Saturday, March 6, 2010

What Time Is Thome Time In Minnesota?

During the winter trading season, the Minnesota Twins acquired free agent slugger Jim Thome on the open market for whatever the opposite of a pretty penny is (an ugly penny). The Twins got a bona fide masher, the kind of guy who only swings at pitches he believes he can launch into the stratosphere - thus, a guy who hits home runs a lot, strikes out a lot, and walks a lot, especially in comparison to your average ballplayer. Some baseball stat joker termed these the "three true outcomes" awhile back. "Big Jim" Thome currently ranks third among active players in home runs with 564, first in strikeouts with 2313, and first in walks with 1619. Three true outcomes indeed - nobody does 'em better.

Jim Thome will turn 40 during this season. He is not the baseball player he once was. He cannot play defense at any position, not even first base - thus, he will serve the Twins purely as their designated hitter. He doesn't run well - Twins manager Ron Gardenhire is lucky in that there usually will be a speedy bench jockey to pinch-run for Thome should he reach base during later innings. And even his once-mighty hitting skills have been in decline for the past few years - his OPS was .973 in 2007, .865 in 2008, and .847 in 2009. These last two years represent his first full seasons with a sub-.900 OPS since his first couple years in the big leagues. However, he still can pack a wallop beyond that of your average MLBer, especially when facing righthanded pitchers, against which his 2009 OPS was .881, very respectable for a DH.

And so here we are, Jim Thome a Twin. But Jason Kubel is already a lefthanded hitting DH, and Delmon Young needs at bats. If Jim Thome's in the lineup, one of those guys has to sit. And so, we must ask ourselves (well, we don't HAVE to ask ourselves, but if you're the sort of person who's still reading this blog, you are highly encouraged to ask yourself): when should Ron Gardenhire pencil Thome's name in the Twins starting lineup?

I suggest the following criteria.

1. Jim Thome can start as DH regardless of whether the pitcher is a righty or a lefty. He is an excellent hitter against righthanded pitching but has sunk to league average or just below against lefties. However, Jason Kubel hits even worse against lefthanders than Thome does (I was quite surprised to learn this). Since Kubel hits righties better than Thome, and Thome hits them better than Delmon, the Twins may want to consider Thome at DH and Kubel in left field against righthanders, and Thome and Young against lefthanders. But wait, there's more...

2. Jim Thome should usually only start as DH when the opposing pitcher is at least a 50/50 flyout vs. groundout pitcher. His OPS against canned corn inducers was .956, whereas against ditch diggers, it was .821. Conversely, Delmon Young fares best against pitchers who rely on the grounder for outs. Note that his OPS against them is actually lower than Thome's, but his defense and his potential for offensive improvement this year make him a better starting option in this sort of matchup. Jason Kubel was a force to be reckoned with last year against pitchers who induce the groundout, and didn't hit flyball pitchers so well, but over his career, he is a slightly better hitter against the fly guys, albeit not as good as Big Jim.

3. Jim Thome should not start against pitchers who strike out or walk a high percentage of batters - "power pitchers." He can't hit against them, but Jason Kubel can (he hits all pitchers about equally well when compared by how many batters they walk and strike out), and Delmon Young can play defense to compensate for any lack of hitting skill he may have against power pitchers. I believe Thome is so weak against power pitchers, he should not ever face them. This means he should ride the bench against Jake Peavy (White Sox), Justin Verlander (Tigers), Zach Greinke (Royals), and their ilk - all of them pitchers he would have been more than equal to in his glory days. So it goes.

4. Last, consider who the Twins starting pitcher is, and what kind of outs he is likely to produce. A Twins outfield of Kubel/Span/Cuddyer is markedly worse at catching fly balls than the Young/Span/Cuddyer outfield is. Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, and probably Francisco Liriano (who is somewhat of an x-factor right now) induce more fly balls, and whether caught or not depends on who's in the outfield. Glen Perkins - should he win a spot in the rotation - is about league average when it comes to air vs. ground. And Nick Blackburn gets a ton of grounders with that nice sinker (a quick note: when I lived in NYC and listened to Blackburn pitch against the Yankees, the local radio commentators, John Sterling and Susan Waldman, absolutely would not shut up about Nick Blackburn's sinker. They really drove the point into the dirt, so to speak).

So, we have a few guidelines. If the starting pitcher for the Twins is Nick Blackburn, and the opponent's starter is a right-handed pitcher who relies on fly outs, and who doesn't strike out or walk a high chunk of batters he faces, then it's Thome Time. If, however, the Minnesota starter is Scott Baker, and the Twins opponent is a lefthanded grounout-getting strikeout-and-walk machine, it is... well, whatever the opposite of Thome Time is. If he were still on the team, I would say "Gomez O'Clock," but Carlos Gomez is a Brewer now.

All of this, of course, presumes perfect health and levels of rest for everyone involved. Baseball is a funny game. People get hurt. And there are a TON of games to play, and lineup cards to write - we might see Jim Thome starting at DH against Jake Peavy (a power pitcher, plus plenty of groundouts), with Michael Cuddyer, Delmon Young, and (brace yourself) Nick Punto in right, left, and center field, respectively. You never know.

Here's the most important thing to take away from all this: when considering only the righty/lefty split (the most important split in baseball, the one that made Mr. Burns pinch-hit Homer Simpson for Darryl Strawberry in a move that won him the game), Big Jim Thome is a better DH option than Jason Kubel, no matter which side of the mound the ball is hurled from. Jason Kubel should get most of his at-bats while starting in the outfield this year. There is not much need for him to fill the designated hitter position when the clock strikes Thome.

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