Nov
19

Is Johnny Damon really that bad on defense?

By

Johnny Damon went through a transition in 2007. He left Spring Training pondering retirement. While nothing came of that, he faced many problems early in the season. By the end of April he was hitting .229/.349/.329, a far cry from his impressive pinstriped debut a year earlier. He then battled calf issues in May, eventually missing a few games at the end of the month, but ultimately missing the disabled list. By June, Joe Torre had seen enough. He installed Melky Cabrera as the everyday center fielder, relegating Damon mostly to designated hitter duties — made easier because of Jason Giambi‘s foot injury. Damon played just 10 games in center field from June through September.

After spending most of June and July as a one-way player, Damon started seeing more time in left field later in the season. This made sense. Johnny was, by reputation, a good defender in center field. Having to cover less ground in left field, Damon could be a defensive asset to the Yankees. According to UZR, he was. In 271 innings over the season’s final two months, Damon accumulated a 7.5 UZR. That stood in contrast to his numbers in center field, -7.6 in 377 innings in 2007. It also brought to light Damon’s UZR deficiency in center field — he’d been in the negatives since 2003.

When Joe Girardi took over in 2008, it was clear Damon would play left field every day. His bat played well enough for left field, and his range at that position would give the Yankees a boost on defense. Sure enough, Damon posted another great defensive season according to UZR, posting a 6.7 mark (11.6 per 150) in 659.1 innings in left field. Because the team struggled to score runs, and because they demoted Melky Cabrera in August, Damon slid over to center for 285 innings, and again posted a negative UZR figure, -7.8. Damon clearly wasn’t a good center field option for 2009, but it stood to reason that he’d once again be an asset in left.

The plan didn’t work out how the Yankees expected. From the start Damon looked shaky in left field. That he dropped a few balls early in the season, including in a June game against the Red Sox, did him no favors with the fans. Soon after the drop against the Sox Damon revealed he was having eye trouble, a “fluttering” issue that doctors connected to his caffeine intake. Still, fans tend to remember players who drop fly balls. No one forgot Damon’s infractions.

Not only was there visual evidence of Johnny’s deficiencies in left field, but the go-to defensive stat, Ultimate Zone Rating, ranked Damon among the worst left fielders in the game. After posting a 11.6 UZR/150 in 2008, Damon fell into the negatives in 2009. He ended with a -12.1 per 150 mark in 2009, which seems to confirm the eyeball test. Damon just wasn’t that good in the field in 2009, and at age 36 it’s difficult to project an improvement for 2010.

Still, it’s possible that Damon wasn’t as bad in the field as fans and UZR say. A fan’s opinion is often skewed by a few standout memories, and nothing stood out about Damon’s defense more than his dropped balls and “happy feet” as he got under fly balls. That will leave a negative impression for sure. And while it might be the best known measure of defense — at least of those publicly available — UZR has its shortcomings as well. For instance, it rated Juan Rivera, Carlos Lee, and Raul Ibanez in the positives this season. Those aren’t three players generally considerd good defenders.

I haven’t seen many scouts comment on Johnny Damon’s defense, and even so I’m not inclined to believe an anonymous scout quoted for an article. We’ve seen that too many times, and it often seems like the opinion offered is not of a consensus, but rather just the quote that best fit the writer’s article. The closest thing I’ve seen is Tangotiger’s Fan Scouting Report. The idea is to get a good feel for a player’s defense through a huge sampling of fans. Yet that system seems flawed, though that could just be from underexposure. Damon ranked fairly low on the left field scale, ahead of only the players with terrible defensive reputations: Ibanez, Alfonso Soriano, Manny Ramires, and Delmon Young, etc.

There is one more defensive statistic to consider, and it’s a bit more kind to Damon than UZR. Revised Zone Rating, developed by John Dewan. Like all defensive stats it has its ups and downs, but Dewan did some hard work concocting this metric. There are two aspects to consider. First is the straight RZR, or how well a fielder did on balls hit into his zone. Damon’s mark in 2009 was .906. For context, Carl Crawford, tops in UZR, was at .914. The top left fielder in the league was David DeJesus, at .927. Of course, criticism will flow because Ryan Braun, considered a poor defender by scouts and by UZR, ranked second at .919. Damon ranked fourth in the majors.

The other aspect of RZR is OOZ, plays made out of the player’s zone. This is an important aspect. Players might be able to make all the plays within his zone, but it takes a very good fielder to make plays on balls outside his zone. Crawford is king in this stat, making 105 plays outside his territory. DeJesus follows, and Braun ranks fourth. Again, this will open the number to criticism. In any case, Damon ranks 11th in this stat, making 46 plays out of his zone. The only players below him with 1,000 or more innings in left field are Garret Anderson, Raul Ibanez, and Chris Coghlan.

It appears that any way we look at it, Johnny Damon was not a good fielder in 2009. This came as a surprise during the season, since Damon was so good in left field just a year before. We know, however, that certain skills decline with age, and by most measures Damon’s fielding range dropped off a cliff. This is no guarantee that he’ll continue to patrol the outfield poorly in 2010, but given his age it’s not wise to predict a turnaround.

The best we can hope for, I think, is that some component of UZR unfairly judged Damon, and that fan sentiment towards his defense was skewed by a few egregious plays early in the season. RZR didn’t think that poorly of Damon in 2009, and I thought that while his range wasn’t quite what I remembered it, it wasn’t as bad as the general perception. Damon is no longer a superior defensive outfielder, but I think that given an opportunity to start 75, 80 percent of games, he can patrol his position serviceably in 2010.

Photo credit: Associated Press

Categories : Defense

81 Comments»

  1. hornblower says:

    Yes!

  2. dkidd says:

    his arm is obviously weak, but my anecdotal impression from watching 150 games is that he was an above-average left fielder

    • dkidd says:

      in terms of range, reads, and routes

    • cult of basebaal says:

      Strangely enough, my read on Damon, after watching 150+ games this year, is that he ought to be playing RF in a co-ed softball game.

      He routinely took routes to flyballs that would be an embarassment to a drunk falling down stairs (as did Swisher, but with him I was reminded with much more frequency that he was actually covering good ground in RF and getting to more balls than average).

      Don’t know why, since he didn’t seem nearly as incapable last year. I know he mentioned something about adjusting to the new wind patterns at NYS early in the year, but frankly, he looked awful start to finish.

      • If we’re going based on the good old “what my eyes saw” standard, I’m more inclined to side with the cult of basebaal over dkidd. Damon looked mostly clueless out there sometimes, and I wasn’t too comfortable with him in left field. Neither was Girardi but the end of the season, which is why Melky would slide over to right with Gardner in the outfield during the playoffs. That was prior to Damon’s Game 6 calf strain as well.

      • Pete says:

        Amazing we won a championship with 2 bums in the corner outfield spots, eh? ;-)

  3. chriskeo says:

    Ultimately it was Damon’s -3.7 RngR that killed him. We expect the -4.2 Arm, and the -1.3 ErrR is minimal. He had a positive 9.0 RngR last year so UZR RngR concludes his range essentially went away in 2009.

  4. danthrax says:

    i can’t stomach another season of watching guys, on balls hit to shallow left, go first to third on his rag arm. it’s sad. not to mention the fact that every fly ball hit in his direction becomes an unnecessary adventure.

    i hated this signing when it happened. “you’re replacing my favorite yankee, bernie williams, with this clown?” i said. i’ll admit, it wans’t a bad signing after all. the contract worked out. damon was pretty productive those 4 years, and was as pesky as chuck knoblauch at the top of the order. i think it’s time to move on though. he’s past his prime and can only decline from here. there are better options for the yanks. damon doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy that’ll take a discount. he’s chased the money his whole career, and he’s not a 10+ million dollar player anymore.

    • Chip says:

      Do you suggest we sign somebody else then or put up with a whole years worth of Melky out there?

    • there are better options for the yanks.

      Such as…

      • chriskeo says:

        Matt Holliday

        I do not think the Yankees should sign him, but he is a better option than, non-financially speaking.

        • Rose says:

          If you don’t think we should sign him…and we agree with you…then the fact that he’s “a better option” is moot. Who is a better likely option that we would all agree upon as a good decision?

          “Better Option” doesn’t necessarily mean “Better Player” either…depending on ones definition, Matt Holiday may actually be a much WORSE option than Johnny Damon when looking at his contract demands, etc.

          • Bo says:

            Speaking player to player obviously Holliday is a better option.

            But how many teams really abused his arm in LF?

            I didnt see the Angels do it much. Didnt see the Twins. or Phils

    • pete says:

      i don’t remember a single play where someone went 1st to third on a ball hit to “shallow left” – that would be insane. I also remember a couple of times where damon threw guys out at home. I know his arm sucks, believe me, but that’s about the least important aspect of a LF in yankee stadium.

  5. Mike P says:

    I think hoping the stats are somehow wrong seems absurd, just to give us “comfort” that somehow Damon wasn’t as bad as we thought. He was bad, suprisingly so. What I hope for is that there were reasons for that (injury, adjustment, whatever) which are correctible. It seems strange that a player should decline so drastically in an aspect of his game which he is most comfortable.

  6. Will says:

    Based on my “scout’s eye”, it looked like Damon had trouble transitioning to the new Yankee Stadium LF, which could help explain his sudden drop. Perhaps with more familiarity, his defense in LF would improve. Of course, nothing will improve his throwing arm, which I think has done much to contribute to his declining reputation. It’s one thing to have a noodle in CF, but when you watch runners score from second on hard hit balls to left, well, that just leaves a bad impression.

    As for defensive stats, there really seems to be so little consistency from year to year (could players really vary that greatly on defense) as well as little agreement among the metrics for players not on either extreme. They are fine to use as guides, but I am still not at the point where I am willing to trust any of them on face value.

    • Based on my “scout’s eye”, it looked like Damon had trouble transitioning to the new Yankee Stadium LF, which could help explain his sudden drop. Perhaps with more familiarity, his defense in LF would improve.

      Yes, but, the new YS3 LF and the old YS2 LF isn’t really that much different at all.

      The wall is flatter as opposed to the slower gradual curve. Wall height is still the same; total area is virtually the same; corners and dead spots are all the same. The wind patterns may have changed, but frankly, I don’t see how much difference there really is.

      • Will says:

        The background is very different though, and it is against that visual that an outfielder first has to pick up the ball off the bat. It looked to me as if Damon struggled more at home than on the road (that could also be because LF at YS is bigger), so perhaps that was a reason. I don’t believe UZR is broken down into splits, but it would be interesting to see if there is a difference.

      • Rose says:

        Well what was Damon’s ROAD UZR in 2008…and his ROAD UZR in 2009…and you can quickly confirm or eliminate the New YSIII philosophy depending on the answer to that…no?

  7. cr1 says:

    Our whole outfield is not strong. There is no one out there who is better than okay at his position. That makes it harder to defend the notion of keeping a declining Damon. The end of his contract is an opportunity to begin to shore up one of our weaker areas.

    • Will says:

      That’s just not true. Swisher (UZR of -0.7) is definitely “ok” in RF, while Melky (UZR of 1.4) and Gardner (UZR of 7.2) were better than “ok” in CF. Melky has also been very good on the corners, but rated poorly there this season.

      Interestingly, Melky was horrible in LF this season, according to UZR. Again, perhaps that could have something to do with the new ball park? In addition to a different background, the wall down the line does angle differently. Considering there is so little foul territory, that could be a factor.

      • Only 204 innings in LF for Melky. It could be a fluke. I think he would do well there if he got extended time in LF, which is definitely a possibility.

      • Mike HC says:

        Does UZR take into account balls hit in foul territory? I don’t think they do, even if the defender catches them. I’m not 100% sure though.

        • Will says:

          I am pretty sure that only the foul zones near 1st and 3rd base are included. Of course, balls that just land fair are included, and I’d imagine it is more difficult to catch such a ball when a wall is only about 18 inches away. Also, I’d imagine that fielders might be inclined to play more off the foul line in a park like Yankee Stadium. It might seem silly to defense foul territory, but the name of the game is getting outs.

  8. [...] P. at River Ave Blues tackles the subject of Johnny Damon’s defense (yes, he’s [...]

  9. Just wanted to pitch in on the comprehensive stat eval of Damon by adding the Plus/Minus #s:

    in left field –
    2007: +7 enhanced, 4 runs saved, “0″ rank (SSS)
    2008: +7 enhanced, 4 runs saved, 9th rank
    2009: -4 enhanced, -2 runs saved, 18th rank

  10. A.D. says:

    I wonder if Damon had some struggles we didn’t hear about with his legs in general this year. His SB numbers were down this year, he stole 25+ each of his first 3 years, and then 12 this year. Partly could be the 2 hole (Jeter SB numbers were way up as he moved out of the 2 hole), or could be something with his legs were leading to not being able to get good jumps, which could have transferred in the outfield.

    Either way I agree Damon by pretty much all measures didn’t look good in LF last year, but I also have a hard time thinking that an outfielder can deteriorate that quickly, vs just a down defensive year.

    • DonnieBaseballHallofFame says:

      “I wonder if Damon had some struggles we didn’t hear about with his legs in general this year.”

      I believe this to be the case. Damon has a lot of potential injury issues. I worry about guys who’s build has gone from a thin lanky type to a WWF weightlifter type. I use to watch Johnny in the minors and he is not the same guy physically.

      I hope Damon is a clean player but just from seeing the transformation from minors/KC to Oak/Boston/NY Johnny it is not one something that I would bet on. Clean or not, his weightlifter build and leg issues are a reason you can not give this guy a two year deal at his age. Remember when everybody thought the Yanks were nuts for giving him the year and dollars they did when he left Boston? We got lucky the last year of this deal, let us not tempt fate by offering a longterm deal.

      Without the leg issues he is still pretty clueless for a lifetime OF.

  11. In Girardi We Trust says:

    Sign Figgins, Holliday, or Cameron. I’d love it if they swung a trade for Crawford but that price is going to be too steep. Damons arm it too much of a liability.

    • DonnieBaseballHallofFame says:

      I like Damon and or Cameron on a one year. Crawford should be the target next year, along with Cliff Lee or Hallday if they make it to free agency.

      • Mike HC says:

        Cameron should not be considered a replacement for Damon in my opinion. He should be our CF replacement. Our LF has to be able to hit. We won the WS with Damon, a shitty fielder, last year. Manny has won two WS playing in Left. Bonds led his team to the WS a terrible LF. You don’t need a great defensive LF. You want a great offensive one if you can.

      • Rose says:

        should be the target next year

        He’ll want a huge deal that will take him (along with already several other Yankees) into his declining period…

        Meh. Rather look down other avenues unless he won’t cost so many years…

    • Sign Figgins

      Absolutely not. He’s played less than 30 games off of 3B in the last two seasons. First of, he may not even be able to play LF. Second, I don’t want a guy with a career SLG below .400 who hasn’t consistently played the position to be manning left. Let the Mets overpay him.

      Even if Cameron is signed, that doesn’t mean Damon’s gone. I’d rather roll with Cammy in CF and Damon in LF with Matsui as the DH and Melky as the 4th OF who “aggressively spells” Damon and Cameron when need be.

      Regardless, stay the hell away from Figgins.

  12. Mike HC says:

    He may not be good out in Left and he definitely has a horrible arm, at least we know we can win a WS with him out there. He also won a WS as a declining CF in 2004. His offense makes up for it. Two year deal and call it a day

    • DonnieBaseballHallofFame says:

      “at least we know we can win a WS with him out there”

      I hate this argument. Let us go sign Jeff Weaver because I know we can win the world series with him since the 06 Cards did.

      I see this style argument a lot and nobody ever rips it up.

      • Mike HC says:

        If the goal is to win, there is no better evidence or stat out there than the fact we actually did win with him in LF. The goal is not to have a good defensive LF. The goal is not to have a LF with a good UZR.

        Weaver went on a hot streak at the right time and is unlikely to ever repeat that. Damon played exactly like he played his entire career and is likely to repeat that.

        • andrew says:

          I’m gonna go with DBHOF. We also won the WS with Molina starting 1/3 of the games in the playoffs, should we give Molina 1/3 of the at bats next year?

          • Mike HC says:

            I see what you guys are saying. But I’m not talking about in general. I am specifically talking about Damon. He was a major positive for the Yanks all year and in the playoffs even with shotty D. I think he can repeat that for the next two years. Besides signing Holliday, I don’t think the Yanks can do better for next year.

            • pete says:

              i see what you’re saying. Damon’s defense didn’t hurt us this year so it probably won’t next year. But the thing is, it did hurt us this year. We were just such an insanely good team this year that all the things that hurt us (wang, nady, a-rod injuries, suckitude out of the 5th starter spot) still didn’t hurt us enough. But are Jeter/Cano/Swisher/Matsui/Damon/Tex all going to hit well enough again to compensate for being an overall bad defensive team, most of which can be attributed to Damon’s LF defense? Will we get as good of a year out of Pettitte?

              I’m not saying these are impossible – in fact i am in favor of resigning damon to play left this year, and matsui to DH. I do think the yankees can live with damon’s defense again this year. But saying simply that because damon’s defense didn’t keep us from winning the WS this year, it won’t next year, is really a very patchy argument to make.

              • Mike HC says:

                So we agree then. And I was not trying to make an airtight argument. Just wanted to say a few lines in support of Damon and re signing him.

  13. Rose says:

    Look at the innings differences in each year.

    2007 (His best year in LF): 271 innings
    2008 (His 2nd best year in LF): 659.1 innings
    2009 (Signficantly worse in LF): 1117.2 innings

    It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that the bigger the sample size the worse he gets. The more opportunities Johnny gets…the more realistic the results become.

  14. Cam says:

    There were way too many sighs of relief after caught fly balls in LF this season for my liking.

  15. In Girardi We Trust says:

    Figgins has played 244 games in center to the tune of a -3.5 uzr. He could definitely play left.

  16. In Girardi We Trust says:

    Hes 31 its not like hes an old man. what makes you think hes cant play at the level he used to?

    • Because he hasn’t done it consistently in years.

      Also, use the reply button.

      • In Girardi We Trust says:

        ah, gottcha. Never posted here before.

        Hes not the best option, but that speed element he brings I really like. Gardner brings that to the team but in all likely hood he wont ever become an every day player. The best move is probably to pray Crawford hits free agency. Thats the dude we need.

        • No, Figgins is not the best option. In fact, I’d say he’s the worst option. Power and on-base skill is more important than speed, especially out of LF.

          I’m leaning towards agreeing on you with Crawford, but I think we should wait and see how this year goes. A guy who bases his game on contact and speed may not age very well.

          • In Girardi We Trust says:

            I’m fine with them signing Holliday too. Probably over priced but tex, arod, and holliday would be insane to watch next year.

            • Signing Holliday is a poor choice, too. Too many years and it locks up a third corner position. Pass.

              • In Girardi We Trust says:

                Your tough to please. Waiting for them to splice some frozen ted williams with some mantle and jeter dna?

                • No, just do the smart thing. Retain the guys they have on short deals and maybe bring in someone else on a similar deal.

                • In Girardi We Trust says:

                  You dont wanna watch Cameron strike out all year long do you? we already have swisher doing that.

                • So I guess you haven’t noticed that, like Swisher, he walks and hits home runs. A lot. That’s what the Yankees do: patience and power. Cameron also plays a good CF and his bat is great for that position.

                • Rose says:

                  Cameron + Swisher = a shitload of strikeouts lol

                • In Girardi We Trust says:

                  I’ve noticed. I’m not a fan of having two 150 strike out players. Gardner could potentially strike out quite a bit too.

                • Gardner isn’t going to play enough to strike out that many times.

                  Those two 150 K players will also add about 150 walks to the register and about 40 home runs. I’ll take that trade off, especially considering that one plays average to slightly above average defense and the other plays good to very good defense.

                • pete says:

                  swisher + cameron would be an excellent RF-CF combination. Add in damon and you’ve got one of, if not the best offensive outfield in the majors. Through in the fact that you can (and girardi will) aggressively substitute Cabrera and Gardner for any of them, and you’ve got the ability to upgrade a ton defensively without becoming an offensive black hole.
                  In other words, you could have an overall average outfield defensively with great offense, except that it has the ability to transform itself into one of the, if not the, best defensive outfields in the majors (Cammy-Gardner-Cabrera).
                  Strikeouts are annoying, sure, but if you’re able to be a productive player in spite of the strikeouts, then what’s the problem?

  17. Will says:

    One other thing to consider is Damon made several errors on balls hit right at him. UZR penalizes fielders more for easier plays, so that could skew the overall rating.

    Think about it this way…if two players had the same exact breakdown, but one dropped 5 balls in his primary zone, while another dropped his 5 balls in a secondary zone, that former would rate lower even though the net impact would be exactly the same (5 dropped balls).

  18. Jim says:

    I watch a lot of Brewers games and Ryan Braun gets a bad rap. He is not a bad left fielder. Yes, he was abysmal as a third baseman, but he plays consistently well in LF. He may not make the highlight reel catch but he hustles his tail off and doesn’t seem to make too many glaring mistakes. Combining his fielding skills, bat and age – I would take him over every LF in all of MLB.

  19. Bo says:

    Defensive stats are just a small tool and arent an absolute. The real test is the eyball test. And anyone who watched Damon play LF this yr realizes his defense is below average. That said his bat more than makes up for it.

    And I really dont think you need a Gold Glover in LF in order to win.

    • Defensive stats are just a small tool and arent an absolute.

      Yes.

      The real test is the eyball test.

      WRONG WRONG WRONG WRONG WRONG.

      Not only it is wrong, it’s also moot. Defensive stats are just the agglomeration of lots of “eyeball tests”, only without any personal bias or human memory error.

      • pete says:

        well it depends, actually. If you are capable of judging a player without bias, and keep track of everything, like a scout would, except you focus only on that player, and watch every play that player makes all season, for a couple seasons, all while taking down notes and keeping track of them, you could probably make a better assessment of a player’s overall defensive ability (provided you have a good understanding of what is important as far as defense goes – i.e. how to properly weight arm strength, range, error-making-ness, etc) than any statistic could. That said, chances are, you aren’t, you won’t, you can’t, and you don’t.
        Of course when hit/fx and/or field/fx technology is installed everywhere, all of this will be moot, because defensive evaluation will become at least as easily evaluated via computer-tracked statistics as offensive evaluation.

  20. let matsui go says:

    The Yankees absolutely need to let Matsui go so that they can begin to pay damon (if they keep him) at dh. I don’t care what the defensive numbers say, damon has always been awful defensively in LF. His arm is atrocious and he always takes awful routes to the ball after taking bad breaks off the bat. I think the yankees need to pray that Minnesota sigs mauer to an exension so the red sox don’t sigj him. The best option for the Yankees is playing in tampa. If Crawford is available in a trade, I would pay extra to get tampa to trade him in the division. If he was a FA right now I am sure the Yankees would be keying in on him over holliday or bay. He is a tremendous defender with really solid offense and spectacular speed. If he is available in a trade come july the Yankees need to pounce. He would be the absolute perfect fit on the Yankees.

  21. themgmt says:

    Damon spent much of 2009 out of position. Shaded towards the line too much.

  22. Reacher says:

    The “eyeball” test often is not borne out by the stats…but in this instance it clearly is. Casting aside for a moment, the egregious plays, and they were memorable, every play was an adventure…there was always doubt as to whether the ball would be caught however routine it was. His eye to hand coodination is now dubious, at best, if not shot altogether; rarely, if ever did he catch the ball in the conventional fashion, often sticking out his glove at the last moment, to his left or right, leaving the issue most always in doubt. It may be “fluttering” or not running on the balls of his feet, but he was consistent. Going back to the wall was also an adventure, jumping too early, too late or not at all. Damon, most simply put, is no longer a “professional” leftfielder; his presence in the field is an insult to the hallowed game.

  23. Reacher says:

    I should add that his “arm” required no comment for the rather obvious reasons.

  24. [...] at five of the seven non-pitcher & catcher spots this year. Johnny Damon’s unexpected nosedive off the defensive cliff is the glaring exception, although Alex Rodriguez also went backwards a bit last year, likely due [...]

  25. [...] bring you back. But let’s be realistic. You’re 36, and 36-year-old outfielders who are declining in the field don’t get to sign a multi-year deal without some sort of pay [...]

  26. [...] a cliff in 2009, as he went from a 6.7 UZR over 659.1 innings to a -9.2 UZR in 1,117.2 innings. I looked all over for evidence that UZR was wrong, but didn’t find much. Even the scouting view, courtesy of Keith Law, doesn’t favor [...]

  27. [...] his defense. It was pretty bad in 2009, both by scouting and by statistical standards. I tried to find a glimmer of hope, but was unsuccessful (Keith Law even added a negative scouting report to supplement the numbers). [...]

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