Lost among a sea of bigger stars, Johnny Damon has a legitimate case to make for the Hall of Fame but he has virtually no chance, certainly not on the 2018 BBWAA ballot. It’s a near certainty that he will not earn the requisite 5% of the vote to remain on future ballots. Still, Damon had a highly productive career that deserves a good, hard look.
Damon, affectionately known as “Caveman,” was a really good player for a long time. He was well-liked, hard-nosed and universally believed to have played the game clean. But there was never a time where he was considered one of the best players in the game or even for his position.
Cooperstown Cred: Johnny Damon
- Career: .284 BA, 235 HR, 1,139 RBI
- 2,769 career hits (5th most all-time for CF, min 50% played in CF)
- 522 career doubles (6th most all-time for CF)
- 1,668 career runs (6th most all-time for CF)
- 408 career stolen bases (103 caught stealing, 80% success rate)
- 56.0 career WAR (Wins Above Replacement) (15th best among CF all-time)
- Member of 2004 World Series champion Boston Red Sox and 2009 World Series champion New York Yankees.
- Ranked 12th among all MLB players since 1954 in WAR runs above or below average due to base-running
(Photo: Yawkey Way Report)
Johnny Damon was a compensation “sandwich” first round pick (#35 overall) by the Kansas City Royals in 1992, a draft in which his future teammate Derek Jeter was selected by the Yankees at 6th overall. A sweet-swinging left-handed hitter with excellent speed, Damon made his major league debut in Kansas City in August 1995 and immediately became their starting center fielder. Damon’s early years with the Royals were solid but unspectacular before breaking out in 1999 and posting an MVP caliber season in 2000, in which he hit .327 with 214 hits, 136 runs scored and 46 stolen bases.
With free agency looming a year away, the small-market Royals dealt Damon to the Oakland A’s. Damon could not even come close to replicating his 2000 campaign, hitting only .256 with just 9 home runs and 49 RBI (after having hit 16 taters with 88 RBI the previous year). In spite of Damon’s off-year, the A’s were a powerhouse team that won 102 games so Damon got his first taste of October baseball. Still, Oakland got bounced in A.L. Division Series by the Yankees.
Although the A’s were an excellent team, they were still a financially challenged organization (as it is today) so Damon left as a free agent for the Boston Red Sox while his superstar teammate (Jason Giambi) signed with the Yankees. Damon made his only two All-Star teams with the Red Sox (in 2002 and 2005) and, of course, was a key member of the “idiots” who broke the curse and won the 2004 World Series.
In the famous 2004 ALCS against the Yankees, Damon had done virtually nothing offensively (going 3 for 29 in the first six games) but delivered the knockout blow in the decisive Game 7, hitting a grand slam on the first pitch off reliever Javier Vasquez in the third inning to give the Sox a 6-0 lead. The slam essentially wrapped up the team’s improbable comeback from being down three games to none in the series.
Even on a team with established stars like Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling and Manny Ramirez and a big emerging star named David Ortiz, Damon was in many ways the “face” of the franchise, most notably because of his “Caveman” look.
Damon played one more season in Boston before continuing a long-time tradition of favorite Fenway sons, switching sides to the hated Yankees, signing a 4-year, $52 million contract to ply his trade in the Bronx. Just a brief list of Sox turned Yanks from the last several decades: Sparky Lyle, Luis Tiant, Wade Boggs, Roger Clemens and (more recently), Jacoby Ellsbury. Oh, and there was some big guy named Babe Ruth a long time ago.
Anyway, Damon had a solid but unspectacular four years with the Bronx, averaging .285 with 19 home runs, 102 runs and 23 steals per season. Those Yankee teams made the playoffs in each of Damon’s four seasons, winning the Fall Classic in 2009.
Damon had a few key moments in that title run, including a bases-loaded go-ahead two-run single in the decisive Game 6 of the ALCS and a two-run double off the Phillies’ Cole Hamels to break a 3-3 tie in Game 3 of the World Series. Additionally, in the pivotal Game 4, Damon ignited the Yankees’ rally in the top of the 9th inning. With the score tied at 4, he hit a 2-out single off reliever Brad Lidge, followed by steals of 2nd and 3rd base. He would score the go-ahead run two batters later on an RBI double by Alex Rodriguez; the win the Yankees a 3-to-1 series lead in what would eventually be a six game World Championship.
I think there’s no chance whatsoever that Johnny Damon will make the Hall of Fame but that’s mostly because the ballot is stacked with so many bigger names. So let’s make the case in a universe in which writers aren’t limited by 10 votes on their ballots.
- He got a lot of hits, stole a lot of bases, scored a lot of runs and hit a decent number of home runs. There are only three players in baseball history who have the combination of more than Damon’s 2,769 hits, 408 steals, 1,668 runs scored and 235 home runs. Their names are Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson, and Craig Biggio. So he had a fairly rare combination of respectable power with speed. If you loosen the criteria to 2,500 hits, 350 steals, 1,500 runs and 200 HR, there are only four other players to match (Joe Morgan, Paul Molitor, Roberto Alomar and Derek Jeter). All seven players other than Damon are either in the Hall of Fame, not eligible yet (Jeter) or PED-linked (Bonds).
- He was an excellent base-runner. The statistic “WAR runs from base-running” puts him in 12th place among all MLB players, dating back to 1954. This metric takes into account stolen bases, SB efficiency (not getting caught stealing too much) and extra bases taken. For extra bases taken, this measures how many times a player went from first to third on a single, first to home on a double, etc. His 12th place standing puts him just ahead of Willie Mays and just behind Lou Brock.
- He scored 100 or more runs 10 times. Only 12 players in modern game (since 1901) did that more times; 9 of them are in the Hall of Fame and the others are Bonds, Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.
- He was a key member of two World Championship teams.
- He had a great beard and long hair when he was with the Red Sox. OK, maybe that’s a credential for the MLB “facial hair” Hall of Fame.
Let’s Damon make his own case, as told to the New York Times’ Tyler Kepner:
“I think even if you look at my numbers now, how high I am on the runs list, how high I am on the doubles list, and you also have to take into account the ballparks that I’ve played in. I’ve played in some pretty tough ones for left-handers. If I played in Yankee Stadium my whole career, my 230 home runs turn into 300, easy. You can also make a case for being a clean player in our generation — and I’ll take that running, hands-down.”
— Johnny Damon (New York Times, May 12, 2012)
Here’s the case against:
- He made just two All-Star teams, never won a Silver Slugger Award (best hitter at your position) and never finished in the top 10 of the MVP voting.
- His career OPS+ is 104. Among the 106 center fielders in the modern game (since 1901) with at least 5,000 plate appearances (playing 50% of your games in CF), that puts him in a tie for 65th place. OPS+ is an extremely important statistic because it measures both extra base power and on-base ability while adjusting for ballparks and the era in which the hitter played. Even his un-adjusted OPS of .785 is just 40th best, behind well over two dozen non-Hall of Fame players.
- Although he’s in that neat hits-runs-steals-HR club, he only hit 20 home runs three times in 18 seasons. He only got 200 hits once. He only hit .300 five times and stole 30 bases four times.
- He was just an average defensive player, according to the eye test (he had a weak throwing arm) and by the metrics.
- He was rarely one of the best players on his team and only when he was on a bad team. Ranked by WAR (and also subjectively), he was the best player on the Royals in 1999 and 2000 (teams that won 67 and 77 games that also featured a young Carlos Beltran). But in Boston, he was overshadowed by Martinez, Schilling, Ramirez and Ortiz. In New York and the 2009 title run, he was overshadowed by Rodriguez, Jeter, Robinson Cano, CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, Mark Teixeira and Mariano Rivera.
One of the neat tools on Baseball Reference (the key website driving the statistical data on this one) is a list of “Similarity Scores.” This was a Bill James invention designed to simply compare the statistical profiles of two players. If you are really interested in how it works, the methodology is linked here. If you’re not, here’s the short version: you start with 1,000 points and deduct points for each statistical discrepancy; for example, if Player A had 15 more hits than Player B, you would deduct one point, two points if the difference was 30 hits, etc. The formula includes 13 offensive categories.
Anyway, here is the list of the top 10 players with the most “similar” offensive statistical profiles to Johnny Damon:
- Vada Pinson
- Steve Finley
- *Paul Molitor
- *Tim Raines
- *Roberto Alomar
- Al Oliver
- *Robin Yount
- *Lou Brock
- Bobby Abreu
- *Roberto Clemente
*Hall of Famer
Well, there’s certainly good news on that list: Molitor, Raines, Alomar, Yount, Brock and Clemente are all in the Hall of Fame. Here’s the problem. Having similar statistics can mean that you’re slightly better in each ranked category or slightly worse. With respect to Damon’s numbers vs the Hall of Famers’, his are usually worse.
- Paul Molitor: hit 234 home runs, one less than Damon’s 235, and Damon scored more runs, but Molitor had 550 more hits, 178 more RBI and hit .306 with a higher slash line across the board.
- Tim Raines: obviously, he is one of the greatest base-runners of all time. Please enjoy the piece “Tim Raines: Finally a Hall of Famer.”
- Roberto Alomar: won 10 Gold Gloves and made 12 All-Star teams compared to Damon’s lack of hardware and a mere two Mid-Summer Classic appearances.
- Robin Yount: Damon’s numbers are really close in multiple categories (including the slash line) but Yount got way more than 3,000 hits and played in a much tougher era for hitters. His OPS+ is 115 (solid for a shortstop turned center fielder) while Damon’s 104 OPS+ is so-so for a center fielder turned left fielder. Like Damon, Yount didn’t get a lot of All-Star recognition (only named to 3 teams) but he won two MVP Awards.
- Roberto Clemente: same comment as Robin Yount but Clemente was in a different class altogether. Clemente had a 130 OPS+ and then there’s the matter of 12 Gold Gloves and 15 All-Star appearances.
- Lou Brock: its sacrilege to say this but, on balance, Damon was probably as good a player as Brock. The Franchise had the benchmark 3,000 hits (which Damon did not) but Damon walked 242 more times so he actually reached base just 45 fewer times in 323 fewer plate appearances. Of course, Brock was the all-time stolen base king until Rickey Henderson passed him which is why he is in the Hall and Damon likely never will be.
So let’s look at Damon’s numbers as they compare to the four non-Hall of Famers on his “Similarity Score” list (ranked by WAR):
|ASG = All-Star Seasons|
If you’re under the age of 50, you might not know much about Vada Pinson (or maybe Al Oliver) but Bobby Abreu and Steve Finley are Damon’s contemporaries. If you look at these five players, even if you don’t understand/respect/believe in the metrics of WAR or OPS+, Abreu is the best of the five. Abreu will be eligible for the Hall of Fame ballot in 2020.
Anyway, on balance, when considering all factors, Damon has more in common with Pinson, Oliver, Finley and Abreu than he does with the Hall of Famers listed above. Ergo, he’s not a Hall of Fame player.
The Hall of Famer to whom Damon is most similar, in my view, is Max Carey, who played from 1910 to 1929, mostly with the Pittsburgh Pirates, finishing his career with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Carey, born Maximillian Carmarois and nicknamed “Scoops” is part of the pre-World War II era that is over-represented in Cooperstown compared to modern players. Carey was on the writers’ ballot 14 times between 1937 and 1958 and was actually the leading vote-getter (at 51%) in 1958, a year with a super-stacked ballot (even more stacked than it is now) which split the vote too wide, causing nobody to make the cut. Anyway, Carey was ultimately inducted into the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1961, thirty-two years after his final game played.
Carey was very much a borderline (if not under the line) Hall of Fame player.
Johnny Damon undoubtedly had a better overall career than several Hall of Fame center fielders (Earl Averill, Edd Roush, Earle Combs, Hugh Duffy and Hack Wilson), but not better than any who played in the last 75 years. I would put him behind Andruw Jones (who’s on this year’s ballot), Jim Edmonds (who got just 2.5% of the vote two years ago) and Kenny Lofton (who managed just 3% of the vote in 2013).
According to Ryan Thibodaux’s BBHOF Tracker, as of Christmas Eve morning, Damon has earned just one vote on the first 101 ballots that have been publicly revealed. That’s an “exit poll” trend of 1% that doesn’t bode well.
Lost in the crowd, Johnny Damon will almost certainly experience the same outcome as Edmonds and Lofton, earning less than 5% of the vote, thus ending his chance at the Hall of Fame via the writers’ vote.
Thanks for reading.