6 Reasons Why Johnny Damon Will Jumpstart the Cleveland Indians Offense
Two weeks after failing to finalize a deal to acquire veteran outfielder Bobby Abreu, the Cleveland Indians have brought Johnny Damon into the fold. To some fans, this may seem like a minor move, as Damon’s contract maxes out at just $1.4 million and includes an exit clause upon the potential return of ex-star Grady Sizemore. Furthermore, at 38 years old, it’s not irrational to question how much Damon has left in the tank.
While the deal itself may appear insignificant on the surface, Johnny Damon will make a positive impact on the Tribe from the first day he suits up in a Cleveland uniform. Here are six reasons why.
1.) He Provides an Offensive Spark
Take a look at Johnny Damon’s career numbers. Apart from the well-documented fact that he’s just 277 hits shy of 3,000, Damon’s stats are solid across the board.
In his 16 full seasons, he’s never played less than 141 games a year. Damon has a career .286 BA and .353 OBP to go with 404 steals at a very respectable 80 percent stolen base percentage (404-507). He’s scored 100+ runs a season 10 times in his career, and has 231 home runs, a surprisingly high number for a career leadoff man not usually thought of as a power hitter.
As a 37-year-old DH for the Rays, Damon hit 16 HR and 73 RBI, with 19 SB and a .261 BA in 2011.
For the Indians, who’re dead last in baseball with a team batting average under the Mendoza line, Damon’s offensive contributions are just what the doctor ordered.
2.) He’s a Better Leadoff Option Than Michael Brantley
Outfielder Michael Brantley has gotten off to a horrendous start, and been incapable of getting on base. After proving himself as one of the team’s better hitters in 2011, some have predicted a breakout season from the 24-year-old.
While Brantley’s ’11 stats don’t adequately reflect his approach or plate discipline—he works counts as well as anyone on the team, and has a good eye at the plate—the numbers don’t lie when it comes down to the facts: he doesn’t get on base enough to merit his spot atop the order.
For his career, Brantley is a .273 hitter with a .317 OBP when hitting leadoff. A closer look at the splits, however reveals some disturbing stats for a top of the order guy. When leading off an inning, Brantley has hit just .218, with an OBP of .274. Comparatively, over the last three seasons, Damon has hit .312 with a .394 OBP when leading off an inning.
I’m not arguing that Damon should or could take Brantley’s place, because at his age, Damon can no longer man center field. At this point, however, Brantley has done nothing to prove he’s more worthy of holding onto the leadoff spot. Consider Brantley’s career slash line with runners on base: .326/.370/.426 or—even more telling—his career numbers with RISP: .309/.363.424. These stats lead one to believe that the Tribe would be better served with Brantley hitting lower in the order.
3.) He Hits Left-Handed Pitching Well
It’s no secret that the Tribe has tended to struggle against left-handed pitching, and this is another area where Damon’s bat will help. While Damon himself is also left-handed, he’s historically handled left-handed pitching well. In 2011, he hit .277 with a .354 OBP against lefties. Over the last three seasons, his splits against lefties are almost identical to righties:
Against LHP, 2009-2011: .274/.349/.431
Against RHP, 2009-2011: .270/.348/.437
Now compare these numbers to those of fellow Tribe outfielders Michael Brantley and Shelley Duncan.
Against LHP, 2009-2011: .230/.294/.278
Against RHP, 2009-2011: .278/.324/.389
Against LHP, 2009-2011: .254/.324/.426
Against RHP, 2009-2011: .237/.311/.456
Clearly, Brantley’s sub-par numbers against left-handed pitching don’t merit running him out there everyday. The Tribe will face many lefties in the AL Central, as currently, the Royals have three lefties in their rotation, the White Sox and Tigers each have two, and the Twins have one.
If the Indians are going to have success against pitchers like John Danks, Bruce Chen, and Francisco Liriano in 2012, they need to field their best left-handed hitting lineup. Replacing Brantley with Damon in the leadoff spot against lefties will help.
4.) He Provides Lineup Flexibility
Although Damon has been a leadoff hitter for most of his career, he’s spent the last three season with the Yankees, Tigers and Rays hitting out of the two hole. Again, the consistency of his numbers reveals why Damon is closing in on 3,000 career hits. Over the past three seasons hitting second, he’s produced a respectable .269/.348/.446 slash line. Compare that with Asdrubal Cabrera’s numbers hitting second over the same time span 295/.343/.444, and you’ll see Damon still has plenty of game left.
Noting Damon’s success hitting lefties, Acta has a variety of options to juggle his lineup.
Against LHP, Damon can either hit leadoff or second, with the Tribe’s "super-utility man" Jason Donald manning center field and leading off. Regardless if Donald is new to the position or not, the addition of Damon makes Aaron Cunningham instantly expendable, and that news couldn’t be more welcome for Tribe fans. With Damon in the fold and Jose Lopez brought in as another right-handed utility infielder, Donald should get his chances to learn center. He’s a smart ball player and athletic enough to handle the transition.
If Manny wants to keep Damon in the lineup against RHP, he can bat leadoff and move Brantley to the bottom third of the order. Ideally, the lineups could look something like this:
Against RHP: Damon, Cabrera, Choo, Hafner, Santana (hits almost 100 points higher when hitting fifth than fourth for his career), Kipnis (he need more at-bats than Kotchman), Brantley, Kotchman, Hannahan
Against LHP: Donald (CF), Damon (DH), Cabrera (SS, hits LHP and RHP about equally), Santana (1B, hits LHP well), Choo (RF, doesn’t hit LHP as well as RHP) Duncan (LF), Hannahan (3B), Lopez (2B), Marson
5.) He Maximizes Shelley Duncan’s Utility as a Platoon/Bench Player
While Damon wasn’t brought in to be the everyday LF, his offensive production will make it difficult for Manny Acta to bench him in favor of Shelley Duncan. Damon’s OBP is the most glaring stat, and will prove the most beneficial for an Indians’ lineup that’s been overly reliant on the long-ball to score runs.
While Duncan ultimately provides a greater power potential, the Tribe needs players who can get on base and manufacture runs. They simply don’t have the offensive firepower to contend with the Tigers, Royals and White Sox in the home run column. Their offense needs to measure its success on its ability to produce runs, and that begins and ends with having guys who’re able to get on base.
Ultimately, power potential or not, Shelley Duncan has just that, potential. A red hot September in 2011 turned many fans onto his intrigue, but he’s never played more than half a major league season. Production comes down to track record, and his doesn’t belong in the same sentence as Damon’s. Comparing the two would be an insult to the potential Hall of Famer.
6. He’s a Winner Who Will Positively Alter the Clubhouse
Apart from the offensive contributions and lineup diversity that Damon will provide, perhaps the most valuable aspect he’ll provide is winning experience.
I’m never one to tout the utility of "clubhouse character" or "veteran leadership" because in today’s world of professional sports, both are more cliche maxims than credible credentials. Playing experience doesn’t mean much if it hasn’t been marked by winning and success.
In Damon’s case, however, two of his best offensive seasons resulted in World Series championships with the Red Sox in 2004 and the Yankees in 2009. Damon was an invaluable member of both teams, as what BoSox or Bombers fan could forget his game-changing grand slam in Game 7 of the ’04 ALCS?
Pure and simple, Damon is a winner and a great player. For a young Tribe team loaded with potential but void of real winning experience, (only Cabrera, Hafner, Sizemore and Raffy Perez remain from the ’07 squad that came within a hair of the World Series), Damon’s resume will prove a valuable asset.
Damon’s addition alone won’t enable the Tribe to rise to the top of the AL Central, but it could very easily be the jump start the Indians offense needs to get going. The Indians have the pitching to compete in 2012, and with a player like Damon in the fold, their offense could regain some of the timely hitting that made it a contender in 2011.