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Damon and Darwinism

Yesterday, the New York Post’s George King wrote a piece headlined, Yankees Outfield Not Doomed without Damon. Maybe I haven’t been listening to enough sports talk radio lately, but I totally missed the signs of panic in the streets over the departure of the ex-caveman. "You listen to the negative noise about the Yankees’ outfield without Johnny Damon and you wonder if Bubba Crosby, Karim Garcia and Raul Mondesi have slipped back into pinstripes," King wrote.

The issue isn’t really who has slipped into pinstripes but who has slipped out of them and hasn’t necessarily been adequately replaced. Still, the difference between what Damon gave the Yankees and what they might get this season is not that large. Damon generated about 90 runs of offense last season. Defensive systems disagree on just how many runs he kicked back on defense, but let us be conservative and say that he prevented five fewer runs than the average left fielder. That leaves us with a net total of 85 runs.

Ironically, Damon himself would have been hard-pressed to equal his own production, because it was highly unlikely that he would have held on to last year’s career-best (or very close to it) offensive production at age 36, beneficial park-effects or not. Can the Yankees get 85 runs out of Brett Gardner, Marcus Thames, Randy Winn and pals? It seems entirely plausible that they should be able to. If Brett Gardner gets 450 at-bats and hits and steals at the rather unexceptional level of .266/.357/.381 (as his PECOTA weighted mean forecast calls for), that should be worth about 65 or 70 runs. Look at Michael Bourn of the Astros last year: He hit .285/.354/.384 and stole 61 bases. That was worth about 95 runs. Figure Gardner for about three-quarters of the playing time, and thus three-quarters of the production.

We’re only 20 runs away from Damon. Of course, those last 20 runs are the hardest, the ones that separate the mediocre players from the good ones. Fortunately, there are a couple of ways the Yankees are going to try to make up those runs. First of all, Gardner gets a platoon partner in Marcus Thames, Randy Winn, Jamie Hoffmann or some combination thereof. Secondly, and likely more important, there is defense.

Gardner isn’t going to bring much more of an arm to left field than Damon did, but he should run better, faster, routes and get to more balls. Until we see Gardner in action, it’s tough to say how many runs he could save with the glove. If Gardner somehow shows Carl Crawford-type range out there, we could be looking at a 15 or 20-run swing right there, which is worth about two wins. That’s a best-case scenario and not one that should be taken overly seriously. Let’s instead hope that he’s merely five runs above average in the playing time he’s allotted. That would still be a 10-run swing from what Damon contributed.

We’re getting closer now. Let’s consider the platoon partner. Over the last five years, the Yankees have seen an average of 48 games started by left-handed pitchers. Let’s figure there are going to be around 200 at-bats available for Thames or whoever the platoon partner turns out to be. At Thames’ career rates, he would generate about 30 runs in those 200 at-bats, which would put the Yankees in a very good position, vis-à-vis recapturing Damon’s lost offense. He would likely give some runs back on defense, but not very many because he’s unlikely to play more than seven innings in any game in which the Yankees have a lead, because Gardner or Winn will substitute for him.

Now, Thames could continue his second-half slump, Gardner could fail to hit up to expectations, and the Yankees will have to make a move for an outfielder at some point during the season. This is all conjectural. Conversely, Gardner could out-play expectations, play terrific defense and get his batting average up to .290 with a few walks, and the combination will make you forget that anyone was ever worried about replacing Johnny Damon. There is really no reason to panic.

The Royals are talking about giving Kyle Farnsworth a shot at a job in their starting rotation. This is something that Farnsworth could not do at 24, so it seems unlikely he’ll be able to do it at 34. Royals pitching coach Bob McClure argues that Farnsworth was able to expand his repertoire at the end of last season, but the problem with Farnsworth has never been stuff, nor the variety of his offerings, but his lack of control and location. It hasn’t changed in 11 seasons and it didn’t change last fall. The main thing happening here is that the Royals are trying to put lipstick on a truly poor decision to sign this arsonist in the first place. Were Farnsworth a quality reliever, there would be no incentive to put him in the starting rotation.