Leyland debating where to bat Damon
Veteran may hit second behind rookie speedster Jackson
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Just because it makes no difference to Johnny Damon where he hits in the Tigers' lineup, doesn't mean it makes no difference in how he hits.
For all that was made about Damon being exactly what the Tigers needed in their leadoff spot, the fact that Detroit had a similar void in the second spot in the batting order was almost overlooked. Manager Jim Leyland was not overlooking it; in fact, he might've been more worried about that than he was about leadoff.
The decision on where to bat Damon is about more than where Damon's game fits best. His game, he says, is different depending on where he hits. Leyland's initial thought is that he might bring more of what the club needs to the second spot.
As far as a matter of preference, Damon really has none. Just in case, though, Leyland asked him Tuesday.
"I talked with Johnny, and he said he felt comfortable there," Leyland said. "He's either going to lead off or bat second, but that's part of managing. You want to put your players where they feel they can be more successful. But he felt like he could do some things in the two-hole."
Damon explained the difference Tuesday as a matter of approach.
"I know hitting in the leadoff spot, I'll probably tend to take a few more pitches," Damon said. "From the second hole, you can possibly be a little more aggressive, knowing that you're going to have to give yourself up. So I feel like, for me, my batting average from the two-hole is going to go down just a little bit, because I don't sac bunt a guy over. I'll try to hit it to the right side and try to get a base hit that way."
Though Damon has a career batting average five points lower from the second spot (.284) than he does at leadoff (.289), his slugging percentage is 21 points higher. His on-base percentage, however, is nearly the same -- .355 from the top spot, .357 batting second.
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Most of Damon's career plate appearances from the second spot came last year, when he moved down a spot with the Yankees for Derek Jeter to bat leadoff. The result was a plethora of opportunities to move Jeter, and an abundance of strikes to hit in front of Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and the rest of the Yanks' potent lineup. He also played plenty of games at new Yankee Stadium, which is power-friendly for left-handed hitters.
Damon batted .282 last year with 22 home runs and 79 RBIs out of the second spot. His .489 slugging percentage in 2009 was his highest since 2000 in Kansas City, while his .854 OPS and 71 walks were his highest marks in each since 2004 with Boston.
That power notwithstanding, Damon brings some of the same versatility as a hitter that Placido Polanco provided the Tigers for the past 4 1/2 seasons. Damon is less apt to bunt a runner over than Polanco and far more likely to strike out, but he's also far more likely to draw a walk.
What could make him a fit for the Tigers' No. 2 spot is his design on hitting the ball to the right side with a runner on first base. Leyland's views on Austin Jackson as a leadoff hitter could allow him to use Jackson's baserunning abilities to give Damon a chance to find the holes in the infield.
"It's kind of funny, Polanco was very good at shooting the ball in the hole over there," Leyland said. "Damon has a little advantage, because he's a left-handed hitter anyway. He may be able to pull a ground ball through that hole."
Damon is more likely to do that than to give up a sac bunt and automatically put the onus on Magglio Ordonez and Miguel Cabrera to get a hit.
"I think giving yourself up, sac bunting, is a waste," Damon said. "I mean, you can bunt for a base hit, but sac bunting, you're giving yourself up. It puts too much pressure on the next guy to come through, so that's why I try to hit the ball and try to find a hole."
It's a different situation than what he had with the Yankees, but also a different opportunity.
"I'm at two and Austin is leading off, he's going to dictate a lot of what happens, too," Damon said. "If he's on base and stealing, I'll be taking a lot more pitches. Also, the guys we've got coming up behind us, they've got something to prove. [Cabrera] is going to win an MVP before he's done. Magglio is on his contract year."
Cabrera's eyes widened as he looked over attentively. Damon smiled back.
"That's right, MVP, baby," Damon said. "And then you take me to dinner."
The Tigers would gladly feast on that style of offense.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.