Willingham’s season came out of the blue. Over his first three seasons, his wOBA has been an eerily consistent .364, .365, and .363. This year, he’s at .417. He’s enjoying a huge breakout, as he’s never hit .280, had an OBP of .365, or slugged over .500, yet he’s besting all three so far by wide margins. Now granted, those rates are probably going to fall over the season’s final month, and he’s only batted 367 times creating a minor small sample size issue. But there are indications that this new level hitting could be sustainable. For one thing, he’s smashing the ball. Nearly 25% of the balls he puts in play are line drives. Line drives fall for a hit over seventy percent of the time. Smack a lot of line drives, and you’re statistics will be pretty good. Willingham also has been a much better hitter on the road than at home in his career: .251/.352/.430 at home, .292 /.386/.549 on the road. And although that trend has continued this season, it shouldn’t for too much longer. His new home has a slight tendency to favor hitters, while the ballpark in Miami he played in gave a clear advantage to the pitchers. Going forward, I would expect his home hitting to improve pretty significantly.
With Johnny Damon’s contract ending at the conclusion of this season, the Yankees are going to consider a host of options for filling his spot in left field. One of the players to consider is Willingham. Though he is one of the Nationals better players, he’s hardly their only asset in the outfield, as they have Elijah Dukes and Nyjer Morgan. Furthermore, Washington is a re-building team, one that has less use for a thirty-one outfielder about to hit arbitration than most teams. What they do need is pitching, and the Yankees have a couple of intriguing pitching prospects that might pry Willingham away from D.C. While it may seem strange to consider replacing a star like Damon with a relatively pedestrian name player like Willingham, Fangraphs value system, translating their wins above replacement metric into dollars, says that Willingham has been worth over $2 million more than Damon, even with nearly a 150 fewer at bats.
There are some risks, of course. Willingham’s offensive gains might not translate to a new league, particularly in the formidable American League East. He isn’t a very good fielder (though much better than Damon). And now that he’s hitting arbitration, he’s about to get a bit more expensive. However, re-signing Damon would probably be even more expensive and the Yankees would probably have to commit more years to Johnny to get the deal done. Plus, if Damon loses any of his power he’s going to turn into a pumpkin pretty quick. I think it is more likely that Willingham plays well over the 2010 and 2011 seasons than Damon. Neither is going to be a star, but Willingham is probably going to be the better player. Don’t be too surprised if you hear Willingham’s name come up in trade negotiations this winter. I’d advocate trying to aquire him.