Thursday, March 4, 2010
Cameron comes with offensive quirks
By Jeremy Lundblad
Special to ESPNBoston.com
As part of the defensive overhaul that took place on Yawkey Way this winter, Mike Cameron was brought to Boston for his glove. But how will his offensive contributions be received?
By no means is Cameron a slouch with the bat. With 265 home runs and 296 stolen bases, he's one of six active players with at least 250 of both. He has a realistic shot at joining the elite 300-300 club that currently has just six members.
Cameron is also remarkably consistent, a near-lock for around 20 HR and 70 RBIs. He has nine seasons of at least 15 home runs and 15 stolen bases. Only five players have more, and it's an extremely impressive list: Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Bobby Abreu, Bobby Bonds, Willie Mays.
However, Red Sox fans are not exactly accustomed to a player whose greatest contribution is not with the bat. There will no doubt be areas of frustration with Cameron's offense. With that in mind, let's break down a pair of hitting trends that will be quite apparent once the season gets under way.
A fly-ball hitter
Mike Cameron has never had 150 hits in a season. That's a pretty stunning statistic for a regular player with 1,610 career hits. By contrast, Jacoby Ellsbury has picked up at least 150 hits in each of his two full seasons. Yet Cameron's career high is just 148. In all, over 200 active players have had 150 hits in a season, a list that includes Lew Ford, Josh Barfield and Emil Brown (twice!). But Cameron, a 15-year veteran who is 44th among active players in hits, has never done it.
In fact, there are only three other active non-pitchers who have played 15-plus seasons and never had 150 hits. Like Cameron, Gregg Zaun and Juan Castro have gone 15 seasons without doing so; however, both players have served as backups for much of their career. The only active player with a longer career drought is Brad Ausmus, who is entering his 18th season.
So how does a player of Cameron's caliber find himself associated with utility infielders and catchers? Simply put, he's not much of a singles hitter. Cameron ranks 28th among active players in extra-base hits, but he is just 56th in singles, right behind Carl Crawford, a player with 2,703 fewer plate appearances to his name.
Even at 37, speed remains an essential part of Cameron's success as a player, particularly in the field. But he's never effectively used that speed at the plate.
Cameron has a 0.84 career grounder-to-fly-ball ratio (number of ground balls hit divided by the number of fly balls hit). Among the 54 active players with 100 career stolen bases, that is the third-lowest ratio. No doubt Cameron's power makes him a far different player from Luis Castillo or Juan Pierre, the two most notorious ground-ball hitters in the game. He shouldn't be trying to beat out infield hits every time he steps to the plate.
That said, other players with Cameron's unique power-speed combo have shown far more willingness to hit the ball on the ground. Torii Hunter, Johnny Damon and even Vladimir Guerrero have a grounder-to-fly ratio greater than 1.20. Instead, Cameron takes the same approach as David Ortiz, who has a career ratio of 0.80.
No one is expecting Cameron to drastically change his approach. That's why Fenway Park just might be the perfect place for him at this stage of his career. Last season, 94.1 percent of his hits were either pulled or up the middle, according to Baseball-Reference.com. As a right-handed pull hitter with a huge fly-ball tendency, expect Cameron to add several dents to the Green Monster in left. Just maybe not 150 of them.
The strikeout problem
If the first thing mentioned about Mike Cameron is defense, the second should probably be strikeouts.
In April, Cameron is likely to move past Dave Kingman into 10th place on the all-time strikeout list. He's already fanned more than any player with fewer than 300 home runs. At some point in 2011, he'll become just the fifth hitter with 2,000 strikeouts, joining Reggie Jackson, Jim Thome, Sammy Sosa and Andres Galarraga. Last season, Cameron joined those first three as the only players with 10 or more seasons of 130-plus strikeouts.
Cameron strikes out once every 4.14 plate appearances. By comparison, Jason Bay, the man Cameron is ostensibly replacing in the lineup, has fanned once every 4.35 plate appearances in his career. Last season, Bay's 162 strikeouts tied Butch Hobson for the second-most in club history (Mark Bellhorn has the record with 177).
Cameron may not quite be the second coming of Rob Deer, but Red Sox fans should get used to the sight of him walking back to the dugout. Think of it this way: Cameron's longest career hit streak is 13 games, recorded in 1999. Last season, he had a 16-game strikeout streak, tied for the second-longest in the NL. In fact, Cameron and Jay Buhner are the only players in the past 50 years with multiple 20-game strikeout streaks.
Clearly, strikeouts will be an ongoing issue. But how much do they affect Cameron's overall approach?
Not surprisingly, Cameron is a very poor hitter with two strikes. In 2009, he hit just .131 with two strikes, which was fifth-worst in the NL and well below the league average of .186. The good news for Cameron? Another Red Sox acquisition was even worse. Bill Hall hit .094 with two strikes between his time with the Brewers and Mariners. That's the worst such average by a major leaguer since old friend Mark Bellhorn's .086 in 2006 with the Padres.
Perhaps his history of strikeouts takes a mental toll on Cameron when he gets two strikes on him, because he is far more successful early in his plate appearances. In at-bats ending in the first two pitches, Cameron hit .382, well above the league average of .332. However, in at-bats extending beyond the second pitch, Cameron hit .199, well below the league average of .234.
That may help explain why Cameron, a considerably patient hitter, is so aggressive early in counts. He swings at the first pitch 28.7 percent of the time. That's certainly not an excessively aggressive approach for most teams. But it would have been the highest rate on the 2009 Red Sox, a team that swung at just 20.9 percent of first pitches, the lowest percentage in the majors.
Jeremy Lundblad is a researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He provides statistical analysis for ESPNBoston.com.