How Johnny Damon Might Make it Into the Hall of Fame

Johnny Damon who is still a useful player, if no longer a star, will be playing for the Cleveland Indians this year while he will continue his quest for 3,000 hits. Damon is now only 277 hits away from that milestone. Although he got almost 300 hits during 2010 and 2011, it is likely that if Damon continues to play it will be in a reduced role, but that he will still pick up his 3,000th sometime in 2014, after at least two more full seasons.

If Damon gets his 3,000th hit, his candidacy for the Hall of Fame will have to be revisited and taken seriously. There are currently 28 players with 3,000 hits. All of them are in the Hall of Fame except for Pete Rose who has lost his eligibility, Derek Jeter and Craig Biggio who have not yet appeared on a Hall of Fame ballot, but are very strong candidates, and Rafael Palmeiro who is stuck in steroid purgatory.

The 3,000 hit milestone, has not been as effected by steroid use as the 500 home run mark, so Palmeiro aside, it has remained almost a guarantee of Hall of Fame selection. Should Damon pick up the 277 hits he needs to reach 3,000, this guarantee will be tested. If Damon gets 3,000 hits, he will be the weakest member of the 3,000 hit club. Damon’s OPS+ is currently 105, four points lower than Lou Brock who has the lowest OPS+ of any player with 3,000 hits. Damon obviously was not a good enough fielder or baserunner to be better than Brock was. Other players with OPS+ of less than 120 and more than 3,000 were 6-14 points higher than Damon on this metric, but all played large proportions of their career at more demanding defensive positions than Damon did.

Being the worst among a group of players who are largely inner circle Hall of Famers does not axiomatically mean that player should not be in the Hall of Fame; and Damon would not be the worst player in the Hall of Fame. Among Hall of Fame outfielders, for example, Tommy McCarthy, Ned Hanlon and Lloyd Waner were, by most measures, not as good as Damon. McCarthy and Hanlon are long forgotten players from the 19th century. Waner was a Veteran’s Committee mistake who was probably helped by being the younger brother of Paul Waner, a more deserving Hall of Famer. The presence of these three in the Hall of Fame, however, does not make Damon’s election, should it come to pass, any more defendable.

This is not the first time a player with weak Hall of Fame credentials threatened to break into the 3,000 hit club, thus raising this question Al Oliver retired following the 1985 season while only 257 hits short of 3,000. Oliver at the time was only 38, and was coming off of two consecutive bad years, but he might have caught on somewhere and turned things around. Vada Pinson retired after the 1975 season. He was then 36 and only 243 hits shy of 3,000, but Pinson had stopped hitting and had just had three off years in a row. It is nonetheless possible that he might have signed somewhere-the Oakland A’s, for example, were signing every veteran DH candidate they could during those years-to pursue 3,000 hits.

Pinson and Oliver were comparable players to Damon. Oliver was the best hitter of the group, but he was also the slowest and contributed the least defensively. Pinson was probably the best all-around player of the three, but his productivity dropped off very quickly while he was in his mid-30s. Damon was the weakest hitter of the three but contributed with his glove and speed too. The point here is that had Pinson or Oliver stuck around to get 3,000 hits their rate numbers would have dropped, but they would have had careers comparable in overall value to Damon’s. They also would have been centers of Hall of Fame controversies like the one Damon will encounter if he gets to 3,000 hits. However, neither of them reached this milestone; and few people argue either of them are deserving Hall of Famers. If Damon plays one season with Cleveland and retires with 2,850 or so hits, he too will receive some votes but have no real chance of getting elected to Cooperstown, but, if he gets to 3,000 hits, he would represent a test for the Hall of Fame and a test for the 3,000 hit milestone.

Ironically, Damon’s Hall of Fame candidacy, and possible election by the Veteran’s Committee at some point, may be bolstered by his unusual position in baseball history as a key and visible member of World Series winning New York Yankee and Boston Red Sox teams. The long haired and bearded Damon was a leader of the “idiots” who helped the 2004 Red Sox win their first World Series since 1918. Damon’s grand slam in the deciding game of the 2004 ALCS against the Yankees nailed down that pennant of Boston. Five years later, an older more clean shaven Johnny Damon helped lead the New York Yankees to a World Championship. The most memorable play in that series occurred in the 9th inning of game four when Damon stole two bases on one play.

If Al Oliver had a stronger Hall of Fame candidacy he would have probably had strong supporters advocating for him in Pittsburg and Texas where he spent most of his career. For Damon, those advocates will be in the more influential Boston and New York media markets. Should he get to 3,000 hits, Damon’s Hall of Fame candidacy will be made real by a purely quantitative measure, but if he actually gets in it will probably be because of these other elements which have earned him a place in New York and Boston baseball history beyond his statistical value.