Friday, March 04, 2005

Two Simple Questions

Last weekend I was enjoying my Sunday morning newspaper, ESPN buzzing vaguely in the background. In one of those rare convergences of the cosmos, two jolting bits of information came careening at me simultaneously. At the exact moment that Newday’s Jon Heyman was telling me, via his Sunday column, that the Mets should trade Mike Cameron for Ugueth Urbina, Peter Gammons on ESPN told me that Hideki Matsui was one of the ten best players in the American League. Reeling and dazed, I gaped open-mouthed, my disoriented stare switching back and forth from the newspaper to the TV. Which piece of stupidity was most in need of an infusion of logic from my addled brain? Within minutes, lucid thoughts began to form again, mostly in the form of questions:

How is Mike Cameron worth only a fading set up man?
Is there another American League that Gammons is referring to?
Were a dozen or so American League stars traded to National League teams last night?
If so, did the Mets get any of them?
Why is Jon Heyman fixated on the Met bullpen?
Can Ugueth Urbina play right field?
Or does he see himself as more of a center fielder who views right field as beneath him?

Slowly, these questions morphed into these two:

Why is Hideki Matsui so overvalued?
Why is Mike Cameron so undervalued?

Let’s start with question #1. Right up front, let me say that Hideki Matsui is a good, solid major league hitter. All in all, he is a solid, productive offensive player. But he is not one of the 10 best players in the American League. In fact, he’s not one of the 20 best. His actual number probably lies somewhere between 25 and 40. Many players are difficult to evaluate because they do things that can’t be quantified easily. These skills include playing defense and running the bases. Hideki Matsui is not one of these players. His peripheral skills are abominable. He can’t field and he can’t run. By any measurement he is one of the worst defensive outfielders in baseball, playing the least demanding position on a baseball diamond. He’s also 31 years old, meaning he’s not going to improve very much, and he’s only had one really good season. So, in a very real sense, Matsui is what his numbers say he is. This means that it is very easy to evaluate and rank him. Most other very good offensive players also bring something else to the table that adds to their value. Not Matsui.

So who’s better than Hideki? Here’s my list. Now, keep in mind that I’ve only chosen the “definites”. I’ll deal with the “maybes” later in this article. So these are the guys, in no particular order, that I have no hesitation about:

Derek Jeter
Alex Rodriquez
Gary Sheffield
Garret Anderson
Vlad Guerrero
Eric Chavez
Aubrey Huff
Carl Crawford
Travis Hafner
Adrian Beltre
Miguel Tejada
Melvin Mora
Hank Blalock
Mark Texeira
Michael Young
Manny Ramirez
Johnny Damon
David Ortiz
Edgar Renteria
Magglio Ordonez
Ivan Rodriquez
Carlos Guillen
Frank Thomas

Now there’s an even two dozen to start off. As I said, these are the no-brainers. Matsui had better offensive numbers than some of them last year, but many of these players outrank Matsui by virtue of position scarcity. For example, Derek Jeter will never post the kind of power numbers that Matsui posted last season, but his value as a shortstop inarguably places him above Matsui. Ditto Edgar Renteria. Also a couple of players here are coming off seasons in which injuries reduced their effectiveness – Eric Chavez, Garret Anderson, Frank Thomas, Magglio Ordonez. In each case their bodies of work are so strong that they warrant inclusion here.

Of the 24 players listed, the one most similar to Matsui is the one that most casual fans would find least recognizable. It’s Travis Hafner.

HR RBI OBP Slg% Avg.
Matsui 31 108 .390 .522 .298
Hafner 28 109 .410 .583 .311

Similar numbers, but the edge to Hafner. What are the odds that Peter Gammons thinks that Travis Hafner is one of the ten best players in the AL? Hafner, like Matsui, does nothing else. He’s a DH who can’t run. If you think that Matsui’s position play gives him some value over Hafner, than you don’t watch Yankee games. And even if you want to award Matsui points for this, is it enough to compensate for .081 OPS points? No way. Hafner is also 3 years younger than Matsui and produces more offense in a weaker lineup.

Alright, now for the list of “maybes”:

Steve Finley
Erubiel Durazo
Vernon Wells
Brett Boone
Sammy Sosa
Rafael Palmeiro
Alfonso Soriano
Trot Nixon
Jason Varitek
Mike Sweeney
Torii Hunter
Jorge Posada

An even dozen for your consideration. One could easily make the case for all of them being better than Matsui, but they are on this list for various reasons. Finley, Sosa, Boone, and Palmeiro are aging players, although I think both Finley and Sosa will outproduce Matsui this year. Vernon Wells had a disappointing offensive season last year, some of it due to injuries. But he did win a Gold Glove. Nixon and Sweeney have been injured often. Varitek, Soriano, Posada, and Hunter are flawed offensive players, but play important defensive positions, very well in the cases of Varitek and Hunter. Durazo is one dimensional, but a very similar hitter to Matsui.

Much of the hype on Matsui is due to what Bill James calls the “Halo Effect”. A good player on a great team becomes perceived as something much greater than he really is. To use an analogy for Met fans, Matsui is similar to a healthy Cliff Floyd (yes, such a thing once existed). In fact, he is a little less than this. When healthy, Floyd is a better slugger. He also is a decent fielder who can steal bases

Remember when this article started 1,039 words ago? I promised to look at two questions. The second one is this:

Why is Mike Cameron so undervalued?

We all know Cameron’s resume’. He’s a Gold Glove winning outfielder with power and speed. He also strikes out a lot and hits for low batting averages, usually with decent on base percentages. Since the Mets signed Carlos Beltran, Cameron’s name has been mentioned in many trade rumors. Of course part of this is due to Cameron’s whining about playing right field. Reporters and fans have shipped him off to every corner of the Major Leagues, for players ranging from Eric Byrnes to Willy Mo Pena to Ugueth Urbina. Ugie is the latest rumor, rearing its ugly head in Jon Heymans’ article today in Newsday.

How is a player like Cameron worth as little as a decent 4th outfielder (Byrnes), an interesting but deeply flawed prospect (Pena), or a set up man coming off a bad year (Urbina)? Let’s take a step back. Maybe if we remove how we feel about Cameron it will help us gage his real value. What other player fits Cameron’s profile? Torii Hunter. Like Cameron he is a multiple Gold Glove winner known for his athleticism. Like Cameron he has some power and speed. Let’s compare, based on average numbers over 162 games:

Hunter 23 88 14 .319 .459 .778
Cameron 22 80 29 .340 .440 .780

Pretty much the same, huh? Throw in park and league factors and Cameron looks even better next to Hunter. So what’s my point? Let’s role play. You play the part of “typical baseball fan”. React to this headline:

Torii Hunter Traded to A’s for Eric Byrnes

My guess is that your reaction started with “What the *#@!?”

OK, try this one:

Twins Trade Hunter to Tigers for Urbina

This time I’m thinking your reaction was stunned disbelief.

Hey, Mike Cameron is not Willie Mays, but he is good. He’s as good as Torii Hunter, and that’s pretty good. Should the Mets trade him for less than market value because he’s unhappy? Hell no! I don’t care if he runs out to rightfield in a diaper while sucking on a pacifier, the Mets better hold on to him unless and until a fair trade is available.