Tigers not getting 2009 version of Damon

February, 20, 2010

Throughout the 13-plus weeks that he was available on the free-agent market, Johnny Damon was a player many claimed needed the New York Yankees more than the Yankees needed him.

We're about to determine the validity of that statement.

Damon will sign a one-year, $8 million contract with the Detroit Tigers, pending a physical, a league source told ESPN's Karl Ravech. ESPN The Magazine's Buster Olney also notes that none of the $8 million is deferred, so for a player who lingered on the free-agent market noticeably longer than comparable talents, Damon actually makes out pretty well with the deal. He'll take over as the Tigers' everyday left fielder and leadoff hitter, according to the Detroit News.

But concerns that shedding the pinstripes will hurt Damon's value are valid, and if there's anyone that can build you a case that Damon did indeed need the Yankees, it's an astute fantasy owner. Statistics are our focus, and it's his numbers that build the case that his value should suffer with the move to Detroit.

That goes beyond the mere fact Damon hit 17 of his 24 home runs last season at new Yankee Stadium, or rumblings that the Yankees' new home ballpark is one of the more hitter-friendly environments in all of baseball. The latter, in fact, isn't entirely true; Yankee Stadium over the course of the season proved homer-friendly, but it wasn't necessarily hit- or run-friendly.

What matters, regarding Damon's power numbers, is that he averaged 16 home runs per year in the four seasons prior to last season, and 18 during his first three seasons in pinstripes, numbers that underscore the fact he's, simply put, not a 24-homer hitter. In his 14 full big league seasons he has averaged 15 homers a year, and that's including 2009, and if you look at his fly ball rates, 2009 (42.3 percent of all balls in play) represented the only season, in the eight seasons in which Fangraphs.com provided that data, in which he hit more fly balls than anything else, not to mention had a fly ball rate greater than 40 percent.

Hittrackeronline.com provides some interesting data about the Yankees' new ballpark, in fact, pointing out that Damon hit three home runs there that would not have been homers at the team's previous home. That tied him with Jorge Posada and Mark Teixeira for the team lead. Damon also had five homers the site classified as "just enough," trailing only Derek Jeter (7) and Alex Rodriguez (6).

In addition, it's important to note that Yankee Stadium tended to be at its most homer-friendly in the early weeks of the season; the Yankees and their opponents averaged 3.78 home runs per game there in the months of April and May, compared to 2.59 the remainder of the season. Damon belted seven of his homers in 22 home games in April and May (one per 3.14 games), and 10 in 51 the rest of the year (one per 5.10). Let the weathermen decide whether the temperatures or the wind were responsible for the absurd early season offensive numbers if they wish, but the bottom line is that the early season offensive numbers were absurd -- and Damon clearly capitalized, padding his homer and RBI totals.

So what might he do in Detroit? Comerica Park isn't exactly a pitchers' haven -- at least not to the levels it was in its early days -- but it's indeed a drop-off in terms of the Park Factor. Or, more accurately, it's a drop-off from Yankee Stadium's 2009 numbers, and that's what counts. To say Damon is a better bet for 14 homers than 24 in Detroit isn't any stretch, and it'd be foolish to ignore that the three players likely to bat seventh, eighth and ninth, Brandon Inge, Gerald Laird and Adam Everett, had on-base percentages of .314, .306 and .288 last season. Considering Damon had Jeter (.406) batting ahead of him, and often Melky Cabrera (.336) in either the eight or nine hole, it's also likely Damon's RBI total will suffer.

To that point: Curtis Granderson batted leadoff 130 times for the 2009 Tigers, and he managed 71 RBIs overall despite hitting 30 homers. That's 11 fewer RBIs than Damon had, despite six more home runs.

A 15-homer, 70-RBI campaign with 20-steal potential does still have value in fantasy, but it paints Damon into a middle-round/third- or fourth-outfielder role in mixed formats. You shouldn't be paying for his 2009 statistics; you should probably be paying between 80-85 percent in value. Damon finished 78th on our Player Rater, but more likely he should land somewhere in the 125 range in 2010.

A final worry: Damon's eroding outfield defense, particularly his weak throwing arm that almost guarantees runners score from second on singles, will be a minus for the Tigers' pitchers. If their strand rates take a slight hit, which would rear its ugly head with a small uptick in ERA, don't be at all surprised.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.



You must be signed in to post a comment

Already have an account?