Johnny Damon’s Self Serving Steroid Sermon

Johnny Damon hit just .222 in his final season, but he thinks he should still be playing (via Keith Allison).

Johnny Damon hit just .222 in his final season, but he thinks he should still be playing (via Keith Allison).

Johnny Damon is mad as hell, and he isn’t going to take it any more.

I played it clean,” Damon told Orlando sports radio hosts David Baumann and Big Joe, hosts of the show Baumann and Big Joe. “I think I’m one of the only players to come out and say, ‘I guarantee you there is nothing I’ve done that enhanced my baseball career.’ You can’t fault someone who has a chance to make $20 million, $50 million, $100 million for going against the system to get to where they are. You can’t fault them, but I’m as clean as they came, and I got booted out of the game because I’m clean.”

Damon last appeared in the major leagues in 2012 with Cleveland. In 224 plate appearances, he hit .222/.281/.329. His 71 wRC+ ranked in the bottom 50 of the 347 batters with at least 200 plate appearances. His defensive position is either designated hitter or noodle-armed left fielder with aging legs. The reason Damon was booted out of the majors was because there were at least 750 other players more capable of helping teams win major league games.

Think about all the guys who have signed big contracts,” Damon said. “I sound bitter, but I’m really not. I have six great kids and I get to be around them every day. But there are certain guys who have gamed the system and they still are being patted on the back. I’m good, but I just don’t want the young kids thinking about [using].”

There’s a disconnect here, and it’s hard to believe Damon doesn’t realize it. Damon is claiming the Damon of right now–the 40-year-old outfielder who was below replacement level the last time he played–would be transformed into an major league-quality player by using performance enhancing drugs. Nothing else he could say could be more damaging to his stated desire of keeping kids away from steroids.

Lawrence Golding, one of the first doctors to study the effects of steroids and amphetamines on the health of athletes, interviewed hundreds of athletes in the lawless days of the 1960s and 1970s. He said the following to Newsday in 1973:

Athletes are undaunted by fears and threats. The results of interviews…show that the desire to win is greater than either the fear of exposure or the possible harmful side effects. Too many athletes witness excellent performances by peers who take (amphetamines and steroids) and often credit the drug for these performances.

Golding’s research came before free agency resulted in an explosive rise in player salaries in baseball and across sports. As Damon himself acknowledges, the cash flow only increases motivation for steroid use. Damon has put together a fantastic advertising campaign for chemical enhancement, even if that wasn’t his intention.

Damon is so transparent, he starts to defend himself–“I sound bitter, but I’m really not”–before he finishes his point. Of course Damon is bitter. His ouster from the big leagues after the 2012 season left him with 2,769 hits, 231 short of the magic 3,000 number that many thought would ensure him a Hall of Fame induction. Joel Sherman of the New York Post wrote the following in February 2012 as Damon was still looking for a job:

Damon has done nothing in recent years to hide his obsession with reaching 3,000 hits, in part because he believes it will elevate his Hall of Fame chances. He is 277 hits shy of the milestone.

However, executives from three teams that had interest in Damon expressed concerns a fixation with 3,000 has diminished an attribute that greatly contributed to the perception of Damon as a winning player: patient, tough at-bats. And statistics appear to confirm the criticism.

Sherman cites FanGraphs plate discipline statistics, which shows Damon swung at more pitches out of the zone the year prior. His walk rate dipped to a six-year low of 7.9 percent. His approach appeared to transform from that of a disciplined player willing to take a walk to that of a player selling out for base hits. More importantly, people making the hiring decisions agreed with this interpretation.

Johnny Damon earned $111,689,000 over the course of his 18-year career. The minor leagues surely are full of players and retirees who could make a claim of losing out to steroids. Damon is not one of them.

If Damon wants to make a real point about drugs in baseball, he should talk about the health risks of steroids. He should talk about Major League Baseball’s willingness to help a steroid distributor, Anthony Bosch, avoid charges in order to punish players. He should talk about the widespread use of the painkiller Toradol, particularly among pitchers. As is, Damon’s dubious complaint only serves to reinforce steroids as a pathway to a major league contract, subverting his stated goal and exposing himself as the bitter curmudgeon he apparently refuses to admit he has become.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Jack Moore's work can be seen at VICE Sports and anywhere else you're willing to pay him to write. Buy his e-book.
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10 years ago

Damon seems to be implying that he knows for certain many players are juicing. If he really wants to do something about the doping problem, he should be more forthcoming to the appropriate people.

10 years ago
Reply to  Andy

No evidence of steroid use. Other than “offense and home runs” have come crashing back to 1980’s levels, players aren’t smashing the hell out of the ball into their forties. And home runs don’t take off like golf balls when they are hit. Oh, and where have the “oblique injuries” gone to? Nope, no “evidence” at all………. Damon, had he juiced probably would have hit a few hundred extra………..doubles and homers.

10 years ago

To play devil’s advocate, maybe Damon is fixated on his former teammate Jason Giambi, who is still playing even though he has not had a positive WAR or wRC+ since 2011. Of course, it probably doesn’t hurt that Giambi has accepted a part-time role for $1 million or less each year.

10 years ago
Reply to  tz

Now that you mention it, I’d wager a week’s salary you’re right. And it’s not playing Devil’s Advocate unless you argue that makes Damon right.

Oh, and a Hardball Times article on steroids with only 1 mention on ‘how Dare! baseball try to catch users’ and 0 mentions of ‘gee who knows if steroids even help at all?’ Careful, they may revoke your Sabremetric Union card.

10 years ago

In our age of false confessions and a disbelieving public, perhaps it is too easy for us to
look askance at all pronouncement, Damon’s included. However Moore’s take on Damon
may not be fair or accurate. To assert the former player cannot see his own bitterness or
the disconnect of thought is too easy a claim. Moore’s criticisms only fosters the public’s
“right” to be bitter, doubt athletes and any willingness on their part to discuss PEDs in 2014.
Telling Damon how to teach the lessons of PEDs is misplaced; let the reformed drug user tackle that.

The “disconnect” is not that Damon falsely believes he would be an above replacement level as an aging ball player. He is suggesting that had he used drugs his career achievements and rewards would be different. And that all important award, that transparent and contemptible goal Sherman derides Damon for pursuing, it too may have been afforded the outfielder.

So what if Damon had his heart set on the HOF? Given the statistical nature of the criteria and the necessary comparison to peer performances, his choices put him at a disadvantage, both for the HOF and income.
I am sympathetic.

10 years ago
Reply to  Rob

Well, he does day “I got booted out of the game because I’m clean”. Not ‘my numbers would’ve been better had I used (so I belong in the HoF)’. Sure sounds like he’s saying he still should be playing.

Tony Cunningham
10 years ago
Reply to  Richie

It’s strange that he puts it this way, is it not? If he were trying to make the claim that he would have been significantly better with inducements (say, well beyond 3000 hits), this would seem like sensible claim (which isn’t to say that he’d be right since he was pretty healthy over his career, so the inducements would have to have mostly served to purpose of amplifying his stats, as distinct from keeping him on the field). Damon was always a congenial player, but he was never confused for a Rhodes Scholar. I’d guess that he has a kind of amorphous resentment over the 3000 hits possibility that leads to his brand of rambling.

james wilson
10 years ago

I suppose what Damon is trying to say is that if he’d juiced like most of his friends and teammates he’d have 3,000 hits and a hall worthy career. Which might be true if you can overlook the girl living in his left arm.

10 years ago
Reply to  james wilson

Well, that was a terribly sexist comment. FG/HB is better than that.

james wilson
10 years ago
Reply to  cass

OK, a girl with a sore arm, commissar.

Tony Cunningham
10 years ago
Reply to  james wilson

Wasn’t his arm amazing? He was clearly a swift, strong, gifted athlete. And then he would throw a baseball as if he was heaving a 10-pound ball (or perhaps throwing with his left arm when he was really right-handed). It almost looked like he’d suffered some horrible accident that left his throwing arm largely useless. His arm didn’t fit with the rest of him.

Sandy Kazmir
10 years ago

Y’all raise an interesting point. If we assume that Crazy Johnny Damon thinks that him juicing would have gotten him to 3,000 hits then we can probably take a guess that he thinks it would have happened in close to the amount of time he actually had a career. So let’s play around with a fun hypothetical.

Let’s say that he ended up with exactly 3,000 hits before keeling over like a proud John Henry just finished driving that steel to the finish line. Let’s say he did it in the same 10,917 PA/9,736 AB that he actually had. We’ll assume that the hit distribution came out the same as the entirety of his career (69% 1B/19% 2B/4% 3B/8% HR) and feel free to quibble with this and whatever else if that’s what makes your day. Here’s a little before and after:

Real: 1,903 1B/522 2B/109 3B/235 HR/.284 BA/.352 OBP/.433 SLG/.343 wOBA

Additionally, we can adjust his wOBA based on the park factors for his home field and get something more like .339. Factoring in home field and a weighted average of each year’s average wOBA we can see that he compiled around a wRC+ of 103 with a wRAA+ of around 87.6 runs. Add in his 60 BsR which almost offsets his -70.3 defensive contributions and lastly factor in his 337.2 runs of replacement and you get a park adjusted career of around 414.7 runs, or approximately 42 wins if we’re feeling generous. Let’s see what he looks like as

Mr3K*: 2,062 1B/566 2B/118 3B/255 HR/.308 BA/.373 OBP/.469 SLG/.366 wOBA

Again, we can park adjust the wOBA figure to get something more like .361 which yields a wRC+ of 110 and wRAA of 301.4 runs. Add in the other components and we get 628.5 runs or around 63 wins no matter how curmudgeon your outlook.

63 WAR puts him in company with guys like Luis Aparicio, Bobby Bonds, the immortal Bobby Abreu, Ken Boyer, Ken Tinker, Ryne Sandberg, Willie Davis, Jackie Robinson, Andre Dawson, and Sal Bando. If you think that all of those guys, Robinson aside, belong in the Hall of Fame, then you should probably think that juiced up, Mr. Three Thousand Johnny Damon should also be in the Hall of Fame. If you’re like me you think he probably falls a bit short and lands in the Hall of Very Good, which is probably where most people have him after witnessing his actual career.

It is no slight to say that he had a very good career, but that his numbers, clean or otherwise, just weren’t quite good enough. Even with a bit of imagination he still likely falls short as 63 wins seems just outside the bubble of what constitutes a Hall of Fame player. As a Rays fan that got to watch him become a singularly fixated player in his last full season I can tell you that he did little to endear himself to the sympathies of the fan, which was an excellent point in the article that might be a little easier to overlook.

Drive mashed my formulas, but here’s a workbook showing the math for those that are curious:

Tony Cunningham
10 years ago
Reply to  Sandy Kazmir

Excellent analysis here. It confirms my gut feeling that Damon was very good, but not quite a Hall of Fame player even if he got to 3000 hits.

Jon L.
10 years ago

I’m pretty sure it’s reality that reinforces steroids as a pathway to greater major league success and major league contracts. It’s also become fashionable in some Sabermetric circles to discount the influence of steroids entirely, as if the fact that it’s impossible to determine exactly who used when means that we should pretend we never have any information. Johnny Damon may be experiencing some bitterness and exhibiting some hypocrisy, but if what he says is true, then it’s very likely that steroids could have enhanced and prolonged his career and HOF chances.

Steve Millburg
10 years ago

So what remedy is Damon suggesting? That he should not have been “booted out of the game because I’m clean” but instead be allowed to continue playing until he reaches 3,000 hits? That might take a long, long time. And which team gets stuck with him? Maybe he should rotate among each MLB team in, say, alphabetical order, Angels through Yankees, a week at a time per franchise. Of course, then will come the controversy over which cap will be depicted on his Hall of Fame plaque.

10 years ago

What Johnny and everyone else is missing is this. Had he taken steroids like his former teammates, he likely would have had more injuries and hence played fewer games. Roid guys with Damon’s body type, like Garciaparra, inevitably had more muscle-related injuries than the naturally-bigger guys like Clemens or Ortiz. So he’d probably have ended up with about the same number of hits, but with fewer at-bats. And maybe he’d have thrown out 1 or 2 guys more over his career. No, probably not.

It was always comical to me when I’d see some guy who’d tear a muscle, sometimes off the bone, on a full swing or trying to run (Nomar again). It immediately told me… “Roid Guy”… and later they’d be proven or highly-suspected so. These are injuries that never occurred before the steroid era, and aren’t occurring now. But if I see one in the future, I’d get the guy into a stall with a cup immediately if I were MLB.

10 years ago

What he is saying I aint buying I have heard many say Damon was a user that whole Kansas City team was using and it all payoff for all them as they signed huge deals, go back check that KC team and connect all the dots. The sad thing about this is who didn’t use??

10 years ago

One of the greatest signs at a ballpark was Fenway Park—-Damon looks like Jesus throws like Mary.

Steely Glint
10 years ago

I watched Damon play throughout his career, and at no time did I ever think he was going to make the Hall of Fame.

Marc Schneider
9 years ago

Aside from anything else, why is it so bad to have a very good, but not Hall-of-Fame caliber career. Without any sabermetric analysis, I never thought of Damon as a HOFer (although I’m sure there are worse players in the HOF). It’s amazing to me that, seemingly, everyone who had a reasonably good career thinks they should be in the Hall. The guy was one of the better major league players for a long time, and presumably made a ton of money (even if not as much as he thinks he should have). He won a couple of rings, which plenty of guys in the Hall of Fame never did. What’s he got to complain about even if he is correct about the steroids?

I have a real problem, anyway, with making 3000 hits an absolute for getting in the Hall of Fame because you can get 3000 hits by just hanging around. There are lots of players who did not get 3000 hits who are better than some who did. (E.g., who would you rather have on your team, Mickey Mantle of Pete Rose?) Even if Damon got to 3000, I don’t think he would have been a Hall-of-Famer-type player. Now, perhaps if the steroids caused him to have some monster seasons, that might be different but, given the arc of his actual career, I don’t see how 3000 hits would have made that much difference except, possibly, to the HOF voters.