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Damon Less Patient in Quest for 3,000 Hits?

The Yankees are still searching for a left-handed complement to Andruw Jones at DH. Former Bomber Johnny Damon is still looking for a team as spring training nears. However, The New York Post's Joel Sherman says that the club's interest in Damon might be muted because of the 38-year-old's increased hacking as he nears 3,000 career hits:

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.

Damon's walk rate did decline in 2011, from 11.3% in both 2009 and 2010 to 7.9%. And he saw 4.02 pitches per plate appearance, down from 4.08 the previous two years. Damon, for his part, blames the decrease in walks and long ABs at least in part on getting squeezed:

Asked about this via text message, Damon wrote: “I think the OBP (on-base percentage) went down because in 2011 I felt like there were tough calls on me so I was a little more aggressive. I liked the results with production better because of it.”

Damon was more aggressive in 2011, but it's hard to find much evidence that he got more tough calls from umpires than usual. His chase rate, which was 26.3% in 2009 and 28.6% in 2010, increased to 31.4% last year. As his swing rate by pitch location shows, Damon has gradually tried to poke more pitches that are well off the outside corner of the plate:

 Damon's swing rate by pitch location, 2009

Damon's swing rate by pitch location, 2010

Damon's swing rate by pitch location, 2011

His chase rate on outer-third pitches has climbed dramatically, from 26.3% in '09 to 29.8% in '10 and 35.8% this past season. The league average for lefty hitters over the past three years is about 26%.

In terms of getting squeezed by big blue, Damon actually seemed to get a break in 2011 compared to years past. Check out his called strike rate on pitches thrown out of the strike zone in 2009, 2010 and 2011:

Damon's called strike rate on out-of-zone pitches, 2009Damon's called strike rate on out-of-zone pitches, 2010Damon's called strike rate on out-of-zone pitches, 2011That spot on the outside corner has gradually gotten smaller. Damon's called strike rate on out-of-zone pitches taken decreased from  14.5% in 2009 to 12.9% in 2010 and 10.6% in 2011. The average for lefty batters from 2009-2011 was about 12%.

It's impossible to say whether Damon is taking more swings in hopes of becoming the 29th member of the 3,000th hit club. Whatever the cause, the once-patient hitter has become more of a hacker. It didn't hurt his offensive performance in 2011, as his 110 OPS+ was actually above his 105 career average, but Damon's free-swinging ways on outside pitches is something to watch when he does find a team for 2012.

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