from overlooked facets of the game like defense or plate discipline, or maybe, like with Mike Cameron, they just always ended up doing their hitting in a place that simply wasn't all that good for hitting in.
Shea Stadium has not had a park factor over 100 since 1969. Its average park factor over the last five seasons is 95. Safeco's average park factor while Cameron was there was 93. That said, while Shea Stadium has never been a friendly place for hitters, it will almost certainly be much nicer to Mike Cameron than Safeco Field was.
Cameron won't get the 20% boost at home that Coors Field gives Todd Helton, but he doesn't need that to put up extremely impressive numbers. If playing in Shea Stadium can simply allow Mike Cameron to take the numbers he has put up on the road during the last four years and duplicate them at home, he will immediately be seen as one of the best hitting center fielders in baseball. Combine that with the fact that he will now be playing in New York, and it's very possible Mike Cameron could go from incredibly underrated to overrated, or at least correctly rated, in the span of one year. As a fan of Mike Cameron's and someone who would like to see him get just a little luck, I would love to see that happen.
Cameron's .292 GPA away from Safeco over the last four years would have ranked him fifth among all major league center fielders last year, one spot lower than Vernon Wells, who hit .317 with 33 homers and 49 doubles on his way to a .299 GPA and an eighth-place finish in the AL MVP balloting.
Throw in the fact that Mike Cameron is, in my opinion, the best defensive player in all of baseball, and I think the New York Mets have just signed one hell of a player. He's going to have a huge impact on their pitching-staff and his offense is going to surprise a whole lot of people. Not those of you who are readers of Aaron's Baseball Blog, of course. You have all been warned.
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