An alternate title for this post could be “why won’t Delmon Young DH?” since the questions have the same answer. If we look at what has changed in the game of baseball – at least from a front-office perspective – since the ‘end’ of the steroid era in 2005 a couple of things leap out at you: a renewed focus on defense and increasing concerns about age-related decline. Johnny Damon falls afoul of both new emphases – though since Jamey Carroll not only got a contract but a two-year deal at 38 I have to figure it’s mostly the defense.
Those things make perfect sense as reactions to the new, clean era – players were no longer able to use PEDs to overcome the nagging injuries and aches and pains that help to cause that age-related decline and defense would seem to count for a lot more when balls tend to stay in the park. What we have also seen – going hand in hand with that focus on defense – is the proliferation and refinement of advanced metrics for measuring a players defensive contributions, in a sense the ‘final frontier’ of statistical analysis in baseball. It is likely that the new metrics have helped to create that focus on defense, since understanding defense better might give your franchise a short-term competitive edge (a la Moneyball).
I would suspect that these measures – which put defense on an equal and comparable footing to measures of a players offensive contribution – have definitely reinforced the growing perception that defense is actually quite important. It becomes harder for a stat-head to argue that defense and speed don’t count for much relative to power if the gap between the best defensive third baseman and the worst is estimated at a full four wins. I’m less convinced that the people making big decisions about personnel have come to really trust the accuracy of these measures like they might trust that a players OPS accurately reflects what he adds with his bat. Part of this might be due to the fact that different metrics often give different results, since they may be calculated in very different ways, but I doubt that this ‘trust’ is very strong even when the metrics agree. After all, Derek Jeter was awarded a Gold Glove (again) in 2010 for defense which all these advanced metrics agree was pretty unimpressive.
So baseball now may be a world in which GMs univerally agree that good defense is important, but don’t trust any assessment of a players glove that hasn’t come from watching the man play day-in, day-out with their very own eyes. That means that the guys who know how good a player is on defense run (or manage, or scout for, etc…) the team that he plays for – and everybody else may be largely in the dark. In the field of economics, we call this situation one of “asymmetric information” in that not all parties share the knowledge equally (in which case it would be symmetric). In a world of asymmetric information, those who lack it will be constantly alert to signals sent by those who have it which – consciously or unconsciously – may reveal what they know.
Which brings me to Johnny Damon (and Delmon Young)… the strongest possible signal that a manager can send, whether he intends to or not, about a player’s defensive abilities is to use him as a designated hitter. There may be non-defensive reasons for DHing a guy: maybe he’s the only one who can do it without letting it impact his hitting – after all, not everybody seems to be able to make that adjustment. Maybe you’re worried about injury risks. Maybe you’re trying to avoid a confrontation with other players who are terrible in the field but don’t want to DH, so you DH the guy who doesn’t complain. But those aren’t the most likely reasons to DH a guy and they don’t affect how the signal will be perceived. The managers job is to put the best team on the field that he can and the rational thing for him to do is to use the DH to get his worst defender off of the field.
Johnny Damon spent a lot of time at DH for the Tigers in 2010. He spent a lot of time at DH for the Rays last year. Altogether, he hasn’t played a huge number of games in the outfield since 2009. Now he’s looking for a job and he’s stuck pigeon-holed as a DH – and teams are turning him down for any other opportunity claiming to need a player who can contribute defensively. And remember, a lot of guys with bad gloves wind up playing somewhere at least part time. We aren’t talking about ‘contributing defensively’ in terms of playing above-average left field, we’re talking about contributing defensively by being able to play in the field at all. Perception of Damon seems to be that he cannot, or at the very least should not, wear a glove at all.
Is that fair? In most cases of guys regarded as DHs and DHs only, you wouldn’t even have to ask. Adam Dunn – according to any measure you like – was appallingly bad in the field, even as a first baseman. You could be forgiven for assuming that this is always the case for a DH and that this was the case for Mr. Damon. But it isn’t. Damon has a known and easily observable weak arm for an outfielder, but he has good instincts and covers a lot of ground. Over his career as a whole, he wasn’t a very good center fielder – but as a corner outfielder he has been quite good. By Defensive Runs Saved, Damon was 5 runs above average in half-a-season as the Yankees left fielder in 2008, and 1 run above average as their full-time left fielder in 2009. Nonetheless, as a free agent after the 2009 season he wound up taking the Tigers offer to DH for a should-have-been contender. He played only 37 games in the field for Detroit in 2010 – and was statistically above average by DRS, UZR or any other metric you prefer. Still, the Tigers cut him lose to focus on younger outfielders and upgrade the offense at the DH position with Victor Martinez. The only teams interested were those looking for a veteran DH and Damon wound up signing with the Rays for a pittance. In 2011 he played a grand total of 84 innings in the field. While he was, finally, below average in the field by any relevant measure – we’re talking about about a really tiny sample size. It’s possible that – with age – Damon’s defense was and is significantly worse than in 2008-2010. I’m not so sure – he stole 19 bases last year, stayed healthy and put up a ‘speed’ stat (a function mainly of steals and legging out extra bases) of 6.1 – higher than in 2009 or 2010.
The fact remains: no jobs for Damon. GMs need good defense and Damon “can’t” help with that. I’m not so sure that in his case he actually can’t, but it’s hard to argue that he isn’t seen that way. Since that perception doesn’t seem to be very closely related to the numbers, I’ll have to assume that (unless GMs value arms over legs) the signal that has been sent by using Damon as a DH is to blame. After all, the ‘butcher’ in the outfield for the 2010 Tigers was Magglio Ordonez – who cost the team 10 runs relative to an average right fielder (prior to his injury). Maggs didn’t want to be a full-time DH, though, and I doubt anybody felt like simply ordering him to do it.
And as for Delmon Young: GMs around the league have, I’m sure, heard rumors of weak defense even if they don’t trust stats like DRS, UZR, TZL, RZR, etc… But the one guy who really ought to know, Jim Leyland, keeps putting him out there in left so he can’t be that bad. Right? Now Johnny Damon, on the other hand, was a guy Leyland didn’t trust to go out there and neither did manager-of-the-year Joe Maddon. He must be pretty awful. Right? From Young’s perspective, becoming the Tigers full-time DH (which is probably in the best interests of the team) would be akin to a career death sentence – knocking him from ‘not plus fielder’ to ‘not able to contribute defensively’ in the minds of GMs around the league prior to his upcoming free agent offseason. Young isn’t a bad hitter, but to get a good deal as a full-time DH (and if you start DHing, it doesn’t seem like you can go back) you have to hit a ton.