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Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Baseball Hall of Fame Case of Johnny Damon

The 2018 Baseball Hall of Fame ballot is loaded with a lot of talented players. Some may seem like more sure things than others, while there are some cases that are sure to inspire furious debate. Continuing in a series, we’ll explore some of these players on the cusp who are making their first appearance on the ballot and dissect their case piece by piece. It’s time to take a look at outfielder Johnny Damon.

On face recognition alone, Damon is a Hall-of-Famer. His turn as “baseball Jesus” while with the Boston Red Sox made him recognizable to even the most casual fans. Although, that’s not typically strong criteria under consideration when ballots are being filled out, he fortunately has many other strong attributes when making his case.

An outfielder, the left-hander played 18 years for seven teams during his career. He accumulated a combined .284 batting average, 235 home runs, 1,139 RBIs, 522 doubles, 2,769 hits, 1,668 runs and 408 stolen bases. He is in the top 50 all time in important categories such as runs scored, doubles and plate appearances. He is just outside that (54th) in base hits.

Damon spent most of his career hitting out of the leadoff position and did so quite well. The left-handed hitter got on base at a good clip (career .352 OBP), was a pesky base runner and could also surprise with his power. His style of play was that of a table setter that most teams are typically chasing after with few being available. With his teams making the playoffs and winning the World Series twice (including helping the Red Sox end an 86-year drought in 2004) during his time as a major leaguer, his importance to their success was obvious.

At 6’2” and 205 pounds, Damon began his career as a speedy on-base guy without a lot of pop. He later bulked up a bit and transitioned into a player with more pop who could still run but was a bit choosier in what situations he elected to swipe an extra base. His added bulk and increase in age coincided in a change where numbers suggest he went from an above average defender to one who was not as effective.

Easily the worst part of Damon’s game was his arm. With a caliber that could be generously described as pop gun, he was routinely run on because of his difficulty making strong throws. Most famously, one of his throws from the outfield was once cut off by a leaping Manny Ramirez who either had momentarily lost his head or had legitimate concern that about the number of hops it would take for the ball to reach its intended destination.

There are also statistical areas that don’t help make Damon’s Hall of Fame case. His 104 career OPS+ and 56.0 bWAR are on the light side when considering other inductees. Additionally, while he had many seasons where he was very good, he lacks truly defining performances that others can claim, which resulted in him making only two All-Star teams (and no Gold Gloves or other major awards).

In many ways Damon is an impossible cliché. He is so underrated that he may be overrated. He probably didn’t get nearly the credit he deserved when he was playing but making it up to him after the fact is an untenable solution. It’s hard to envision a scenario where he gets elected to the Hall, especially when there are other candidates who are certainly more deserving on the outside looking in who can scarcely sniff a vote (think Kenny Lofton).

While Damon seems to be a long shot as a Cooperstown candidate, it is no knock on him and what he accomplished during his career. It will be a major surprise if he gets the requisite votes, and may be a minor coup to even garner enough support to remain on the ballot. Time will only tell.

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