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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Johnny Damon -- Hall of Famer?

This is mostly a non-Twins post, but there's not much happening right now at Target Field. I always enjoy this time of year, though. Although the Twins' hot stove has cooled down (was it ever really scorching??), it's time for the Baseball Writers' Association of America to select, or not select, candidates for the Hall of Fame. This year, it seems like longtime Cincinnati Red shortstop Barry Larkin is the most likely to get in, but he's no lock. Those writers are certainly a goofy bunch of loons. They never vote 100% for any player, and have made many, many deserving candidates wait a year or two -- candidates that most would think of as "first ballot" hall of famers.

Current free agent Johnny Damon is sitting at 2,723 hits for his career. Here are his hit totals for the last 4 seasons: 168, 155, 146, 152. That averages about 155 hits per season. Those are respectable stats for a 38 year old Caveman. Make no mistake, though, Damon is on the decline. His batting average and his on-base percentage have declined each of these past 4 seasons, and he slugged just .401 and .418 in 2010 and 2011.

Damon has been very good at two things in his career: getting many hits in a season; and staying healthy enough to play many games each season. He has only been an All-Star twice, we all know that his defense was never great, and his arm may be comparable to Ben Revere's. And, interestingly, he only once had 200 hits in a season. Damon has been a good major league player for many years, and he did have some great seasons (2000 and 2005 come to mind). It's also noteworthy that he has played for 2 World Series winning teams, He had good speed, having stolen just over 400 bases in his career. But when you look at his stats, he doesn't jump out as hall of famer (.286/.353/.435; 231 HR; 1,120 RBIs; and the stolen bases). Sure, it's a great career -- probably better than 90 percent of MLB players. But is it worthy of the Hall of Fame? There are certainly many other very good players with similar lines and careers, that were never considered serious candidates for the hall of fame.

Sitting on 2,723 hits, Damon needs just 277 hits to reach the 3,000 hit club. If he continues to play 2 more seasons, he would need to average 138.5 hits per season to get it done. Damon has never played fewer than 141 games in a season (2007 Yankees), so his body has held up very well to the grind of playing baseball professionally for nearly 2 decades. And playing in the American League certainly benefits Damon, as he can DH.

It just so happens that every eligible (read Pete Rose) member of the 3,000 hit club that has not tested positive for steroids (read Rafael Palmeiro), has been inducted into baseball immortality. Derek Jeter and Craig Biggio have attained the feat, but are not yet eligible. Barring unforeseen allegations concerning PED use, both are sure to be hall of famers. So, Damon will, upon getting that 3,000th hit, join an exclusive club wherein every single eligible, non-confirmed steroid using member has been enshrined in the Hall of Fame. It almost sounds like a sure thing.

But what about Damon? His 1 great feat will be getting 3,000 hits. Assuming he does it, does that, alone, make him a Hall of Famer? I guess my answer is "yes," if the Hall of Fame voters intend to remain consistent. Although the number of home runs hit in the game of baseball has gone up, and 500 HR doesn't mean what it used to, 3,000 hits remains pretty special: only 28 players have done it. They hit for a good enough average (Cal Ripken Jr. was the lowest, incidentally, with a career .276 average) to stay in the game for years, and they had the health and duration to outlast many of their peers. Most were fantastic all-around players. Robin Yount, Stan Musial and Willie Mays come to mind. Sure, no one would serious suggest that Damon is like a Rod Carew, Tony Gwynn, or even a Paul Molitor, but the value of getting a hit, and doing it consistently, for nearly 20 years in the major leagues, has not really changed all that much. It's still a valuable commodity. Last time I checked, hits lead directly to getting on base, which corresponds to scoring runs. I don't need a sabermetric stat to convince me that hitting is still, and will always be, one of the most important factors into the game.

In full disclosure, though, I think it's probably fair to note that, in the last decade or so, players have been reaching the 3,000 hit plateau more often than in previous generations. In fact, since the 1999 MLB season, 8 out of the 28 current 3,000 hit members reached their 3,000th hit. So, almost 29% of the 3,000 hit club was formed in just 13 years of baseball. Then again, though, it's not as if there is a gigantic waiting list of players with 2,900 hits. It's still a rare and impressive feat. Perhaps that's the way the game has changed? We certainly see a lot of players hanging around until they are 40 years, or even older, and remaining productive. That probably wasn't as commonplace 80 years ago.

Joe Posnanski had an interesting post the other day, in which he opined that approximately half of baseball's hall of famers did two of the following three things very, very well, in order to become hall of famers: hitting; fielding; base running. Where would Johnny Damon be? Well, he hit a lot, and for many years, and there were some years where he hit really well, but basically he just hit well for a long time. His fielding certainly was never a plus, and though his baserunning and base stealing used to be good, he was never a Ricky Henderson type of leadoff force. In any event, the bottom line is that he only did one of those three things, and only arguably did he do it very well. From that standpoint, he doesn't have much going in his favor apart from the likelihood of achieving the magic number of 3,000 hits.

I think it's going to be an interesting debate when it happens. And I do think that it's going to happen. Someone will employ Damon for 2 more seasons. He's a professional, and he still has talent (remember what he did against the Twins last season in Tampa Bay)? But he most certainly will not be a first ballot hall of famer, and he may have to wait several years before being voted in. If the body of voters has any consistency, however, it seems to be in electing players with 3,000 hits -- as long as you are not Pete Rose and haven't conclusively been linked to steroids.

I attended the entire Twins-Orioles series in April of 2000, when Cal Ripken, Jr. got his 3,000th hit. I was also there when Eddie Murray did it (also against the Twins) in 1995. It's an amazing accomplishment, and as long as we don't see players starting to reach that pinnacle every year, I think that the number 3,000, alone, does make a candidate worthy of the Hall of Fame, regardless of the quality of their other "tools."

Incidentally, for comparison, if Damon becomes the 29th member of the 3,000 hit club (just assume he stops with 3,000 hits even), here's his company for a couple other stats: The guys around 29th for all-time home runs are Lou Gehrig, Fred McGriff, Stan Musial and Willie Stargell. Wins for pitchers: Ferguson Jenkins (Bert Blyleven is currently 27th, incidentally). I'm sort of cherry-picking, but you get the point. The top 30 for most MLB career records is usually pretty good company. A hit is a stat just as much as a home run, or a win. And to me it's darn impressive. I'm not about to go out and buy a Johnny Damon jersey, much less his book, but don't be surprised in 10, 12, or 15 years, if he just eeks past that 75 percent threshold. There have been worse hall of famers.

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