DAMON VS. JETER
I got a bunch of mail on Damon and Jeter as leadoff hitters, due, I think, to this morning's Mike Lupica's column on same. Simply: there is no inherent reason that Damon is a leadoff hitter and Jeter is a No. 2 hitter except that Lupica (and others) has those images of them in his head. You could bat them eighth and ninth, and if you had a lineup of seven Babe Ruths, that would be the smartest thing you could do. There is no rule of physics nor any commandment in the Bible that says that Damon is immutably a leadoff hitter or that Jeter must inevitably snap back to the second spot.
I was going to explain this with actual baseball stuff (he said in his highly articulate manner), but reader Ed did it for me. Take it away, Ed:
I completely agree with you that Jeter is a very good leadoff hitter, but for whatever reason, many still cannot see that. Today, Mike Lupica said that Johnny Damon "fits what the Yankees really need — an actual leadoff man." And that the Yankees need Jeter to "return to the No. 2 spot." That seems to echo the sentiments of many in the "Yankees need a leadoff hitter" camp. In other words, people who follow this line of thinking believe that Damon is an elite leadoff hitter and Jeter is out of place. That opens up the perfect argument. Let's compare Jeter to Damon in the important leadoff categories. If Damon is great and Jeter is substandard, we should find some statistical differences. All stats are from 2005:
Both very good, but the edge goes to Jeter
OBP when leading off an inning
For all of the "clutch" and "situational" guys, Jeter is even better
Runs (Also known as the way the score is kept)
The Yankees and Red Sox are about even in the middle of the order, so we can call this close to even
Plate appearance to runs scored ratio (PA/R)
Wait a minute, Jeter scored more often per plate appearance than Damon?
Average pitches seen per plate appearance
Judging by this stat, Jeter was actually a little more patient than Damon, even though their reputations suggest otherwise.
For those who don't know, neither team likes to steal bases. But I guess we'll give that edge to Damon.
Very simply, it is completely ignorant to refer to Damon as the "leadoff hitter the Yankees need" and to Jeter as someone who "belongs in the No. 2 spot." These two are very similar offensive players in every category. I would have no problem with the Yankees putting a hitter of Damon's caliber in the leadoff spot, but to suggest that removing Jeter from the leadoff spot should be a Yankees priority is preposterous.
Good job, Ed. Since individual seasons can contain fluke performances, it should probably be pointed out that Jeter's career rate stats are .314/.386/.461, while Damon's are .290/.353/.431. For those that care about stolen bases, Jeter trails 215 to 281, an insignificant difference. In careers of almost exactly the same length, Jeter leads in walks 636 to 598. He leads in home runs 169 to 130. Jeter hits for a higher average, reaches base more often, and has more power.
The main function of the batting order is to distribute playing time. This is the most important fact to understand about lineups. Who bats first in the first inning is not important when you look at games one at a time. Taken over a full season, who bats leadoff every day is more critical, because that player is going to bat more often than every other player on the team. Obviously that includes the guy who bats No. 2.
Assuming, then, that you had both Jeter and Damon and were going to bat one first and one second, on what basis would you want to give Damon more playing time than Jeter? There is none. It's just an image, or as Bob Dylan sang in "Mr. Tambourine Man," "It's just a shadow you're seeing that he's chasing."