Johnny Damon vs. Nick Johnson: Who Is a Better No. 2 Hitter?

GregCorrespondent IFebruary 8, 2010

PHILADELPHIA - NOVEMBER 02:  Johnny Damon #18 of the New York Yankees hits a broken bat ground out to drive in Eric Hinske in the top of the fifth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies in Game Five of the 2009 MLB World Series at Citizens Bank Park on November 2, 2009 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
Nick Laham/Getty Images

It's all but official that Nick Johnson will be the No. 2 hitter in the Yankees lineup, taking Johnny Damon's place in that spot. There are many fans who aren't sold on the idea of putting Johnson in the two-hole, and wanted the Yankees to re-sign Damon so he could be plugged back in there.

Their thinking is that while Johnson has superior on-base skills, his speed (or lack thereof) will do the team damage in the two-hole. Last season, the Yankees switched Damon and Derek Jeter in the lineup and one of the reasons was that Jeter was hitting into too many double plays.

Damon, on the other hand, is one of the best players in the majors at avoiding double plays. On average, batters hit into double plays in around 11 percent of their double play opportunities. For his career, Damon has only hit into double plays in five percent of his chances.

The switch was definitely successful in this regard. Damon had a career-high 160 double play opportunities and hit into only nine double plays (5.6 percent). Jeter had only 106 opportunities and still hit into 18 double plays (17 percent).

Basically, if the Yankees didn't switch them and they had faced the other's double play opportunities instead, they would have combined for 33 double plays instead of 27. While this isn't a huge number, it makes a difference. On average, a double play costs a team .35 runs. So, it seems that this switch netted the Yankees 2.1 runs, just based on double plays. This isn't especially substantial, it's important for teams to find runs wherever they can.

Now let's bring the newly-acquired Johnson into play. Johnson is the ideal No. 2 hitter for statheads everywhere. Last season, he put together an absurd .426 OBP, good for third in the majors. It's unlikely he'll post such an impressive number again in 2010, but getting on base has always been Johnson's specialty.

Damon is no slouch in that department either, as he got on base at a .365 clip last season. As we all know, just using last season's numbers is not an effective way to project a player going forward.

CHONE projects that Johnson will put up a .392 OBP in 2010 while Damon will have a .357 OBP. While getting on base is extremely important, I wanted to see if Damon's other prowess make up for the big OBP gap between the two players.

I prorated each of their CHONE batting lines to 600 plate appearances and got that Damon projects to be worth 10 runs above average and Johnson projects to be around 20 runs above average, so he has a nice 10-run advantage here.

Now, on to baserunning. Johnson is known as a very slow runner, and that's an accurate description. Damon has always been quick, but he only stole 12 bases in 2009. I'm sure part of this is based on the fact that you don't want to risk getting caught stealing when Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez are coming up behind you. In terms of total baserunning value, Damon gains some runs back.

Using a simple MARCEL-like 5-4-3 projection with some regression of the two players eqBRR, I get that Damon has around a four-run edge on the bases. Cut Johnson's advantage down to six runs now.

Getting back to where we started, Damon stands to make up some more ground because of his superb ability to avoid the double play. Looking at their career numbers on Baseball-Reference, I'd say it's fair to make a rough estimate that Damon will hit into a double play in six percent of his opportunities and Johnson will in 12 percent of his.

The player hitting second in the Yankees' lineup is sure to see a ton of double play opportunities, but there's no real way of knowing how many. I'm just going to put the number at 150, slightly below the number Damon had last season.

Using that -.35 linear weight and the 11 percent average, we find that Damon projects to be around 2.5 runs above average and Johnson looks to be about a half a run below average. Put it all together and here's what we get:

When the Yankees signed Johnson, I assumed he would be a huge upgrade over Damon batting second because of his 35 point edge in OBP, but it just isn't that cut and dry. The numbers tell me it is way closer than I thought, but they still bear out the fact that Johnson is the better option for the Yankees.

There are still some people who would prefer Damon to Johnson in the two-spot, but the numbers suggest that's the wrong move. As I said earlier, teams need to find ways to add runs in any little way they can. Just from an offense and lineup perspective, the Yankees did just that by signing Nick Johnson to be their number two hitter.

Thanks to Daniel  of Camden Crazies  and Matt K.  of FanGraphs  for some help with these numbers. Also, I feel like I may have just put some numbers in here without fully explaining them. I didn't want to overwhelm the piece with numbers, so if you have any questions about my methodology just let me know and I'll elaborate.

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