When I was looking over the stats for my recent Hall of Fame ballot article, an unexpected player gave me pause. I had never really considered Johnny Damon a Hall of Famer, or even particularly close. But as it turns out, it’s a lot easier for me to envision a case for him than I thought.
But first, a short diversion, because there’s a second part to this that may have changed my thinking. I also recently covered the paucity of Hall inductees at third base, particularly in comparison to the other positions. If you remember from that piece, third base (and catcher) are pretty underrepresented in Cooperstown, but there’s some other weirdness afoot as well. Center field just happens to be one of the locations of that other weirdness.
It’s not strikingly obvious though, like third base is. It’s small stuff that adds up. For example, they have the third fewest representatives in the Hall at just nineteen (third base and catcher had thirteen and fifteen, respectively), while every other position sits at 20 or more. If you use JAWS, Jay Jaffe’s system for studying Hall-worthiness across positions, center fielders have the second highest average JAWS after right field. In my article from last time, I noted that center also tied with third base for the most not-elected “second tier” players (check that earlier link for a fuller explanation). And when I measured out the number of players at each position who hit 60 and 50 WAR without making the Hall, center field had the second and third highest percentages, respectively.
On top of all of that, though, was their “middle”; when I divided inducted Hall of Famers at each position into upper, middle, and lower thirds based on WAR, the top of the “middle” third for center field was right in line with everyone else’s, at 66.5. But the lower end of that same middle third was just 49.5, closer to catchers (who see lower WAR totals due to less playing time) than any of the other positions, who sit in the mid-50s for the most part.
Look at the JAWS rankings for the position, for a sort of way to visualize this. The top seven center fielders are all in the Hall, and they’re the legends of the game: Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Mickey Mantle, Ken Griffey, Joe DiMaggio
, and Duke Snider. Then, we see four players who aren’t in, and it’s sort of a mixed bag. Mike Trout is still active and will almost certainly raise himself into that top tier. In contrast, Kenny Lofton didn’t even stay on the ballot for a year, and Andruw Jones is too close to call on that matter. Carlos Beltran is also there, and I have no idea how voters will treat him; I used to think he’d be snubbed, but public perceptions seemed to flip his last few seasons (thankfully), and I saw more and more people referring to him as a Future Hall of Famer.
Then, we get three straight inductees, between Richie Ashburn, Andre Dawson, and Billy Hamilton. That’s a bit more controversial bunch; Dawson took nine tries to get inducted, Ashburn didn’t make it in fifteen tries but made it on a Veterans Committee ballot, and Hamilton retired way back in 1901 and wasn’t in the initial rush of inductees but became one of the earlier VC picks back in the 1960s. After that, we see a run of six straight center fielders, none of whom got much love in Hall voting: Jim Edmonds, Willie Davis, Jim Wynn, Vada Pinson, Cesar Cedeno, Chet Lemon. It’s kind of disappointing, actually, once you consider that we’ve only covered half of the position’s Hall of Famers. Of course, considering that the middle three in between the two sets of unelected players were only elected after extended campaigns, that seems to lend itself to the conclusion that Hall voters aren’t entirely sure how to identify the best Hall of Famers outside of the absolute best of the best.
Anyway, after that long stretch, we see Hall of Famers Larry Doby and Kirby Puckett sandwiching Johnny Damon. Of course, Doby and Puckett both have extenuating circumstances helping them (Doby’s status as a trailblazer, Puckett’s health forcing him into early retirement). Damon doesn’t really have those things in his favor. Of course, at the same time, this also means that he’s ahead of eight of the nineteen. Hall of Famers at his position.
That’s not the sort of thing that demands immediate induction, for sure, especially given that five of the six players right ahead of him spent one or fewer years on the ballot*, but it does give me pause. On a more sensible ballot, one without silly ten-player limits, Damon might be the type of player who at least deserves a few years of hanging around in the discussion.
*Vada Pinson went the full fifteen years. On the flip side, Jim Wynn might be the best player to never receive a vote from the BBWAA, and Willie Davis might be the best player to never even appear on the ballot.
So, if we were trying to make a Hall case for Johnny, what would that case look like? It would probably have to start with his hit total of 2769. The only eligible players with more hits who aren’t in are Rafael Palmeiro, Barry Bonds, and Harold Baines. It puts him sixth among all center fielders.*
*Of course, some of this is selective endpoints. There are three center fielders who are within 70 hits of Damon who haven’t been inducted, in Pinson, Al Oliver, and Doc Cramer.
The hits totals are probably the strongest thing on the resume. He’s 32nd all-time in runs scored at 1668, trailing just Bonds among eligible non-Hall members. He reached base 3956 times, 57th all-time and 11th among eligible players not inducted. He stole 408 bases, and at a roughly 80% rate, both very solid. He hit 522 doubles, tied for 48th all-time. He picked up a lot of value in playing time; Damon got more plate appearances than all but five players who were primarily center fielders.
And of course, you could always argue for intangibles. I’ve sort of come around on that front; I don’t think “intangibles” should be the leading point on any Hall of Famer’s resume, but I think they’re more than fair to bring up for more borderline players. Damon was recognizable, a notable star on one of the more famous teams of all-time, and a two-time champion. His postseason stats were basically in-line with his career numbers, which isn’t nothing, and he was especially good in 2004 and 2009.
All in all, I find him an interesting candidate who leaves me feeling conflicted. He was fun to watch play, which makes me feel a little invested in his case. He wouldn’t be the worst inductee at his position, and you could probably even argue that he’s better than about half of the center fielders already in Cooperstown, but at the same time, if you put me in charge of electing any five center fielders I want to the Hall right now, Damon wouldn’t even make my shortlist. If he was picking up a groundswell of support that players like Kenny Lofton, Jim Edmonds, and Andruw Jones didn’t see, I might be more irritated, but the BBWAA at least seems consistent on that front, so it’s kind of a non-issue; I can weigh Damon’s merits independent of how he stacks up to other snubs. And right now, I’d say he’s right at the borderline with guys like Bernie Williams and Dale Murphy, and it’s a bit of a shame the crowded ballot means he has no chance to even hit 5% and stick around a few years.