Now that the shock has worn off that the Indians will be signing Johnny Damon, it’s time to examine how exactly he fits on this team and who’s spot in the lineup he’ll more than likely be taking.
For many, the obvious solution would appear to be Shelly Duncan. Afterall, Duncan has never been a full-time major leaguer so obviously he’s the most likely candidate to lose at bats to Damon. Given that’s the only outfield position Damon can play anymore given his advanced age and weak arm, there is some credence to this thought. But should there be? That’s the real question here.
The Indians might not be hitting the ball well right now as a team, but that’s not because of Duncan. The Indians as a team are hitting a league low .176 but Duncan is second on the team heading into today’s game with a .294 average. So tell me again why Duncan should be relieved of his everyday duties in favor of Damon.
Yes, Damon has had a better career then Duncan, that much is undeniable, but at the age of 38 there isn’t much left in the tank. At his peak, Damon was good enough for a 6.6 wins above replacement (WAR). That was in 2000 when he was stealing bases, scoring runs, and hitting for a high average. It truly was a career year for Damon. Outside of 2000, Damon never topped 4.9 WAR. In his last two seasons, Damon has been good enough for 2.3 and 2.8 WAR respectively.
Shelly Duncan’s WAR values have typically been what baseball has labeled him to be. His career high WAR is 1, in other words he’s a replacement level player. However, this isn’t someone who was playing full-time and providing a replacement level of production. This from a player who never once broke the 300 plate appearances mark in a given season. Damon has regularly made 600-700 plate appearance and was only good enough to consistently register somewhere around 3 -4 extra wins per season in his prime.
More importantly, Duncan provides the Indians with the one thing they desperately need, a right-handed power hitter to insert in the middle of the lineup. Duncan’s career ISO (isolated power) is .203, Damon’s is .149. In addition, Duncan’s power is improving with age as one would expect for most players more prone to being power hitters. Meanwhile, Damon is a singles hitter reliant on speed who has held a relatively lower ISO throughout his career. How does that help us in a lineup full of left-handed hitters who don’t necessarily hit for much power?
Throw in the fact that Shelly Duncan is 6 years younger and technically still in the prime of his career, albeit the tail end of that prime, and it boggles my mind why this makes any sense. Damon will require almost two weeks of preparation before he makes his debut. The amount of rust that may be present in addition to the loss of coordination and bat speed that occurs with age could present a significant problem offensively.
Defensively Damon has never impressed. His career UZR as a left fielder is 5.8, which isn’t bad but his UZR/150 (a truer indicator of his abilities in left field) is only 3.3. Then you realize that he posted UZR values of 4.4 and 5.3 in 07 and 08 and then -4.4, 1.4, and -.9 in 09, 10, and 11 respectively. In other words, Damon has gotten significantly worse as a left fielder over the past few years. He doesn’t move well and doesn’t cover much ground. Of course, left field at Progressive Field is significantly smaller than in Detroit or Tampa, but it still doesn’t bode well.
Duncan on the other hand has posted a career UZR of 2.8 as a left fielder, but unlike Damon, his UZR/150 is actually better and not worse at 5.4. In other words, Duncan isn’t the greatest left fielder ever, but he’s probably a better option right now defensively than Damon. He reaches more balls despite the fact that Damon is known more for his supposed speed than anything else and has a significantly better arm.
The other option that everyone fails to mention is replacing Kotchman at first base with Duncan and playing Damon in left field. While offensively this makes sense given Duncan’s power potential, it’s too much of a liability to even consider from a defensive perspective. Duncan’s career UZR at first base is an astonishing -1.1 with a UZR/150 of -8.6… yes, negative. Kotchman on the other hand is a career 32.3 UZR with a UZR/150 of 7.6. Given the fact that the Indians are a sinker ball heavy staff resulting in an above average amount of ground balls, Kotchman’s defensive abilities are that much more valuable. So this option is out.
The final choice is to platoon Damon and Duncan at designated hitter with Travis Hafner. I won’t even bother with the statistical figures for this. The primary reason why this won’t happen is monetary. The Indians are paying Travis Hafner $13 million this season to be their primary designated hitter. Given the financial constraints they are working with, there is no way the front office would go for this. The need to get as much value out of Hafner as they possibly can given the salary he is being paid. In other words, unless he gets hurt, Hafner will be in the lineup.
So there you have it. I don’t think I can be any clearer as to why this was a poor decision by the Indians. Damon just doesn’t fit for what the Indians need at the moment. He’s too old, gotten too slow, doesn’t play good defense, and will probably be a replacement level player offensively. Meanwhile, Shelly Duncan will sit on the bench and wonder what else does he have to do in order to get a legit shot in the big leagues.
Honestly, I have no idea.