Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Thome Paradox

Reports emerged first from a Chicago radio station then later confirmed by Joe Christensen that the Twins were indeed considering bringing in the mammoth slugger, Jim Thome. According to the Star Tribune reporter, a Twins official reiterated that the team has “real interest” in the 39-year-old and “haven’t ruled out their chances of signing him.”  This recent development has sent Twins fans agog for the first time since the news about Jarrod Washburn broke.
Thome’s role in the overall puzzle isn’t exactly defined.’s Twins beat writer Kelly Thesier later tweeted that the expectation would be to limit Thome to 200-300 plate appearances. In a follow-up article on the Twins website, Thesier noted that, as it stands, the organization will enter the 2010 season with a backup catcher, a 5th outfielder (possibly Jason Pridie), an additional infielder (likely Matt Tolbert) and one additional vacancy of which Thome would fill.
In an ideal world, Thome would become the Twins equivalent of Cliff Floyd for the Rays in 2008. Two years ago, the Rays had a very young roster and decided they needed an injection of expertise to be a leader in the clubhouse and be able to fulfill designated hitter duties against right-handed pitching. Bringing in the often-injured Floyd, and they gave the 35 year old 284 plate appearances, the bulk of which was against righties (272), and he responded by hitting .268/.353/.466 with 11 home runs that year. Overall, he supplied Tampa Bay with 0.6 WAR for $2.8M contract. Thome, in comparison, has been much better against right-handed pitching then Floyd. In ’09 at 38 years old, Thome hit .262/.383/.498 with 18 home runs in 329 plate appearances in those favorable match-ups. If able to produce a similar line for the Twins, it could easily give the team a 1.0 WAR role player.
If the Twins do bring in Jim Thome, there are some inalienable truths that need to be accepted.
In the twilight of his career, Thome has witnessed numerous other skills erode. First it was his defense. This was not exactly a surprise as the lumbering lug would have had to improve during his prime years to even be deemed adequate. The Indians tethered him to first base in the late 1990’s, hiding his defensive shortcomings, where he stayed until 2006. Since being signed by the White Sox, Thome has been on the field with his pitcher for all of 28 innings. So he could play first in an emergency just like a skateboard could get you across country if necessary, but god, why? He’s a designated hitter or pinch hitter. Period. End-o-story. Essentially, what this means is that the Twins now have TWO left-handed designated hitters in Jason Kubel and Jim Thome. If Ron Gardenhire wants both of them in the lineup against a right-handed starting pitcher, Kubel becomes an outfielder at the expense of either Delmon Young* or Michael Cuddyer. Simply put, Kubel  is a slightly worse defensive outfielder than either Young or Cuddyer. The Twins already had the second worst defensive outfield in baseball last year. More playing time for Kubel means an incrementally worse defensive outfield next season. Did with not learn anything from Detroit or Seattle? Upgrade, not downgrade, your defense.
*Were we not led to believe the underlying message sent when trading Carlos Gomez that Delmon Young would see more time and thus find a groove at the plate that he was unable to because his playing time was so chaotic? Now the Twins are considering once again removing him from the lineup two or three times a week? Am I on crazy pills?
In the same vein, if there is an inverse for terminal velocity, Thome’s reached that. He’s so slow that the laws of physics will not allow him to go any slower. According to the “skills assessment” section, Thome is in the 11th percentile for running. This isn’t surprising considering each one of his legs weighs the equivalent of a dead sun. There has been a pattern that shows his ability to motor around the bases is becoming difficult without the assistance of a segway. In ’07 he netted -7 bases. The following year, it was -11. On the bases this past season, his net gain was -15. Likewise, his speed score, a statistic developed by Bill James, is at a new career low of 1.0 (Adam Dunn’s 0.8 was ’09 worst while Michael Bourn led baseball at 8.6). So once he does get on base, the odds that he will circle the set entirely without the assistance of a long ball are slim (he scored just 19 times without the help of a home run in ‘09). While his on-base percentage has remained outstanding as he still has the capability of drawing walks, however once on base the Twins will be forced to decide if they need to use a pinch runner or suffer the slow-moving consequences.
Nobody is suggesting that Thome still can’t hit for power - after all he's strong like bull and has been well-above average every year in that department since 1993. Even so, there are developing indications that while flirting with 40-years-old, the power is primed to decrease. His slugging and isolated power numbers have dropped considerable since 2006. As you can see, with the exception of his injury-riddled 2005 season, Thome’s isolated power has started its grand descent, potentially ripe to drop from the "Good" area to the league-average line:
Jim Thome ISO : Season Stats Graph
Furthermore, with all this aging comes a reduction in bat speed. Signs that Thome’s swing is starting to slow down can be seen at by referencing his home run distribution maps. According to his home run chart, Thome pulled just four of his 23 home runs to right, hit seven to center while 12 went to left field (47% to right/center):
This is a stark discrepancy from 2008 when 24 of his 34 home runs were to right and center (70% right/center):
Overall, bringing in a Jim Thome who is a one-trick pony limits the team’s versatility. The need of a pinch runner on the roster is a necessary. And, as shown above in his power, there are questions regarding how much the trick pony has left. The Athletics rekindled Frank Thomas’s career in 2006 in his age-38 season which allowed him to parley that into a two-year deal with Toronto. However, as Thomas slipped into his age-40 season, his skills ebbed beyond the point of being serviceable. I highlight this because Thome happens to be the third most similar player to Thomas as well as entering his age-40 season. Players of a certain age regress hard.
Certainly he could be a useful piece. Keep in mind that “useful” and “right piece” are two entirely different things. What would be a better fit is targeting a right-handed hitter, one who can supply defense in some capacity, to give the team more flexibility instead of limitation. If the Twins’ investment is small ($4 million or less) and the expectations are low (Cliff Floyd-like implementation) then acquiring Thome would be a useful piece to the puzzle.