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Damon Will Let Down Yankees With Leadoff, Post-Allstar Shortfalls

By Chris Bettinger

Just accept it. The fairy tale is over. Centerfielder and lead-off man Johnny Damon is a Yankee and that’s just the way it is. Anyone who has lived in the city of Boston, or been even marginally aware of baseball or sports in general knows the story: the Red Sox offered Damon a 4-year $40 million contract, which was topped by only the Yankees, who offered a 4 year $52 million deal. Damon’s eventual acceptance of the Yankees offer has split members of Red Sox Nation into two camps: the group that asks, “Why didn’t the Red Sox just give Damon another $12 million? I hate the Yankees,” and the “Good riddance! We didn’t want him anyway. And by the way, I hate the Yankees” group.

The manner of determining where a loyal Sox fan stands on this issue is nontrivial. Nevertheless, I am convinced that the Red Sox made the right call in letting Damon walk, as the Yankees will probably get a lot less than they bargained for, especially over the next four seasons.

Damon’s durability has never been a question. He rarely gets injured and when he does, he simply plays through it. But being durable isn’t always about staying off the disabled list and showing up at the park every day. Durability is about consistent production throughout the year. A careful look at Damon’s on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) before and after the all-star break in recent years reveals a different story. His production level has essentially leveled, then dropped off during the season over the last three years (see table), a dangerous trend for an aging ballplayer. As Damon gets older, there is no reason to believe that this trend will not continue or worsen during his 4-year stint at Yankee Stadium.

Speaking of Yankee Stadium, this ballpark has not been especially friendly to Damon, who has only managed an OPS of 0.703 in the Bronx over the last three years, well below his 0.836 in Fenway and lifetime of 0.804. Yankee proponents will often counter with the argument that his low OPS in Yankee Stadium is due to Yankee pitching, but keep in mind that the Yankees had a team ERA of 4.52, 9th in the American League, so facing Yankee pitching in the Stadium probably helped Damon. The change of scenery from Boston to the Bronx may prove too challenging and ultimately lead to the demise of Johnny Damon in pinstripes.

Damon’s other obvious weaknesses are, well … obvious. He throws like a girl not named Jennie Finch, and his stolen bases have declined. Though obvious, these are minor problems. Having a strong arm in the outfield is highly overrated and the stolen bases dropped simply because the Red Sox don’t gamble on that.

The bigger problem is that qualities that could be portrayed as strengths have turned into weaknesses. I always hear about how Johnny Damon is one of the best lead-off hitters in the game. Let’s see: best lead-off hitter in the game? Really? Someone who posts a career on-base percentage (OBP) of 0.353 is NOT the best lead-off hitter in baseball. Just because he looks and “feels” like a good lead-off doesn’t make him so. Damon wasn’t the best lead-off hitter in the American League East, or even the best on his future team during 2005. Baltimore Orioles 3B Brian Roberts (0.387 OBP and 27 stolen bases) and Derek Jeter (0.389 OBP and 19 SB’s) did better than Damon’s 0.366 and 18 SB’s.

This leads up to yet another reason why I am always going to shake my head when I see the Yankees lineup in 2006. They are going to have their best lead-off hitter (Jeter) batting second and playing shortstop while the best shortstop of our generation (A-rod) is playing third base. Amazing! Maybe they should have Hideki Matsui catch or the Big Unit pinch run.

Or maybe they should get really crazy and give an aging 32-year-old who is so full of himself that he doesn’t understand the concept of team a bloated $52 million dollar contract so they will end up with the next reincarnation of Bernie Williams in centerfield in 2009. Never mind, that last one sounds a little too ridiculous.