During last week’s chat on ESPN.com Jayson Stark was asked the following by one Todd, from Philly:
“If Johnny Damon reaches 3000 hits somehow is he a HOF to you? I never viewed him in that manner before but he may be the first real test against the magical number standards employed to election – your thoughts?”
I like the cut of Todd’s jib. Jayson responds:
“I never like to make firm judgments on any player until his career is over. But if Damon gets to 3,000 hits, he’s a lock for me. Maybe he wasn’t a great defender. But he was a difference-maker for two teams that won the World Series, and he was one of the best top-of-the-order forces of his generation. So case closed if he gets to 3,000 hits. And he has a great case already.”
Just to be a contrarian I thought maybe we wouldn’t be so hasty to close that case. According to Baseball-Reference.com Damon was worth 2.3 WAR in 2010 and is currently valued at 1.1 WAR here at almost the halfway point in the 2011 season. To be generous lets assume that he’ll see no further decline in his run up to 3,000 hits (and to be even more generous lets assume he’s going to remain healthy and keep the playing time to acquire the number). He currently has 2,647 hits on his career and he’s averaged about 150 hits a season the last five years. This means that its quite possible he’ll be desperately trying to reach the milestone before the end of the 2013 baseball season (he’ll turn 39 on November 5, 2013).
Since we’re assuming he maintains his current level lets give him 2.3 WAR for the next two seasons and another 1.1 for this year. Damon currently sits on a 50.1 career WAR (placing him 169th overall amongst position players for his career), so at that point he’ll have 55.8 career value. Amusingly his career dWAR (WAR leaving out offensive contribution) is 0.2, meaning that pretty much all his value has come as a hitter if we look at his career in totality up to this point (Maybe he wasn’t a great defender). To put this in context here is a random sampling of some position players with higher career WARs than this mythical 3,000 hit having Johnny Damon:
Andruw Jones (59.2), Jack Glasscock (58.7) (also, heh), Jim Edmonds (67.9), Ron Santo (66.4), Kenny Lofton (66.7), John Olerud (56.8), Andre Dawson (57), Todd Helton (59.2), Bobby Abreu (59.0), Mark McGwire (63.1), Bid McPhee (57.9)
Some of these are great players. Some of them have already been elected to the Hall of Fame. Some of them (looking at you Kenny Lofton) may need to have more discussion going on about their careers. For whatever reason all of them were not and are not guys that could be described as “lock” Hall of Famers. Further, keep in mind that WAR is in its way also a counting stat. Johnny Damon’s career WAR is as high as it is because he’s played a long time at a good level relatively free of injuries. This is often derogatively referred to as compiling.
There are three things that seem important to people in regards to the Hall of Fame; the player’s peak, the breadth of their career (or, counting stats), and the intangible magic of great postseason performances. Johnny Damon was a very good player for a very long time. He was never a great player. The highest OPS+ he ever had was 118+ (though he did that three times). He only played on two All Star Teams and the highest he ever placed in the MVP vote was 13th (only appearing on the ballot at all four times). And this for a guy that spent most of his career in Boston and New York. If Johnny Damon reaches 3,000 hits he will have one counting stat that can be bandied about. What Johnny Damon does have is the post season magic. He hit two homeruns for the Red Sox in clinching game seven of the 2004 ALCS against the Yankees, a game (and series) that we can pretty much be assured people will never shut up about. That gets a lot of brownie points. Then in Game 4 of the 2009 World Series Johnny Damon made a truly excellent baserunning play for the Yankees. Jayson Stark really, really liked that:
“We’ve never seen a World Series turn because a man stole two bases on the same pitch.
But we’ve seen it now, all right.
We’ve seen Johnny David Damon do it with our own eyes, and we’re still not 100 percent sure it really happened. But an hour later, the scoreboard at Citizens Bank Park still read: Yankees 7, Phillies 4. So it must have happened. In real life. In the ninth inning of a World Series game people are going to talk about for the rest of their lives — and probably a thousand years after that. We’ve never seen a World Series turn because a man stole two bases on the same pitch.”
So essentially voting for Johnny Damon is very much like voting for Jack Morris. If you value what he did on the big stage on two or three occasions over his good but not great career a reasonable argument can be made that Johnny Damon is a Hall of Famer. However, it is not an argument I’d make myself. That said if Dan Shaughnessy can get Jim Rice elected anything is fucking possible.