Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Great Johnny Damon Experiment

In April, with the offense struggling, the Indians signed Johnny Damon to see if he could help. Damon was sitting at 2,723 career hits, looking to continue his quest to reach 3,000. Damon's fame has tended to somewhat outweigh his performance (largely because of his long hair and shaggy beard, he was a popular member of the 2004 Red Sox team that won Boston's first World Series since 1918) and I don't cotton to the notion of "Johnny Damon, Hall of Famer." That said, Damon has been a very solid player over his career, and consistent, certainly worthy of the "Hall of Very Good." In 2011 Damon was an above average hitter for Tampa, and the signing carried very little financial risk for the Indians, as only $1.07M was guaranteed.

It's time to call this off though. Damon has now played in 19 games since his debut on May 2nd, all but one of them in left field. He is batting .162. Of all the American League player's who played enough in May to qualify, Damon's batting average rankes 94th out of 95 (entering play on Saturday the 26th). Damon's slugging percentage, an anemic .206, ranks dead last, by a comfortable margin. He hasn't hit a single home run, and his only double and only triple of the season happened in his first week of playing, so over his last 14 games (which is cherry picking things a bit), the numbers are even worse: a .137 batting average, with an identical .137 slugging percentage.

In short, Damon has been the worst hitter in the American League this month.

Damon also has no real speed left, after stealing 19 bases in 2011, he's yet to even attempt one in 2012 (though of course, it's not as if he's been on base enough to have many chances). He's not helping his value with his defensive work in left field either; his arm has always been weak, and his range is fallen now too.

Damon hasn't had great luck with the balls he's hit, his batting average on balls in play (BABIP)* is well below his career norm, a sign that his numbers will improve some if he's given more playing time and law of averages catches up with things. Even so, whatever improved level his numbers might climb to will probably still be too low to merit being a Major League starter.

* An explanation of BABIP: Every time a hitter makes contact and puts into play (not into the stands for either a home run or foul ball) it either becomes a hit, or an out (or an error, which counts as an out for batting average/on-base percentage, etc.). On average, right around 30% of such balls fall in for hits. That ~30% means the league average for BABIP is ~.300. A hitter has some control over their BABIP, based mostly on their speed, but in smaller samples of play, there can be wild fluctuations in BABIP, caused largely by luck: A few hard hit balls get caught, dropping your number, or a few weakly hit balls drops into no man's land, boosting your number. Over time, those things will tend to even out. Damon's career BABIP is .305, over the last five years he was at 297, .330, .305, .312, and .284. He's at .190 right now, which is why I say he's been unlucky, and that his numbers WILL go up some.

Damon is 38 years old, and for a professional athlete, that's up there, so it should come as little surprise that he doesn't have much left in the tank. The Indians find themselves in 1st place this Memorial Day weekend, which makes every game more important than it would be if they were already out of things. It's not as though the second coming of Ted Williams is sitting out there waiting to be offered a job, but there are better options than Johnny Damon for Cleveland's left field spot. It's time they put one of them out there.

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