Johnny Damon: Underrated or Forgettable Star?

Much of the focus this past week was devoted to Derek Jeter, who homered off of David Price on Saturday to become just the 28th player in major league history to record 3,000 hits. The attention was well deserved, as this was a monumental feat worthy of celebration. When the on-field festivities subsided, however, I couldn’t help but hearken to an earlier article about milestones that buck the Hall of Fame tradition.

No, this has nothing to do with Jeter, who was a first ballot Hall of Famer even if he ended his career at 2,999 like Stan Ross, but rather a current member of the Rays who was in attendance this weekend: Johnny Damon.

Damon has 92 hits this season and is projected to finish with 155, putting him right in line with his totals over the last several seasons. Finishing with 155 hits would also push his career tally to 2,726. Assuming he falls somewhere in the vicinity of that projection, wouldn’t it seem like the 37-year old Damon is a virtual lock for 3,000 hits? He would have to decide to stick around for at least another two seasons, and find an American League team in need of a designated hitter and occasional left fielder, but neither of those caveats seems far-fetched.

Damon has averaged around 150 hits/yr since 2007. With 2,726 entering next season, he would only need to average 137 hits for two seasons, or 91 hits for three seasons. Sure, injuries could derail his pursuit, but I find it difficult to argue that he couldn’t average 90-100 hits from 2012-14, hanging up his cleats as the 30th member of the 3,000 hits club (Alex Rodriguez will get there sooner).

If he gets to that plateau, either his induction into the Hall of Fame becomes automatic, or the milestone itself is cheapened. Given that he would be the 30th person ever to achieve what is considered to be a holy grail of baseball accomplishments, the former scenario seems much more likely than the latter. Yet, Damon has never felt like a Hall of Fame player. He has barely even felt like a superstar. How is it possible that someone with a high probability of getting 3,000+ hits in his career, who won’t have played 25+ seasons like, say, Nolan Ryan or Jamie Moyer, has had such a relatively forgettable career?

Back in April, Matt Klaasen wrote of Damon’s chances of getting into Cooperstown, calling them slim on the basis that he was outperformed by Andre Dawson both in career and peak wins above replacement. You might recall that, while Dawson’s induction wasn’t as criticized as that of Jim Rice, it was still much debatable.

The numbers between Dawson and Damon aren’t even close, and they still won’t be if Damon plays three more seasons and gets his 3,000th hit. Dawson finished with 62.3 WAR while Damon currently stands at 45.5. Add another six wins above replacement from here until the end of the 2014 season and there is still a rather large difference between the two. Obviously having 3,000 hits gives Damon a huge advantage, but the point remains that his candidacy is likely to come under scrutiny even with one of the rarest career accomplishments in baseball under his belt. Of everyone with 3,000 hits, he would have the worst career numbers, and his resume sans milestone pales in comparison to others at his position.

On the other side of the spectrum, he will finish his career with some solid counting stats. He will likely end up with totals around 250 HR, 400 SB, 1,900 runs, 1,200 RBIs. Damon is the perfect example of someone who has been good for a long time, but never truly great. His decline phase has seen him range from 2.4-3.7 WAR, and in his peak he vacillated between below average and all-star levels. His career has been impressive on the whole, but without the milestone his candidacy is barely worthy of a debate. The milestone itself shouldn”t trigger the election, but it’s also rare for someone to achieve an historic career feat and not have a somewhat worthy body of work.

My prior article on milestones that might not automatically trigger a Hall of Fame election was framed around the likelihood that Paul Konerko reaches 500 home runs. But HR-centric milestones have been cheapened in perception lately given the steroids cloud that looms over the game. Achieving 3,000 hits isn’t generally associated with performance enhancing drugs so one could reason that it is the most impressive career hitting accomplishment.

If Damon sustains his current pace and finds work — which will be easy if he does sustain his current pace — 3,000 hits is much in play, and it will be interesting to see how that narrative plays out. Then again, players his age can fall off of a cliff rather quickly, and a few months of poor production could lead teams to shy away from giving him major league offers, especially with his defensive limitations.

Johnny Damon has had a good career, but not one worthy of a Hall of Fame induction. It will be absolutely fascinating to follow his candidacy if he reaches 3,000 hits.

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Eric is an accountant and statistical analyst from Philadelphia. He also covers the Phillies at Phillies Nation and can be found here on Twitter.

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