The Future Hall of Very Good: Johnny Damon

(Editorial note: Great news, gentle readers.  The new ebook, The Hall of Nearly Great, is available for order very soon.  The Common Man hopes you’ll buy it, especially since he wrote a chapter in it on Frank Viola.  Bill wrote a chapter too.  So did Jason and Cee.  There’s a lot of Platoon Advantage in that book, people.  There’s also Rob Neyer, Joe Posnanski, Jonah Keri, Will Leitch, Old Hoss Radbourn, Craig Calcaterra, Jon Bois, Jay Jaffe, Jeff Passan, Grant Brisbee, Jason Parks, Josh Wilker, Emma Span, Dave Brown, Steven Goldman, Jon Weisman, Wendy Thurm, and more.  Seriously, The Common Man has read several chapters of his advance copy and laughed out loud.  He even read some of it to The Uncommon Wife in bed.  She didn’t exactly appreciate the venue TCM chose, but she liked what she heard.  Seriously, buy it.  We’ll have a link for you in the very near future, and if you say TPA sent you, we get a little on the back end. 

As you may know, the book used to be called “The Hall of Very Good,” but because some fucking idiot tried to claim the title as falling under trademark protection, Marc Normandin and Sky Kalkman, the minds and driving force behind the book, chose to change it rather than get into an exorbitantly expensive and absurdly time-consuming fight.  That’s pretty reasonable, especially given that they wanted to get the book into your hands/onto your desktop as soon as possible.

But here at TPA, we are anything but reasonable.  The term Hall of Very Good stretches back at least to the 1990s, and probably long before that as well.  It’s a concept, and it’s one that stretches across sports, from baseball (obviously), to football and hockey as well.  So asserting some control over the phrasing at this point (especially when your site has been around only since 2007) is utterly ridiculous.  It’s like if you wrote a book about platoon advantages and wanted to include “The Platoon Advantage” in your title and we got mad about it.  That’s just silly. And to try and intimidate people by threatening to get a lawyer is bullying and childish. Grow the fuck up, we say. So we’re taking the phrase back here at TPA, and presenting a series called The Future Hall of Very Good, full of players still active who aren’t going to be Hall of Fame bound, for whatever reason.  Some of them will still be in the early part of their career, but our first entrant, Johnny Damon, is not.  Oh, and if you want to use any part of the phrase “future hall of very good,” go ahead. We insist. Bill and Jason are both lawyers, and they say it’s cool. Enjoy!)

Even though The Common Man hasn’t invested a lot of emotion in the career of Johnny Damon, TCM finds himself grateful that Damon is faceplanting in 2012.  Presumably, with the accompanying loss of playing time, and the increased difficulty of finding a job next year, Damon will fall short of the 3,000 hit plateau he’s still 242 hits from reaching.  That will save us a lot of discussion over whether we should really exclude someone from the Hall of Fame who has reached one of baseball’s most significant arbitrary milestones.

Now, maybe that’s a discussion we should be having, to hopefully illustrate the relative value of getting on base and defense against the accumulation of high but empty batting averages, and to highlight deserving candidates who have been left out thusfar.  Like Tim Raines, for instance, who reached base 167 more times than Damon while making almost 600 fewer outs, and stealing 400 more bases at an 85% sucess rate, while Damon was “only” successful 80% of the time.

Now, not being Tim Raines isn’t necessarily an indictment of Damon.  Indeed, he’s been very good for a very long time.  Damon was drafted in the first round (supplemental) of the 1992 amateur draft as a high schooler out of Florida, as compensation for the Royals losing Kurt Stillwell to the Padres via free agency.  He excelled immediately, hitting .349/.449/.568 at rookie ball, and began a steady march up through the Royals’ lower minor league system.

In August of 1995, Damon was called up from AA Witchita for good, playing in 47 of the Royals’ final 50 games and hitting .282/.324/.441 as a 21 year old.  He learned on the job in Kansas City, struggling through the next two seasons before finally getting his sea legs and becoming a league average offensive player in 1998, when he hit .277/.339/.439 with 18 homers and 26 steals in 161 games.

While Damon never played so many games again, eh was incredibly durable, which is part of the reason why he has so many hits (that, and so many extra PAs as a leadoff hitter).  From 1996-2011, he never played fewer than 141 games in a year.  From 1998-2011, he never batted fewer than 600 times.  He worked like a Swiss clock.

The Royals had a tremendous young outfield in 2000, with Carlos Beltran, Jermaine Dye, and Johnny Damon jockeying for playing time with the promising Mark Quinn (who would crater spectacularly), but Kansas City was beginning to sell off as many high priced young veterans as it could before free agency hit.  Damon was the first one out of town.  Ina disastrous move, the Royals dealt him AND Mark Ellis to the A’s as part of a three-team deal to acquire Angel Berroa, AJ Hinch, and veteran closer Roberto Hernandez.

Damon did not thrive in Oakland, but after a year he signed as a free agent with the Boston Red Sox.  In Boston, Damon finally became a star, hitting .286/.356/.443 and making his first All Star team in 2002.  He also had his best season in 2004, when he played 150 games, hitting .304/.380/.477 (117 OPS+).  In Game 7 of the ALCS, Damon helped lead the Sox past the Yankees with three hits (two of them homers) and 6 RBI.  He also added a homer and a triple in Game 4 of the World Series to clinch the Sox’s first world championship since 1917.

But after four seasons of bluster about how he would never play for, and hated, the New York Yankees, Damon signed with them after 2005, earning the wrath of a lot of Red Sox fans.  He played four very productive seasons in pinstripes, setting career highs in homers and OPS+ and stealing 93 bases against 21 caught stealing.  Damon’s defense, however, began to suffer and he shifted from center to left field, where his diminishing range and noodle arm would be less of a problem.  In his final year in pinstripes, Damon hit .282/.365/.489 (118 OPS+) with 24 homers and 12 steals (without being caught).  His strong play extended to the World Series, where he hit .364/.440/.455 with 6 runs scored, 4 RBI, and 3 steals as the Yankees beat the Phillies in six games.

But since then, Damon’s had trouble finding a job.  He signed late with the Tigers in 2010, providing mediocre offense from the DH spot, then moved on to the Rays in 2011, where he did it again.  Finally, though, he’s falling apart at 38, and it really looks like Damon’s done, hitting .215/.285/.344 for a surprisingly competitive Indians team that really can’t afford to keep running  him out to left field.

His hit totals are going to look alright, and he certainly was a high profile star for a 4-5 seasons, but the rest of Damon’s case falls very short of Hall of Fame quality.  He led the American league once in runs, once in stolen bases, and once in triples.  He was an All Star only twice, never finished higher than 13th in the MVP voting, and his defensive numbers are fairly underwhelming for his career and he never had the reputation as a gold glove-caliber center fielder.  In Baseball Reference WAR, Damon falls below Dwight Evans, Reggie Smith, Willie Davis, Sherry Magee, Bobby Bonds, Jim Wynn, and Bob Johnson among outfielders who have not made the Hall.  And among his contemporary outfielders, he ranks behind Larry Walker, Kenny Lofton, Carlos Beltran, Andruw Jones, Bobby Abreu, Jim Edmonds, Gary Sheffield, Vlad Guerrero, Sammy Sosa, and Ichiro, some of whom definitely won’t sniff the Hall of Fame.  FanGraphs ranks him behind Chet Lemon, Fred Lynn, Mike Cameron, Ellis Burks, Bernie Williams, Dale Murphy, Brett Butler, and Devon White.

Damon simply doesn’t have the career value to hang in a Hall of Fame discussion.   That’s not a knock on Damon.  He was an incredibly good and durable player, a championship caliber player, for a lot of years in the American League.  He was a central and contributing part to baseball’s early 21st century history, and a dynamic figure in the modern era of baseball’s two biggest franchises.  But really, his fame is the only criteria by which he qualifies for Cooperstown.  For us, he’s only going to be part of the Hall of Very Good.