The Johnny Damon Upgrade

Save Us Obi-John Kenobi. You're Our Only Hope!

Save Us Obi-John Kenobi. You're Our Only Hope!

So now it’s official: Johnny Damon will be joining the Indians in Chicago today.  He’ll wear No. 33.  He might wear a beard.  He’ll almost certainly play a good deal of left field.

I’m not here to beat up the Indians for entering the season with such a crummy corps of corner outfield options.   But I’m going to anyway.  The front office threw every retread and 4A outfielder against the wall during Spring Training, and not one of them managed to stick.  I wrote last month that it was obvious that Shelley probably shouldn’t be an everyday player, but that there was really no point in arguing too much about it because he was the best we had at the time.  That reality was a failure of the front office, not Shelley Duncan.

And in their defense, they addressed the situation.  The question, of course, is whether adding Johnny Damon to the pile makes the team appreciably better or if we’re just swapping one flawed role-player for another.

Over the last two years, Damon has bat .266/.340/.409 (.749 OPS) while playing in Detroit and Tampa Bay.  During that span, he average 148 games per year—in other words, he was an everyday player with slightly above-average offense (108 OPS+). 

Over the same period (2010-2011), Shelley Duncan hit .246/.320/.451 (.771 OPS;  119 OPS+) while averaging 80 games per season.  Slightly better offensively than Damon, but we’ll grade him down a bit for being leveraged as a part-time player.*  Let’s say the two are—from a productivity standpoint—roughly similar hitters.  While Damon has more OBP ability, Shelley’s advantage in power evens them out.

*The argument goes that Shelley’s numbers would necessarily be worse had he played every day, because his flaws would be more pronounced and Acta wouldn’t use him only in those situations that are most propitious.  As far as I know, there is no proof of this theory writ large.  In fact, if I recall, most part-time players—if given a chance to play every day—perform exactly as they did as part-time players.  Couple that with the fact that, contrary to popular opinion,Shelley’s platoon splits aren’t as drastic as people might have you believe, and I’m a bit skeptical of the theory.  But for this exercise, we’ll give Damon the benefit of the doubt.

Beyond what they contribute in the batter’s box, there are obviously additional components to both players’ value.  Without spending too much time here, let’s agree that Damon is a significantly better base runner than Duncan and that Shelley is a significantly better fielder than Damon.*

*Wait.  What’s that?  You don’t agree that Shelley is a significantly better fielder than Damon?  Oh alright.  Let’s consider.  One, Johnny Damon cannot throw the ball more than 90 feet on a fly and his arm resembles so many bowls of delicious pasta.  Two, his OF UZR since 2004, encompassing over 6,600 innings, is -34.5—which means that an average outfielder would’ve saved his team 35 runs compared to the “defense” provided by Damon.  Three, Joe Maddon (the smartest manager in baseball) agreed to start Damon only 16 times in the outfield last season for Tampa Bay.  On top of all that, Shelley Duncan, despite looking pretty funny doing it, is a completely adequate outfielder: his arm functions, he gets to as many balls as the average bear, and for all his acrobatics, his career OF UZR is 2.1 runs above average.  He’s not going to make anyone forget about Kenny Lofton, but as far as playing an adequate left field, he’s actually much more adept than Damon.

So what does all this tell us?  Well, I would say the two are fairly comparable players.  Both are veterans—“good clubhouse guys”, as they say.  Both are slightly above average offensive players with significant flaws in their games.  Both, I’m sure, will make us throw up our hands from time to time in frustration.

I’ve been cast as something of a Shelley Duncan apologist in the blogosphere, for various reasons.  So when I write pieces like this (or tweet about it) I’m inevitably told that I only say these things because I have an irrational love for Dunkers.  So let me be very clear: OF COURSE I have an irrational love of Dunkers.  Only communists and traitors do not.

But that’s not why I think that Damon isn’t a very good replacement for Duncan.  I can separate my irrational side from my analytical one: it’s how I defended the Branyan signing so many moons ago, even though I kinda hate Russell Branyan.

No, it’s not that I think Shelley is great.  It’s that I have a suspicion that Damon might not be any better.