The Nationals’ pitchers and catchers reported to Viera, Florida, for spring training on Sunday, but the biggest story from the team’s camp was the announcement that Mike Cameron had decided to retire. Cameron signed a minor-league deal with the Nats on December 19 and seemed to have a solid chance of earning a job as a platoon outfielder. Now 39 years old and coming off a .203/.285/.359 campaign, though, it is hard to fault Cameron for choosing to hang up his spikes.
If you made a list of the best recent players who never hit .300 in a season, you would not get too far without mentioning Cameron. If you made a list of the best recent position players who struck out in nearly a quarter of their career plate appearances, Cameron would rank near the top as well.
Cameron played for eight teams during his 15-plus year career, and did not last more than four years with any of them. He had four seasons with 4.0 or more WARP, but was only selected to one All-Star Game. He drilled more career home runs (278) than Roger Maris and Kirk Gibson—including four in one game on May 2, 2002—with considerably less fanfare.
Reading the immediate reactions to Cameron’s retirement on Twitter, it was amazing to see how many fans and pundits described him as “the most underrated player of his generation.” The sentiment was almost universal, making the lack of recognition for Cameron’s talents all the more puzzling.
Cameron was not underrated for the same reasons that turned fans away from his former teammate and fellow retiree J.D. Drew. He was never accused of being lazy, overpriced, or soft; a more fitting adjective might be un-sexy. The unimpressive batting averages and the bevy of whiffs led fans to underrate Cameron’s offense. Meanwhile, the lack of appreciation for defense during Cameron’s prime denied him the acclaim that his tremendous range and athleticism in center field should have brought.
Perhaps no single fact better epitomizes Cameron’s career than this: He was worth 42.7 WARP over his career, and earned $76.4 million in salaries. That comes out to $1.8 million per win—a price that would make any general manager’s mouth water.
As Cameron rides off into the sunset, here’s hoping he finally gets the recognition he deserves.