Sunday, January 16, 2011

Thome's production is tied to his health

Back at the end of 2009, the commonly accepted belief was that Jim Thome was done.

During one Sunday Night Baseball broadcast, Joe Morgan took the opportunity to tell the nation that he no longer felt that Thome was capable of playing at an elite level. “See,” remarked Morgan, “he cannot get to the fastball.”

Jim Thome had just lifted a weak fly ball out to mid-left field, inciting Morgan’s analysis of the situation. In reviewing the video, you can see that the big lefty is barely able to get around on the Padres’ Heath Bell’s 95-mph fastball. As Thome trotted up the baseline, he returns to the dugout, gesturing to Dodgers’ manager Joe Torre and their trainer that his foot was giving him problems – again.

During the replay, Morgan continued: “It’s very difficult, you know, for Thome to get around on it. Even on 3-1. He is sitting dead-red on the fastball.”

To be sure, Morgan’s anecdotal observation was also reinforced with some pretty damning evidence (which I’m sure he would never care to read) that agreed with his statement. In addition to being overwhelmed by fastballs, which we will see shortly, Thome also had troubles pulling the ball with any authority:

Pulled HR%
Pulled Slugging%
(via &

After pulling 41% of his home runs in 2008, leading to a .685 slugging percentage on pitches pulled, Thome’s pull power dropped dramatically the following season. In 2009, he launched just 17% of his home runs to right and slugged a career-low .520 when pulling pitches. Of course, this most recent season, Thome thumbed his nose at Morgan and everyone else by demonstrating he could still mash to right field, sending 9 of his 25 home runs in that direction and amassing a hearty .779 slugging percentage.

The second indicator that Thome was running out of gas was the fact that he was unable to catch up to fastballs:

Lg. Avg
BA on Fastballs
Well-Hit Avg on Fastballs
Contact on Fastballs

Like Morgan said, Thome had suffered a noticeable decline in his contact rate on fastballs. In addition to that, Thome had not done the same type of damage as he was used to inflicting.

In 2007, Thome handled fastballs extremely well. That season, according to’s Pitch Type Value, he was 29 runs above average on heaters. The following year his production on fastballs started to decline noticeably as he was only 9.4 runs above average. In 2009, as his ability to make contact dropped to just 35%, he was 10.3 runs above average on the fastball. Nevertheless, like his sudden resurgence to pull the ball again, Thome confirmed that he could indeed get around on the hard stuff still. His numbers in this department were some of the best since his ’07 season as he finished 22.9 runs above average on fastballs.

Was age really the culprit behind his 2009 decline? How could he have rebounded so quickly in his late 30s when most players are making arrangements to coach single-A ball?

While age certainly could have been influential on this sharp decline, it now appears more likely that lingering injuries played a more substantial role in Thome’s 2009 drop-off than aging did. That year, Thome struggled with staying healthy. In fact, competing with a historically balky back was a nagging foot injury, identified in his plantar fascia, which cropped up in the spring.

Following a rather slow start to the season by his standards, Thome revealed that his left foot flared up on him, sidelining him for several games before being cleared to play again. Following a cortisone injection, for a good chunk of the season Thome appeared to be his usual self, launching 18 homers in 313 plate appearances from May 1 to August 16 while turning in a .257/.393/.514 batting line in that period.

In mid-August, however, Thome’s left foot once again impaired his abilities to play. The slugger sat out for another four games and returned only to provide a fraction of the jolt he supplied in the middle of the season. At the waiver deadline, Thome was traded to the Dodgers in a cash-saving deal for the Sox. Relegated to pinch hitter duties in the NL, his addition did little for Los Angeles. In his final 58 plate appearances of that season following his second foot injury, Thome hit .241/.276/.352.

As a designated hitter whose sole responsibility is to hit, Thome required that stabilizing force on his back foot. In an isolated instance below, you can see how this pain might influence a swing:

Focus on Thome’s feet - particularly the back foot. It is as if he is putting little to no pressure on his back leg. Typically, at the point of contact, hitters want to have just their toes touching the ground from their rear leg, pivoting and twisting that foot in order to gain power from their trunk and leverage the legs in the swing. In this example, there is very little leverage in the lower-half, meaning all of his power is coming from upstairs.

If his foot was causing him to alter his swing by placing less weight on his back leg, this would certainly affect his mechanics and result in a decrease in pull power as well as a reduction in bat speed. It is a stark contrast to his swing from 2010:

Here we see sound mechanics from his lower-half. His back foot is twisting effortlessly and his he is clearly capable of generating power as he was better able to put weight on his back leg. Because of this reign of health, Thome was able to put up the numbers that he did. Able to pivot and place pressure on his back foot, Thome demonstrated that he could turn on pitches and catch up to the fastballs that had thwarted his attempts in 2009.

What does this mean going forward in 2011?

Once again, age does play a factor. Naturally, injuries and ailments heal much slower and tend to loiter a bit longer on older players. However, unlike most of the AL teams interested in DHs, the Twins were not looking for a full-time player. Thome will likely be utilized in that pinch hitter, part-time DH role that was assigned to him prior to Justin Morneau’s concussion (provided the first baseman is ready to go in the spring). This rationing of his plate appearances should help keep him healthy.

As Joe Christensen relays, Thome felt that this rest helped rejuvenate him:
"A couple years ago, I was a little banged up. Not playing every day, I kind of healed up a little bit from the little injuries that I had the year before. Then, when I got home this winter and my body wasn't beat up, I said, 'Wait a minute, this may work out.'"
A healthy Thome is capable of inciting a charge into a fastball and yanking pitching deep into the right field stands. His .283/.412/.627 batting line last year is evidence enough of that.

Still, much like the end of last year, if the Twins start to get the urge to play him more regularly, he is liable to tweak his back as he did at the end of September. Although it would be statistically advantageous to place him in the lineup at DH and moving Kubel to the outfield against right-handed pitchers, this regular playing time might take a toll on his foot or back, rendering him useless later in the season. Management should practice restraint when using Thome in effort to avoid turning him into a paperweight on the bench.