Howard, Thome, and the 2012 Offense

On Saturday, Ryan Lawrence asked Charlie Manuel for the most he hoped to get out of Jim Thome at first base this season; his reply was “20 starts.” He further elaborated that he expected “180-200″ total at-bats.

The latter is not an unreasonable expectation, as Thome has managed an average of 305 at bats per season from 2009-2011. It could well be a problem, however, if Manuel will attempt to make the former come true. In his last stint with the Phillies, surrendering the bulk of the playing time to Ryan Howard, Thome played 52 games at first base, at age 34. Thereafter, from 2006 through 2011, Thome logged just 4 games at first base, spending the rest of his time as a DH. This was due in part to being traded to the White Sox, who had a DH spot to work with, and a first base position occupied by Paul Konerko. Certainly, though, questions about his lower body, his back, and the fragility that accompanies aging played a role in keeping him off the field. In 2009, when the White Sox dealt him to the Dodgers, general manager Ned Colletti talked about how first base was not an option for Thome:

In fact, the night before the deadline he called me. … He just said: “I just want to be honest with you. I’d love to come. I want to help you guys any way I can. But playing first base is not something I’m going to be able to do — maybe in an emergency situation, perhaps.”

That was two seasons ago, when Thome had just turned 39, and he was warning the team ahead of time that he could play first only as a last resort. Now, two seasons later, he turns 42 in August, and the Phillies hope to give him 20 starts at the position while Ryan Howard is on the mend. To his credit, Thome now seems upbeat, and fully engaged with what figures to be a huge undertaking. He told Buster Olney that he relishes the challenge. But along with that quote come a few others, as well as observations by Olney, that are cause for concern:

When Wigginton came out to join [Jim Thome and Sam Perlozzo for first base fielding drills], the comfort in his movements helped to define how much more work Thome needs at first in the weeks ahead.

But Thome’s greatest challenge in playing the position will be in how his body reacts to the innings bent over at the position, particularly his back, which has caused him pain in the past. After Thome finished the day’s work, he sat at a picnic table with padding strapped to his back, treatment that is part of his daily regimen.

“I don’t go to the park thinking, ‘Is my back going to break down?'” he said. “I do the things I need to do to get ready. I’m at a stage in my career where you do this and roll the dice to try to win a championship.”

It is, to say the least, a very high risk proposition, not from a financial standpoint (Thome will only make $1.25 million this season), but in terms of on-field production. With Thome lies all hope of passable offensive production from the first base position while Howard is out.

Ty Wigginton is the other primary option to start the season. He has some positional flexibility, having logged time at almost every place on the field, but has primarily been a third baseman. This means he could spot Placido Polanco, who struggled last season with both injury and overall production, but he will also split time with Thome at first base, and is likely the full time backup if Thome can’t handle the load. Wigginton’s best season, one that put him on the map as a utility or power bat option for many teams, was his 2008 tour with the Astros. In 429 plate appearances, he hit .285/.350/.526 with 23 home runs, spending time at third base and left field and accruing 2.5 rWAR. Since then, he has not managed to hit at or above league average, posting an OPS+ of 86 in 2009, 98 in 2010, and 87 in 2011. As career years go, his 2008 is a bit strange. It wasn’t built on batted ball luck or a surge in line drive rate (or playing in Denver); it appears to be purely a one year power surge. Wigginton swung at more pitches inside and outside the zone, did not make any better contact than in previous years, but posted a HR/FB% that was 6 points greater than what he had done in his career up to that point, raising his isolated power by 60 points over his 2007 mark.

In any case, Wigginton leaves us no reason to believe he’ll ever be able to approach that performance again. Even in the hitter’s paradise of Coors Field last year, he managed just a .242/.315/.416 line, and was a full win beneath replacement level by rWAR (this was the third season in which he’s been at least a win below replacement, the others being 2009 and 2003). Granted, he was merely replacement level with the bat, and most of his negative defensive value came at third base and in the outfield, positions where he (hopefully) will not see much time this season. But this is probably more than really needs to be said for Wigginton. ZiPS projects Wigginton to hit .249/.312/.399 next season. Even Bill James’ projections, typically the most optimistic of the models, predicts just a .249/.314/.420 line. In Howard’s absence, the Phillies will be fighting on two fronts for first base production — Thome’s health and Wigginton’s ineffectiveness.

The greater context to all this is that the Phillies may well lose output in 2012 for reasons beyond Howard’s unavailability. The 2011 offense, while extremely frustrating at times, was actually significantly above both the NL and MLB averages in terms of run scoring, putting up 4.4 runs per game. But this seems out of tune with their team OPS, which, at .717, was a tick below the MLB average of .720. One reason for this is that they were significantly more productive at the plate when there were runners in scoring position — 14% more productive compared to their overall OPS, to be exact. With runners at 2nd and 3rd, they were 18% more productive than their overall OPS, and with runners at 1st and 3rd, 35%.1

One could speculate on a few reasons why hitters would be more productive with runners on base: in many such situations, the opposing pitcher could be having problems with control or effectiveness, and the opposing defense is often forced into alignments that are not optimal for keeping balls in the infield, etc. But the league as a whole only raised its collective OPS by 4% with runners in scoring position, and the Phillies had not demonstrated this RISP boost to the same degree in previous seasons. Whether or not you want to call it “luck” (worth noting: the Phillies raised their BABIP by 26 points with runners in scoring position, while the league as a whole saw no significant change), it’s far from a given that this form of success is repeatable. It’s likely in 2012 that the offense’s runs per game will track more closely with the team OPS.

Perhaps more importantly, the Phillies have not made any significant offensive additions, and they possess some serious candidates for regression. Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino are the two readiest examples of this, although it’s not out of the question that either of them could repeat the new level of productivity they each established in 2011. John Mayberry, Jr., while presenting no obvious red flags for regression, carries with him the usual questions attendant to a previously marginal player having a small sample break out performance; his hopes ride on a classic “fixed mechanics” tale coming true, and they don’t typically do. If the franchise stays their puzzling course with Domonic Brown, Mayberry and the abortive bat of Laynce Nix will be relied upon for production in left field. It’s difficult not to imagine Chase Utley improving on last season’s performance, but both he and Placido Polanco represent significant injury risks in the starting infield.

The upshot is that Ryan Howard missing substantial time in 2012 would make a dicey situation dicier still. It was worrisome, therefore, to see Matt Gelb report on Saturday that Howard suffered a “minor setback” in his rehabilitation process, and would leave camp to have his Achilles tendon checked out in Baltimore. Ruben Amaro characterized it as a routine check-up, and, typically as of late, the contrasting accounts and noticeable downplaying made things difficult to decipher. There’s not necessarily any reason to panic about it; it’s possible, even likely, that it’s just as minor as Amaro makes it out to be. On the other hand, Manuel noted that the problem was an infection at the site of the surgical incision, a complication that can be nagging and seriously inhibitory to the recovery process. The more time he misses as a result, the more time the Phillies will be forced to rely on the risk-laden duo of Thome and Wigginton, and the higher the chance they find themselves out of options at first base. Funnily enough, this could be liberating for Domonic Brown, if the Phillies elect to install him in left and have Mayberry carry the load at first, but even then, they’ll be scraping around for offense from wherever they can find it, and that’s assuming none of the other injury concerns in the starting lineup blow up on them. The runs may not come nearly as easily as they did in 2011, putting yet more pressure on the pitching staff.

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1It’s interesting to note that this phenomenon went mostly unheralded last season, when, in the past few seasons before it, the lack of “situational hitting” was one of the most common fan complaints.