Phillies Bring Back Jim Thome

The Phillies, as seems to be a common theme these days, shocked the baseball world yesterday when they announced the signing of Jim Thome on a one-year, $1.25 million deal. Since he was traded from the Phillies after the 2005 season, Thome has spent most of his time in the American League as a designated hitter. In his very brief stint in the National League with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2009, he served as a pinch-hitter.

The Thome signing is believed to be a response to Ryan Howard‘s injured Achilles. Thome, of course, hasn’t played in the field regularly since 2005, but it wouldn’t be unprecedented that the Phillies would ask him to make the switch — all Thome has to do is look across the diamond at Placido Polanco, who the Phillies acquired after the 2009 season. In his time since leaving the Phillies in 2005, Polanco hadn’t played a single inning at third base, but he moved to the hot corner anyway. Of course, Polanco played superb defense at second base and has since proven to be one of the best defensive third basemen as well. Moving from DH to first base is an entirely different animal and, at the age of 41, it is questionable if Thome can handle playing the field even on a platoon basis.

When he will be in the lineup, though, Thome will be a force. Despite his age, he posted a .362 wOBA during the 2011 regular season. Although that is his lowest mark of the past six years, it is well above the league average (between .310 and .315) and rare to find in a player of his age. His .362 wOBA would have been second-best on the Phillies among players with 300 or more plate appearances.  More impressively, Thome was one of only 17 Major Leaguers in history (min. 300 PA) age 40 or older to post an OPS 30 percent or higher compared to the league average. The list is littered with Hall of Famers:

 

Rk Player OPS+ PA Year Age Tm
1 Ted Williams 190 390 1960 41 BOS
2 Barry Bonds 169 477 2007 42 SFG
3 Willie Mays 158 537 1971 40 SFG
4 Barry Bonds 156 493 2006 41 SFG
5 Edgar Martinez 141 603 2003 40 SEA
6 Brian Downing 138 391 1992 41 TEX
7 Moises Alou 137 360 2007 40 NYM
8 Dave Winfield 137 670 1992 40 TOR
9 Stan Musial 137 505 1962 41 STL
10 Carlton Fisk 136 419 1989 41 CHW
11 Harold Baines 135 486 1999 40 TOT
12 Darrell Evans 135 609 1987 40 DET
13 Carlton Fisk 134 521 1990 42 CHW
14 Ty Cobb 134 574 1927 40 PHA
15 Brian Downing 132 476 1991 40 TEX
16 Jim Thome 131 324 2011 40 TOT
17 Willie Mays 131 309 1972 41 TOT
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 11/5/2011.

Thome has traditionally been better against right-handed pitching compared to left-handers, but that wasn’t the case last year. It was the first time he posted a platoon split that favored southpaws. In terms of wOBA, he hit lefties at a .385 clip; right-handers only .353. If Thome is to fit into a platoon at first base or serve as a pinch-hitter, when he will be used almost exclusively against right-handers, he needs to be a lot better against them. Looking at the data, there wasn’t any large shift in performance although Thome’s isolated power vs. RHP was at a career-low, excluding his injury-plagued 2005.

Naturally, there are concerns about Thome’s defense. Thome hasn’t played regularly in the field since leaving the Phillies. While it’s hard to imagine he completely forgot how to play defense in the last six years, there are a lot of little things at first base that are mastered only through repetition (e.g. footwork). Thome will have ample time to get reacquainted with the position during the off-season and spring training, so we will simply have to wait to see how that part of the issue is addressed.

The other concern is that he is simply not physically able to play the position, in terms of stamina and range. If the Phillies happen to face ten right-handed starters in a row, as they did between May 5-15 during the 2011 regular season, can they count on Thome to be in the lineup every day without a significant decline in performance? Will the gradual wear-and-tear of first base — for example, holding a runner on first base and dashing back as the pitcher delivers — erode his durability as the season progresses? These are questions that, simply put, nobody knows the answers to and will not until the season is under way. Nevertheless, they are legitimate concerns, especially considering it is rather unprecedented that a 41-year-old DH six years running is asked to move back into a defensive position.

On the other hand, if Thome is instead asked to serve in more of a bench role, is he one of those players whose offensive contributions decline without regular at-bats? Some pinch-hitters complain of “getting cold” if they are not given the opportunity to take their hacks every so often. When Thome gets on base as a pinch-hitter late in the game, will the Phillies always lift him for a pinch-runner? This may necessitate carrying only an 11-man pitching staff. All of these concerns should have been addressed as the Phillies contemplated signing him.

On the surface, the Thome signing is very savvy. At the cost of just $1.25 million, Thome need only be a 0.3-WAR (FanGraphs) player, something he has been every year between 1994-2011 excluding 2005. With Thome now in the fold, it will be interesting to see how the Phillies round out the rest of the roster. MLB Trade Rumors reports that the Phillies are very interested in Michael Cuddyer, noting that he could play at both corners in the infield and outfield. A Thome/Cuddyer platoon at first base would undoubtedly be more offensively productive than Ryan Howard would have been.

Regardless of what happens, it will be great to see Thome back in Phillies red. His tenure in Philadelphia ended rather abruptly and, given his reputation as a person and a player as well as his relationship with Charlie Manuel, Philadelphia and Thome are a natural fit.

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13 comments

  1. hk

    November 05, 2011 08:02 AM

    The line, “Thome hasn’t played regularly in the field since leaving the Phillies” is an understatement. Thome has only played 28 innings, yes innings, not games, in the field since leaving the Phillies and those occurred in 2006 and 2007. He did not even bring a glove to games during the past 4 seasons. I would be stunned if he the plan is to start him more than sporadically (once per week?) at 1B vs. RHP’s even if Howard is out. Having said that, I am comfortable with the signing for him to serve as a PH upgrade over Gload and to DH in most or all of the 9 inter-league road games (and hopefully the World Series).

  2. Scott G

    November 05, 2011 08:18 AM

    The Phils could always train Thome to hold runners on like Howard. This would eliminate the dashing off the bag. It would merely include two steps from the base.

  3. CY

    November 05, 2011 09:14 AM

    HK is spot on. Thome is the new gload and for 1.25 it is a great signing. Would love to have cuddy in the fold. He fits us beautifully

  4. Phillie697

    November 05, 2011 03:13 PM

    It’s a $1.25 million mistake if it doesn’t end up working out. Am I the only one who’s sitting here saying, “who the hell cares??? Jim Thome is back in town!!!”

    I for one look forward to getting some actual production from the 1B spot.

  5. Greg

    November 06, 2011 03:01 PM

    IF this were a random “Player A” being signed, I think i’d find it upsetting. But I just haven’t ever gotten over my man-crush on Jim Thome. I freaking love that guy, and am thrilled he’s back in Philly.

  6. Greg

    November 06, 2011 03:02 PM

    And really, I feel better about Thome at 1B right now than howard. Really, REALLY hope Thome finally gets his ring.

  7. Bill Baer

    November 06, 2011 03:31 PM

    Greg,

    When you say, “I feel better about Thome at 1B right now than howard” do you mean defensively? Thome hasn’t been at the position in years and Howard has worked himself into an average defender.

  8. Greg

    November 07, 2011 11:48 AM

    Well, I guess I’m just incredibly down on Howard right now, and would feel better about the bat/glove combo of Thome, with a full offseason to prepare, than Howard. Somehow, I just can’t trust a first baseman who need to catch a routine throw with two hands.

  9. Dante

    November 08, 2011 09:45 AM

    Bill can you reference a defensive stat that deemed Howard average in 2011?

  10. Bill Baer

    November 08, 2011 09:54 AM

    I don’t really like any of the defensive stats out there. He had a -4.5 UZR/150 but given the huuuuuuge error bars in a one-year sample of UZR, he really could have been -15 or +10 (not actual confidence intervals, just for illustration).

  11. Phillie697

    November 08, 2011 10:00 AM

    Bill,

    I just took your statement that RH is average defensively to be true, since that seems to be the conventional wisdom… But I had to look up the numbers, and while I realize defensive measurements are prone to error, he actually had an even WORSE 2010, and he’s never been as bad until these past two years. Maybe he’s no longer average even defensively? That would be very disturbing, as he seems to be regressing offensively, defensively, and base-running. In other words, every sign points to him being toast.

  12. Bill Baer

    November 08, 2011 10:02 AM

    I just wouldn’t trust the data to make any strong conclusions. It’s also true that there are many biases in the anecdotal evidence, so really I just kind of shrug my shoulders.

  13. hk

    November 08, 2011 07:06 PM

    Dante,

    According to Baseball Reference’s dWAR (defensive wins above replacement), Howard was 0.1 runs above replacement this year. For comparison purposes, Adrian Gonzalez’s dWAR was 1.4, Pujols’s was 0.9, Teixiera’s was -0.1, Freeman’s was -0.6 and Fielder’s was -0.7. I didn’t bother to list more because I’m tired and lazy and I’m not sure if this means Howard is average, but I thought I’d share it any way.

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