We don’t need a whole bunch of high-fallutin’ defensive metrics to know that Johnny Damon is a pretty solid left fielder and a pretty bad center fielder. Rather, this is something any of us can see with our own eyes. But drilling down on the numbers is fun, and on a quiet Friday evening during the waxing days of January, let’s have some fun.
In terms of center field, the Yankees’ 2008 campaign witnessed three distinct eras. From Opening Day until August 3, Melky Cabrera patrolled the outfield; from around August 5 until September 13, Johnny Damon earned himself the CF job; and from the second game of a September 13 double header through the end of the season, Brett Gardner got the starts in the field. With the exception of a few Justin Christian starts, those men were the Yanks’ center fielders through thick and thin last year.
Offensively, this motley crew hit .261/.320/.391 and that .711 OPS was good for an OPS+ of 89. They were not, in other words, too impressive as a whole with the stick, Johnny Damon’s fantastic season notwithstanding. A funny thing happened, however, with the three players on defense.
While I realize this is far from a scientific study and I’m certainly not controlling for too many variables, take a look at the Yanks’ pitching splits for each center fielder. Under the Melky Cabrera Era, Yanks’ pitchers were 61-50 with a 4.12 ERA. Opponents knocked out 991 hits in 989 innings and featured an offensive line of .262/.327/.397. Of those totals, 18.5 percent of the hits were doubles, and a hair under two percent were three-baggers.
With Johnny Damon in center, the Yanks went 16-19 with a 5.12 ERA. The pitchers surrendered nearly 50 more hits than innings pitched, and 20.7 percent of the hits were doubles. When Gardner took over, the pitchers went 12-3 with a 3.18 ERA, and 24 percent of the hits went for two bases.
Now, this is a mess of numbers, and none of them really correlate too nicely. Johnny Damon’s center field tenure saw the number of extra-base hits increase over Melky’s but so did Brett Gardner’s. The Yanks’ pitching was far worse with Damon in center field than with the other two. It may just be a coincidence. The Yanks lost Joba Chamberlain when they moved Melky to the bench and Damon into center, and Andy Pettitte lost the ability to get outs as well.
But at the same time, as the Yanks look forward to 2009 and attempt to put together an outfield with power-hitting corner pieces and weak-hitting anchors, they should consider the impact a strong defender in center will have on the pitching. It is far easier to turn a bad center fielder into a good left fielder than it is to weather a season with a bad outfield defense.