Decisions, decisions, decisions. For the Yankees, with a few key older players hitting free agency, this winter is chock full of them. None of the choices the team will have to make is more fraught with emotion and potential impact than the one that looms regarding Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon.
By many accounts, the Yankees will try to bring back one of their two left-handed bats but not both. Right now, Matsui is the sentimental choice. Rebounding from an injury-plagued 2008, he had a stellar 2009 and single-handedly beat Pedro Martinez and the Phillies to help the Yanks clinch the decided Game 6 of the World Series. Damon, on the other hand, stole two bases on one play earlier in the World Series. He is in better physical shape than Matsui and represents a combination of speed and power atop the Yankee lineup.
So let’s try to answer it: If we had to pick one, which player would we resign: Hideki Matsui or Johnny Damon?
To start, let’s look at these two players’ offensive contributions this year. Although their individual contributions differ in style, in sum these two players are nearly identical. On the season, Damon hit .282/.365/.489 with 24 home runs and 36 doubles in 626 plate appearances. Matsui hit .274/.367/.509 with 28 home runs and 21 doubles in 526 plate appearances. Matsui outslugged Damon, but the Yanks’ left fielder went 12 for 12 in stolen base attempts. Eleven of those were steals of second, and as Matsui stole no bases this year, Damon’s speed is a plus.
On a contributory level, the numbers are awfully identically. Damon had a runs created per 27 outs of 6.8 while Matsui produced a 7.1 mark. Damon was 25.3 batting runs above average while Matsui was at 22.1, mostly due to the variance in playing time. Since that number is position-neutral though, we can’t gloss over the fact that Matsui is limited to DH duties. More on that later.
Drilling down on their respective positions through Baseball Prospectus’ Positional Marginal Value rate (PMLVr), Matsui’s offensive production begins to take the lead. His PMLVr was 0.164 while Damon’s was 0.124. The Yankees may want to use the rotating DH as a way to rest aging regulars next year, but Matsui as a good full-time DH offered the Yankees a lot of offensive value in 2009. However, on the position-dependent VORP scale, Damon (39.3) bested Matsui (33.4), but Matsui’s total was 11 VORP points above Jim Thome. Johnny was among the elite-hitting left fielders last year, but with Matt Holliday and Jason Bay out there, it’s far easier to replace Damon than it is Matsui.
On the defensive scale, the pendulum swings toward Matsui simply because Damon’s defense created a liability in left. Joe will have more about Damon’s defense later tonight. For now, I will just note that Damon’s fielding runs above average was -9.2. That total ranked him seventh worst among all Major League left fielders. Matsui, on the other hand, never had to play defense. The Yankees may have gained roster flexibility with Damon, but the numbers suggest that he shouldn’t be out in the field too often.
Damon’s defense, though, did not drop his value below that of Matsui’s. According to Fangraphs’ value figures, Damon gave the Yanks $13.6 million in production in 2009 while Matsui gave the team $11 million. The left fielder outperformed his contract value while the DH underperformed, albeit slightly.
Age and a Conclusion
Finally, we arrive at the age analysis and a few final thoughts. As hard as it is to believe, Damon is actually seven months older than Hideki Matsui. Yet, he hasn’t had the same physical problems with his knees as Matsui had and still has. Both players are at the age, though, where they can easily fall off a cliff production-wise. In fact, PECOTA pegged Damon for a 278/.352/.420/8 HR season, and he beat his 75th percentile projections. Matsui beat his 90th percentile projections. What this means for the future is more uncertainty. The two could stil be productive or they could crash and burn in 2010.
If the Yankees, then, are committed to keeping one, logic would lead me to take Damon over Matsui even if my emotions say otherwise. (I have, after all, always been a fan of Matsui’s.) Although a liability in the field, Damon is still physically capable of playing left, and he can still run. His 12 stolen base attempts were the fewest he made since 1995, but that has more to do with his role as a two hitter than anything else. His 12-for-12 mark in that category is what counts.
There is, however, a rub. I wouldn’t sign Damon to be the left fielder. Instead, I would ask Damon to DH. His production is in line with that of Matsui’s, and at Yankee Stadium, he has the power to man the DH spot and could fill in at left when needed. The right replacement left fielder could help the team recover from the loss of Matsui as well.
In the end, though, if the Yanks are thinking properly and Damon is expected to DH, there isn’t a wrong choice. The team shouldn’t go into Spring Training without a big bat in the DH spot. A lineup sporting one of Francisco Cervelli, Ramiro Pena, Jerry Hairston, Jr., or Brett Gardner every day would represent a significant downgrade over the 2009 team. So pick your poison. Just pick it for the designated hitter spot.