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Johnny Damon: Statistically Unique, but a Hall of Famer?

When Damon walks off into the sunset, should he be walking into the Hall of Fame?
When Damon walks off into the sunset, should he be walking into the Hall of Fame?

A friend forwarded me this Peter Abraham article from The Boston Globe in which Abraham asks whether Johnny Damon should be elected to the Hall of Fame once he becomes eligible. 

To make the discussion more interesting, Abraham provides the following statistics:

Johnny Damon has 499 doubles after drilling a Tim Wakefield pitch off the wall in right field last night. He is one shy from becoming only the 11th player in the history of baseball with 500 doubles, 100 triples, 200 home runs and 2,500 hits.

The list is indeed impressive, including such luminaries as Babe Ruth, Stan Musial, George Brett, and Lou Gehrig. But simply being a statistical oddity does not necessary imply that one has been an all-time great player.

For one thing, Damon would currently rank dead last on this list in terms of Wins Above Replacement (rWAR) with 49.5:

Rk Player WAR/pos H 2B 3B HR PA From To BA OBP SLG OPS
1 Babe Ruth 172.0 2873 506 136 714 10617 1914 1935 .342 .474 .690 1.164
2 Willie Mays 154.7 3283 523 140 660 12493 1951 1973 .302 .384 .557 .941
3 Stan Musial 127.8 3630 725 177 475 12712 1941 1963 .331 .417 .559 .976
4 Rogers Hornsby 127.8 2930 541 169 301 9475 1915 1937 .358 .434 .577 1.010
5 Lou Gehrig 118.4 2721 534 163 493 9660 1923 1939 .340 .447 .632 1.080
6 George Brett 85.0 3154 665 137 317 11624 1973 1993 .305 .369 .487 .857
7 Robin Yount 76.9 3142 583 126 251 12249 1974 1993 .285 .342 .430 .772
8 Paul Molitor 74.8 3319 605 114 234 12160 1978 1998 .306 .369 .448 .817
9 Al Simmons 63.6 2927 539 149 307 9515 1924 1944 .334 .380 .535 .915
10 Goose Goslin 63.0 2735 500 173 248 9822 1921 1938 .316 .387 .500 .887
11 Johnny Damon 49.5 2643 499 102 223 10325 1995 2011 .287 .354 .436 .790
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 6/16/2011.

Now, that number will increase as he finishes his playing days (assuming no negative rWAR seasons), but it's not clear he has enough left in the tank to pass the 10th player, Goose Goslin, who ended his career with 63 rWAR. Given the low rWAR, one can make the argument that while Damon's statistics do indicate a player with a varied skill set they don't indicate a player that was ever dominant compared to his peers.

There is, of course, another way to look at Damon's performance, and that is his hit distribution. 

For Damon's career, his hits have been distributed in the following way: 69% 1B, 19% 2B, 4% 3B, 8% HR.

There have been 25 players in the history of major league baseball that have managed at least those same percentages in terms of doubles, triples, and homers over at least 6,000 plate appearances. Out of those 25 players, Damon ranks 10th in terms of rWAR (just a tad above the median). Of the nine players above Damon, six are currently in the Hall of Fame and one will have strong case once he retires (Carlos Beltran). Additionally, there are four players below Damon that are currently members of the Hall of Fame. 

On the one hand, Johnny Damon looks like a Robin Yount clone. Their hit distributions are identical. However, Yount has 27 more rWAR than Damon as a result of a higher rWAR per season. Damon's WAR per season is just 2.9*, where Yount's is 3.8. In fact, Damon's rWAR per season would be the third lowest among Hall of Famers on the list, and those two other chaps played prior to the 1950's.

Damon's only other contemporary that tops him on this list is Carlos Beltran, a fellow centerfielder/outfielder. However, Beltran's performance--like Yount's--ranks significantly better than Damon's on a number of levels. 

First, Beltran has double the percentage of hits for home runs as Damon (16% vs. 8%), all the while hitting the same percentage of triples and 1% better in terms of doubles. Beltran also has more cumulative rWAR (58.6 to 49.5), and over his career he has averaged 4.2 rWAR per season to Damon's 2.9.

That being said, Damon was better than other contemporaries (Mike Cameron, Reggie Sanders, Ray Durham, and Jimmy Rollins) on this list in terms of rWAR and rWAR per season. However, while all solid players this list doesn't scream sure-fire Hall of Famers.

So Damon's accomplishments certainly place him with unique company, and that company includes a number of Hall of Fame players. However, Damon was never dominant during his playing days (only one season with 5+ rWAR) and while he accumulated some impressive numbers he did so during an era that made such an accumulation more likely and thus less impressive, particular when we introduce measures that scale his performance to the higher run environment he played in.

End of the day, I think Damon was a very, very good player, but not necessarily Hall of Fame worthy. However, his unique blend of statistics combined with playing for two championship teams in major markets and being one of the most recognizable personalities in baseball will certainly endear him to a number of voters when the time comes.


*Yes, this includes a partial 2011 season, but even if you just take his average through 2010 his rWAR per season is just 3.1, so not a huge difference.