On Tuesday, Joel Sherman reported that some teams are wary of signing Johnny Damon because of how close he is to 3,000 hits. Three executives told Sherman that they were concerned Damon’s quest for the milestone has made him less patient at the plate, trading walks for chances to get a hit — an idea that was first observed by JC Mitchell at DRaysBay back in July. Sherman even cited FanGraphs data to show that in 2011 Damon swung at more pitches out of the zone than any other year for which we have the data. His walk rate took a hit, dropping to 7.9% — his lowest since 2005 and second-lowest since 1996.
The Pitchf/x data show an increase in out-of-zone swings, but not quite as drastic as the BIS data. Although, if I use the left-handed batter-specific zone reported by John Walsh, I see a jump from 26% O-swing from 2007-2010 to 29% O-swing in 2011. I think the best thing to do is look at exactly where the extra swings are coming from. Here are swing-rate contours for Damon comparing 2007-2010 to 2011. Inside the 50% contour he was more likely than not to swing at a pitch, outside of it less likely than not. Pitches inside the 60% contour he swung at over 60% of the time.
For the most part, Damon had a similar swing rate on inside pitches, as well as those up and down in the zone. His extra swings are largely coming on away pitches. Since left-handed batters see a large fraction of their pitches on the outside half of the plate, this turns into lots of extra swings.
Damon responded to Sherman that he was swinging at the extra pitches because he felt like he was getting tough calls and so he needed to be more aggressive. We can also look at the Pitchf/x data to examine this claim. For the pitches Damon took I constructed similar contours, this time showing the percentage of time a taken pitch was called a strike.
Here we actually see the opposite trend. The strike zone Damon faced in 2011 was the slightest bit smaller. So there is no reason, based on how pitches were called, for Damon to swing at more outside pitches.
That is not to say that I think Damon is lying. He said in his text to Sherman that he felt he was getting tough calls. Maybe he was at the beginning of the season, or because of his struggles he got frustrated and mentally blamed it on tough calls. Either way, Damon didn’t do himself any favors with his more aggressive approach last year. Between 2006 and 2010, Damon walked over 10% of the time every year. That was a big part of his value. If he gets a job in 2012, he is going to need to start walking again if he wants to stick around long enough to get his 3,000th hit.