After all the pomp and circumstances that surrounded Derek Jeter’s pursuit of the milestone, have the Yankees had their fill of players approaching 3,000 hits? According to Joel Sherman, one of the main reasons the Yankees have shied away from a reunion with Johnny Damon is because the veteran is only 277 hits from reaching the lofty plateau. However, what has the Yankees turning up their nose isn’t the potential distraction, but the perception that Damon has made achieving the accomplishment too much of a priority.
In his column, Sherman cites Damon’s declining walk rate and increased tendency to chase balls out of the zone as corroboration for the belief that the veteran has abandoned a patient approach in order to help expedite his pursuit of 3,000 hits? In other words, Damon’s anxiousness to cement his legacy has taken precedence over his obligations to the team. If the premise is true, Damon would be guilty of the ultimate sin in team sports: putting his own accomplishments ahead of winning ballgames.
Does the evidence support the notion that Damon’s approach at the plate has become too focused on reaching 3,000 hits? It’s hard to refute the significant decline in his walk rate, but it’s worth pointing out that his 2011 percentage isn’t completely out of line with other seasons from his career. Also, the league as a whole saw its walk rate decline from 8.5% in 2010 to 8.1% in 2011, so at least some of Damon’s drop off can be attributed to the men he was facing on the mound. In his own defense, Damon cited some tough calls as reason for aggressiveness, but regardless, the veteran hitter did have fewer walks in 2011.
The most compelling evidence provided by Sherman was the increase in the rate of Damon’s swings at balls out of the zone, which, at 31.3%, was 10 points higher than his career norm and marked the third consecutive increase. However, the figures to which Sherman referred were based on BIS data, which some believe isn’t exactly reliable. Just below the presentation of BIS, fangraphs also provides similar measures based on pitch/FX data (since 2007), and on this basis, the rate at which Damon expanded the strike zone didn’t change dramatically. So, if pitch/FX is to be believed, the case against Damon’s me-first approach loses some steam.
There’s no question that Damon’s on-base percentage took a meaningful hit because of fewer walks, but the evidence available simply isn’t strong enough to suggest the drop off was the residue of his designs on 3,000 hits. Even if one-year’s worth of data supported such an accusation, it would still be irresponsible to make, especially considering the small samples involved and Damon’s long standing reputation for being a team player. If the Yankees are really making plans for 2012 based on what amounts to conjecture, their motives are worthy of being scrutinized a lot more closely than Damon’s.