Saturday, April 5, 2008

Tim Salmon: Definition of an Underrated Superstar

Every year, there is a lot of talk about overrated and underrated players, particularly now early in the season, when everyone is prognosticating. Unfortunately, players from certain teams that do not enjoy the East Coast bias in the media, or don't get press because they have quiet private lives, or for a variety of reasons, get put on the back burner of national media. Many of them don't get their due for years, and some never get the credit they deserve.

The average sports fan knows that Alex Rodriguez frosts his tips, that Manny Ramirez has no idea what's going on, who Derek Jeter is dating, etc. Those players have been excellent in the past, so they deserve a share of the national spotlight. But do they deserve as much of it as they get?

There have been some excellent players in past years that have not received their deserved share of national attention. One can imagine that the average sports fan does not necessarily know who Edgar Martinez was, or that he would be honked at incessantly on the freeway because he actual adhered to the speed limit, or that he was one of the finest hitters of the past 30 years.

Martinez at least got to play in the postseason a few times, was a part of the Mariners team that won a record 116 games in 2001, and was an All-Star 7 times. He earned all those accolades, but what about the players who didn't get the All-Star votes, or even the mention on the "Most Underrated Players List." Enter Timothy James Salmon, Exhibit A.

The Beginning

Tim Salmon was only 17 years old when he was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the 18th round of the 1986 amateur draft. The Braves saw the massive potential in the teenager, but Salmon wisely turned the Braves down to attend college at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Arizona. He was eventually drafted by the California Angels in the 3rd round of the 1989 amateur draft, and this time he signed with the team.

That same year, he went to low class-A ball in Oregon, was hit in the face by a pitch and had a disappointing season (.245/.357/.418) by his lofty standards, even though he showed off the discerning eye that he would possess his entire career. He earned a promotion in 1990, to high class-A ball in Palm Springs. He was again hit in the face by a pitch, but this time the results were disastrous: his jaw was shattered and he spent almost two months with his jaw wired shut.

Despite the setbacks, the Angels kept promoting Salmon, and he played a year in Double-A ball in Midland, Texas, before earning a promotion to Triple-AAA Edmonton. That 1992 season in Edmonton would prove to be his last as a minor leaguer, as he absolutely destroyed the league and won Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year award. He was part of an impressive list of players who won that award in the 1990s, a list which included Frank Thomas, Derek Bell, Salmon, Manny Ramirez, Derek Jeter, Andruw Jones (twice), Paul Konerko, Eric Chavez, and Rick Ankiel.

His 1992 season looked like this: .347/.466/.672, good for a video game OPS of 1.138, to go along with 29HR, 105 RBIs, and an excellent 103:90 K/BB rate. He was clearly ready for the major leagues, and he got the call-up in 1992, hitting his first home run at Yankee Stadium in his third major league game.

1993 AL Rookie of the Year

His first full season with the Angels was a success, to say the least. Even though his season ended prematurely with an injury late in the season, Salmon finished with a line of .283/.382/.536, to go along with 31 HR,95 RBI, and a 142 OPS+ (normalized league average OPS+ is 100) in what can fairly be defined as a below average team. Put another way, a lineup of Tim Salmon's in 1993 would have (in theory, of course) scored 1231 runs, or 7.6 runs per game. That's serious production, especially for a first year player, and it earned him a rare unanimous Rookie of the Year award.

Think back to a few of the recent Rookie of the Year winners, notably Angel Berroa (2003, 101 OPS+), and Bobby Crosby (2004, 93 OPS+), and it helps put into perspective how good Salmon was as a first year player.

He did not make the All-Star team that season, but he followed up his remarkable Rookie of the Year campaign with almost exactly the same rate stats in the strike-shortened 1994 season (.287/.382/.531, 132 OPS+). The Angels were a last-place team that season, and as such Salmon didn't get the exposure he merited, and was not chosen for the All-Star Game in Pittsburgh.

Salmon quickly became a fan favorite (and still is to this day), and it wasn't just because of his play. Salmon treated fans with respect, following the motto of, "Treat others as you'd like to be treated." (A quick Google search of some Angels message boards and blogs will reveal the love Angels' fans felt for the player who acknowledged and embraced them.)

1995: Best of times, Worst of times

The 1995 season saw the Angels explode out of the gates, getting up to 26 games over .500 on August 15th of the strike-shortened schedule. Salmon got off to a slow start batting average wise in May, the first full month of the 1995 season, hitting .262. He was providing his club with plenty of value though, posting a healthy on-base percentage and driving in runs that month, but the relatively low average kept his performance under the radar, at least initially.

He wouldn't hit less than .330 any other month of the season, putting together the finest season of his career (.330/.429/.594, 34 HR, 105 RBI, 165 OPS+, 10.0 RC/G, 1620 runs/season). His performance was mixed in with fine seasons from several other Angels, so he again was passed over for the All-Star Game.

Salmon excelled down the stretch, putting up a .364 average in the second half, to go with excellent power and run production. Unfortunately, he was but one man, and his team collapsed and gave back what was an 11-game lead as late as August 9th. The Angels had to win their last 5 games just to force a one-game playoff with the Seattle Mariners, and they had endured two separate 9 game losing streaks late in the season.

Salmon's performance, which otherwise should have garnered him serious MVP consideration, was lost amongst the sheer weight of losing almost every game for a month.

The collapse was arguably the worst in history, and at their season peak on August 20th, the Angels had a 99.98% chance of making the postseason. In other words, the Angels odds of collapsing at that August 20th peak (66-41 record at the time, 12.5 games ahead of the Mariners who won the West that season, and 12.5 games ahead of the Yankees who won the Wild Card) were 8,332-to-1 against.

The Angels ended the 1995 regular season with a 78-66 record, tied with the Seattle Mariners and forced into an uncomfortable one game showdown in Seattle. The one-game playoff, which at one point was full of drama, ended in a 9-1 slaughter. Randy Johnson struck out none other than Tim Salmon to end the game, putting an exclamation point on the most disappointing finish (and there had been many) to any regular season in Angels' history. That is the image most people remember from that 1995 season, and it does not do justice to how outstanding Salmon was, as well as a few other Angels hitters that year.

All-Star Production, Without the "All-Star"

Salmon continued to put up impressive numbers for years, but he always got off to slow starts in terms of batting average. That just always seemed to throw off any chance of an All-Star selection, even though batting average is not exactly a good way to gauge a player's offensive value.

Even in his slowest month, Salmon still put up a career OBP of .361 in April, and his career .831 OPS in that month is still better than the career OPS of players of his generation like Miguel Tejada, Ichiro Suzuki, Mike Lowell, Vernon Wells, Carlos Guillen, Torii Hunter, Jimmy Rollins, and a slew of other All-Stars and MVPs.

He just continued to produce through the end of the 1990's, putting up the following stats:

1996: .286/.386/.501 30HR 98RBI, 125 OPS+, 7.7 RC/27 outs (1,247 runs/season)
1997: .296/.394/.517 33HR 129RBI, 134 OPS+, 7.5 RC/27 (1,215 runs/season)
1998: .300/.410/.533 26 HR 88RBI, 142 OPS+, 8.7 RC/27 (1,409 runs/season)
1999: (injured) .266/.372/.490, 17HR, 69RBI, 119 OPS+, 6.7 RC/27, (1,085 runs/season)
2000: .290/.404/.540, 34HR 97RBI, 135 OPS+, 8.1 RC/27, (1,312 runs/season)

Salmon put together a fine eight-year stretch during which he was one of the top run producers in all of baseball. Injuries robbed him of some playing time, but he was able to produce despite not being 100%.

2002: Early Retirement?

The injuries that Salmon had managed to play with finally caught up to him, and he endured a down season in 2001. He was dealing with lingering wrist, foot, groin, and shoulder problems, and it showed. He ended the season with only 17 HR, and a career worst (for a full season) .227 batting average. Even with these problems, he was an asset in terms of on-base percentage, posting a .365 OBP (league average OBP was .336).

In 2002, Salmon got off to bad start by any account, posting an April line of .192/.333/.321. At this point, Salmon was starting to think he may be done, recently reflecting, "Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse, I started the 2002 season in a similar slump. I began to wonder if my career was coming to an end and even considered retirement." He wasn't alone.

Talk show hosts began to question Salmon, and I vividly remember Jim Rome saying around that time that Salmon should probably just retire, that he was likely done.

The talk show hosts and pundits failed to factor that Salmon was a man of faith. Strong faith. They also failed to factor that Salmon was still talented, and that one month isn't enough of a sample size to judge a player's worth.

Regression to the mean

Salmon exploded in May, hitting .307/.411/.614, and he just continued to produce all season long. That's the recurring theme in Salmon's career, as long as he was healthy, he was producing. In fact, the only other month besides April that wasn't excellent was September, and that can be attributed to him missing a month after suffering a nasty hit-by-pitch on his hand.

If one takes out Salmon's slow April and September, he hit .325, with an OPS close to 1.000. Phenomenal production, but still not good enough for an All-Star invitation.

That year, Salmon was a big reason why the Angels won a franchise record 99 games. Their Pythagorean W-L record that season was 101-61; they were no fluke, and neither was Salmon's dramatic comeback. The reason: Salmon had performed at a high level like 2002 in every healthy season he had put together since his Rookie of the Year campaign in 1993. His 2002 line of .286/.380/.503 is almost identical to his .282/.385/.498 career line.

(Paradoxically, consistency probably hurt his chances at making an All-Star game, as fans expected and were usually delivered a .290/.390/.500+ season with 30HR and 100RBI, year in and year out. Outside of the 1995 season, where he blew his batting average out of the water, he was remarkably consistent, with no 40 HR, or 150 RBI season, though he did knock in an impressive 129 in 1997, to truly get him national attention.)

The Angels entered October as underdogs, and Salmon entered as the active player with the most games played without tasting playoff baseball (1,388 games).

In a way, it was Salmon's choice to endure the years of disappointment. He had opportunities to test the free agent market, but twice he skipped free agency to stay on with his struggling franchise. (Apparently Salmon is so low key that, upon signing his first big contract, he skipped the announcement to go mow his lawn.) With his performance in the mid-90s and beyond, he could have had his choice of massive eight figure contracts from a bevy of teams. He instead chose to stick it out with his franchise. He had faith.

1,388 Games Later, World Series Hero

That faith was rewarded with an October that will not be forgotten by any Angels supporter. Salmon was phenomenal in the World Series, hitting .346/.452/.615, hitting 2 critical home runs, including the game winner in a thrilling 11-10 Angels victory in Game 2. Not surprisingly, his postseason line of .288/.382/.525 is very similar to his career line.

That game winning home run was very memorable for Angels fans, as the usually reserved Salmon showed some emotion rounding the bases and upon reaching his teammates in the dugout.

Barry Bonds would later comment on Salmon's performance, "It was too much Salmon. It's phenomenal. He did everything any player could do in one game except steal home."

Then Giants manager Dusty Baker later commented, "It was one of the best games I've ever been in." That came from a former player who played in over 2,000 regular season games and over 40 postseason games, not to mention plenty of games managing.

It was a special month, for a long suffering organization, for Salmon, and for all Angels fans. Salmon's remarkable comeback from the depths of 2001 won him the 2002 AL Comeback Player of the Year award, as well as the 2002 Hutch Award for, "...honor, courage and dedication to baseball while overcoming adversity in their personal or professional lives."

Injuries Return With a Vengence

That was the pinnacle of Salmon's career, and unfortunately injuries wiped away the better part of 2004 and all of 2005 for him. It was unknown if Salmon would ever play again, and he was now a free agent with a lot to prove.

The injuries took a big toll on Salmon, as he reflected, "I think, more than anything, the past few years have sucked the joy out of it for me...It got to the point that the game I'd loved my whole life I didn't like anymore. My body couldn't do the things I wanted it to do, and I just didn't enjoy it."

Salmon decided to put off retirement to attempt a comeback from the major shoulder and knee problems that ended his 2005 season. He did not want to remember the game with the last two injury plagued seasons lingering over him. The Angels gave him an opportunity in 2006 to go to spring training and win a spot on the roster. He looked like a long shot to make the team, given his health problems and lengthy hiatus from the game.

Much like the early part of his career, Salmon was not given enough credit as not just a phenomenal talent, but also a brave competitor. The two injury riddled seasons lit a fire in Salmon, in his own words, "One of the goals I had was to come back and enjoy this game and if I could come back and play the game as I was accustomed to playing. I wanted to make sure that when I left the game, I had that joy and appreciation. I wanted to experience that one more time."

Salmon underwent a strenuous rehabilitation program, 2 hours on the shoulder and 2 hours on the knee everyday for long stretches at a time. He came back to the Angels in spring training fit and ready to battle for a roster spot that was by no means guaranteed. It was the definition of an uphill battle; a player who was prone to slow starts, given only 3 weeks or so to prove he had overcome 2 years of injuries. Not an easy situation, but Salmon was no ordinary player.

Salmon's performance in spring training was nothing short of remarkable: his bat speed came back, and he hit well over .300 with his typical sabermetric mix of excellent pitch selection and power. His performance showed he was healthy, in shape, and ready to contribute. The only thing that seemingly could get in his way was the health of one of his best friends on the team, Garrett Anderson.

Anderson was struggling with his own injuries, and a problematic foot could have relegated Anderson to a full-time DH, leaving Salmon with no options to make the team. Salmon mentioned, "He [Anderson] told me he doesn't want his position to be DH because he doesn't like to DH. There is a sense of irony there, though, us being such good friends and all...I've joked with G.A. about it, I told him, 'You don't want to be the reason I have to retire, do you?'"

Anderson proved healthy, and Salmon did what he had to do to make the team. Every one of Salmon's at-bats during spring training were cause for standing ovation, as the fans showed their appreciation for one of the true legends of the franchise.

Salmon made the team and was given the opportunity to split DH duties with Juan Rivera . He performed admirably, still flashing one of the best mixes of power and patience on the team. Unfortunately, he did not get as much playing time as his production deserved, especially since the Angels were a team that lacked power and rally stretching on-base percentage. No one has ever confused Angels manager Mike Scioscia with Bill James.

Even though he didn't play nearly as much as his skill merited, he played well, and he showed that he could defy the odds and overcome the injuries that cut his prime short. He went out on his own terms, just like he set out to do during spring training.

His sending off was phenomenal
, as he was given a hero's goodbye from an adoring Angels' fanbase in his last game as an Angel, as well as all season long. He is treated as a living legend by many Angels fans, and he was recently voted the #1 Greatest Angel on the Halos Heaven website in their Top 100 Greatest Angels list.

Some interesting facts about Tim Salmon:

-He has the greatest amount of career home runs for a player never selected to an All-Star team (299).

-He purchased tickets in right field for years, donating over 300,000 tickets in the "The Fish Bowl," to charities and youth groups.

-Former teammate Darin Erstad said, "We've broken him down, from what we refer to as Timmy Land...He's very focused. He's very prepared. He's coming in here every day to win a baseball game, and he's not going to let anything get in the way of that."

-Salmon is known for taking time for every fan, sometimes not realizing how important that can be.

-Salmon had his share of "Timmy-isms," like the time in 2000 Salmon ran into the dugout with a perplexed look and asked Erstad, "Who's that guy?" about pitcher Al Levine, who had joined the team in 1999.

-Salmon and his wife Marci reached out to troubled children in Orange County group homes, sharing hope with the children through Salmon's Christian faith.

-"I felt like, from the standpoint of an athlete, it was important for me to be a role model," Salmon said. "The big leaguers I modeled myself after — the Cal Ripkens, the Robin Younts, the Dave Winfields — were guys that played the game with integrity and class and treated people the way they wanted to be treated."

--Salmon was named the Orange County Youth Sports Foundation's 2006 Sportsman of the Year, and was honored in a ceremony where his Angel teammates game him a mini "Celebrity Roast."

- The Tim Salmon Foundation donated $100 per RBI to two family-oriented Orange County, Calif. charities, Family Solutions and Laurel House.

-Salmon is Academy Award winner Holly Hunter's cousin.

-The Annual Tim Salmon Golf Classic benefits the abused and at risk children of Family Solutions and Laurel House.

-"We were on a mission to get him out of Timmy Land, to at least get him to say hi to us when he came into the clubhouse. We accomplished that." ~Erstad

-Many fans have stated that Salmon was one of the few players that would sign every ball, take every picture, and actually listen to fans when they asked something of him.

-"He won't swear." ~Erstad

Thank you Tim for being a great player, great role model, and humanitarian. Good luck finishing your degree and raising your kids. You will be missed.