It's a question that's gotten a lot of traction lately, as Johnny Damon notched his 500th double over the weekend, making him the 11th guy with 500 doubles, 100 triples, 200 homers, and 2,500 hits. The other ten are in the Hall of Fame, causing some, including my Rays fan friend, to argue that he should be Cooperstown bound. (In fairness, my friend also thinks Jonny Gomes and Reid Brignac should be enshrined.)
My initial reaction was: Johnny Damon is not a Hall of Famer. As I've argued here before, I often feel the same way about the Hall of Fame as the Supreme Court does about pornography: you know it when you see it. I don't get too caught up in certain statistical achievements because the game changes over time. We're obviously going to have to recalibrate our standards based on the offensive explosion in the 90s, a result of, yes, steroid use, but also better workouts, video preparation, smaller parks, and weaker pitching thanks to expansion. (And for pitchers, we're going to have to rethink what career win, ERA, and strikeout levels need to be reached, cause no one's hitting 300 wins anymore.)
Back to Damon. An interesting comparable to him is his former teammate Derek Jeter, who I think we all agree is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Let's go to the numbers.
GM PA R BH 2B 3B HR RBI SB BA/OBP/SLG
Damon 2344 10342 1597 2646 500 102 223 1080 392 .287/.354/.436
Jeter 2357 10841 1729 2994 477 62 236 1155 330 .312/.383/.449
Closer than you'd think, right?
Damon's years in Kansas City, which were quite good, are often forgotten. And he's been a model of consistency, rarely getting hurt and generally being productive. I was surprised to see he has more doubles than Jeter, and his slugging percentage is right there with the Captain.
His OPS, which I know is not the most advanced stat, but is a pretty easy one for us all to digest, is 40 points lower than Jeter's, which is a pretty sizeable gap. Damon is at .790; by comparison, Jim Rice, whom many consider a borderline selection, was .854. (Edgar Martinez, apropos of nothing, was .933. That cat could hit.) Damon doesn't have the contact Jeter was, but walked at about the same rate and has struck out 500 fewer times, if that sort of thing matters to you.
Of course, there's more to Damon's game than straight hitting. He is an excellent baserunner, and his past speed got him to 392 steals. Something tells me he'll find a way to top 400. And his fielding was probably a plus -- that same speed helped him cover a lot of ground, and he was fearless with his body (Hello, Damian Jackson!). Of course, he threw like his arm was perpetually broken, which probably should be considered. (I'm not confident enough in my assessment of defensive advanced stats, so I'm leaving them out of the discussion, hence the general scouting-type comments.)
Damon has also appeared in a number of postseasons and done well -- basically maintaining his regular season OPS (.783 in 55 postseason games). In the intangible department, which I think should matter, he is a notable face and name who was a presence on one of the most important teams in this era of baseball, and obviously one of the principal members of that team in terms of production.
Another interesting comparable is Craig Biggio, whom everyone seems to think will get the call when his time comes up. Biggio’s career numbers look good because of longevity, but similar to Damon he didn’t dominate in the way we expect Hall of Famers to dominate. He finished his career with a .796 OPS, and his splits look nearly identical to Johnny’s. He's usually credited with playing three positions up the middle, but he spent most of his time at 2B, which isn’t exactly where the best defensive players reside.
After all that, I still say it's a tough call. If he hangs around for three more years at roughly the same skill level and manages to top 3,000 hits, I would imagine the writers will put him in -- especially since he's never been linked to steroids. As of now, I don't think his case is quite strong enough, but if there's a reliable enough defensive stat that says he was a stellar outfielder for the bulk of his career, I think his case gets stronger.