Former Brewers center fielder Mike Cameron announced his retirement over the weekend.
The announcement marks the end of a 17-year career that featured three Gold Glove awards, one All-Star appearance, and seven different organizations. He was a diamond in the rough, an 18th-round pick out of high school who actually struggled in the early part of his minor league career. It is crazy to think Mike Cameron, who had eight 20+ home run seasons, only had three home runs in his first 229 professional games.
Eventually, though, something clicked at the plate. He launched 28 home runs in Double-A as a 23-year-old and reached the big leagues for good the following season. His glove was special in center field, and the fact that he could post 20+ home runs almost every season was icing on the cake.
There was one flaw in Cameron’s game, and it was a low batting average. His career .249 batting average kept him from being celebrated as one of the best center fielders of his generation.
While that last statement may seem hyperbolic, I promise you that it is not. Mike Cameron is perhaps one of the most underrated players of the past two decades. Take a look at the following numbers:
Cameron has a higher career WAR than Bernie Williams, who is currently being discussed as a possible Hall of Fame caliber player, despite playing in roughly 150 fewer games. Cameron has a higher WAR than Kirby Puckett, who is already in the Hall of Fame.
That is some pretty elite company. And to think, the 39-year-old Cameron was voted into only one All-Star Game. His low batting average belied the fact that he was one of the elite power/speed center fielder in the game over the past two decades. Only 19 center fielders in history have as many home runs (278) as Cameron in his career.
Cameron came to Milwaukee as a free agent in 2008 and patrolled center in Miller Park for two years. He hit a combined .247/.337/.464 with 49 home runs during his stint with the Brewers, and continued his stellar glovework in center fielder. His +23.4 UZR suggests he was worth roughly two wins with his defense alone.
He was incredibly valuable in Milwaukee. His +8.6 WAR for the Brewers between 2008 and 2009 was the second-highest of anyone on the team. Only Ryan Braun provided more wins during that time frame.
Teammates raved about his presence in the clubhouse. He reportedly has a great sense of humor, and he originated the infamous and much-maligned “untuck ‘em” celebration that was actually a tribute to his father (and not a signal of disrespect, as many other teams suggested). Cameron was active in the Milwaukee community, particularly in his support of the Boys & Girls Club. While with the Brewers in 2009, he won the Michael Harrison Award for Community Service.
In many ways, his career is a great story that will largely go unnoticed. As Baseball Prospectus’ John Perrotto tweeted on Sunday afternoon:
Too bad Mike Cameron’s .249 lifetime batting average disguises in the eyes of many what a productive player he was for many years.
Disguises is a very apt word to use in that context. The batting average number omits everything that made him one of the most valuable center fielders of his generation — home runs and defense.