You know, it's hard to keep the kids happy these days. Even in this post-Mitchell Report era, chicks still dig the long ball, to quote the famous Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine commercial from yesteryear.
Back when the ad aired originally in 1999, Jim Thome was already known as one of the premier power hitters in baseball, solidifying a potent Cleveland Indians lineup that included Manny Ramirez, Roberto Alomar, Richie Sexson, and David Justice.
My how times have changed. While Manny is still being Manny for the Red Sawx, Alomar and Justice are out of the league—Sexson is putting up numbers that would make Rob Deer cringe, and Jim Thome...well, let's just say he's having a hard time right now.
See, when you look like Mr. Incredible, people expect you to hit home runs. Apparently, having these expectations set for so long, it has been permanently ingrained in Thome's mind, as he throws caution into the wind at every at bat and swings for the fence—
And misses for strike three...
And grounds out to the infield...
And grounds into a double play...
This is the part where all the Greg Walker haters jump in and say, "See, this is why Walker should be fired—it's obvious Walk isn't doing enough to get guys like Jim Thome to take the right approach." As Lee Corso would say, "Not so fast my friend."
You may have forgotten, but Jim Thome turns 38 this August—38! He has also been in the bigs for 18 seasons...and you know what they say about old dogs.
This scenario may be vaguely familiar to Sox fans. As a matter of fact, if you're old enough to read this article, you might remember the player I'm referring to, as Thome took his job. Yes, I'm talking about Frank Thomas, another massive guy that faced a similar conundrum a few years ago while with the Sox.
After relentlessly putting up MVP-type numbers, Thomas had a rough campaign in 1998 and, incredible numbers put up in 2000 aside, hasn't been quite the same since.
See, power hitters are like power pitchers—once they get to a certain age, they reach a fork in the road. One sign arrow points and says, "Hit as many homers as you'd like, batting average and overall production be damned." The other says, "Stick it out for the long haul, and give up a few homers for the sake of overall production."
In the case of Thome, he's currently stuck on the median of the road waiting for his GPS to tell him which way to go.
In other words, the difference between a good power hitter and a great one comes later on in the career. The bat speed isn't quite there, and more pitchers tend to figure out the holes in the individual's strike zone.
In the case of both Frank Thomas and Jim Thome, they hate pitches on the inside part of the plate.
Earlier in their careers, if you had the cajones to throw an inside fastball to either of them, they would've deposited it into the seats with the flick of a wrist. Later on in both of their careers, Thome and Thomas have both demonstrated problems handling pitches on the inside of the plate.
For Thomas, however, that changed when his approach to the plate changed. Known not only for his power but also exquisite bat control, Frank Thomas opened up his stance a bit and moved slightly closer to the plate, among other things, to correct the newfound "hole" in his approach.
Because of that, Thomas could now, at the very least, foul off those pesky inside pitches until the pitcher made a mistake from the middle away. Now Thomas, even at age 40, is still an effective hitter, and probably added a good couple years to his career because of his adjusted stance.
Thome has displayed similar problems with his approach. Oh sure, he'll catch a few of those inside fastballs, but for the most part, Thome's major-league whiffs are only aiding in cooling off a hot home-field crowd.
With that wide-open batting stance, he's obviously focusing on pulling the ball. Trouble is that, especially at his age, he's going to roll over any decent pitch from the middle in. So, he either grounds out or takes the pitch for a strike. Furthermore, he gets so far under balls that unless he hits it square as can be, it's an automatic pop out—line-drive home runs have even become a rarity for him.
Sure, if he turned into a line-drive hitter he'd lose the HR numbers, but I bet he'd score a lot more runs.
Sadly, at this point in Thome's career, Walker can only do so much to encourage him to adjust his batting stance—because after 18 years of routine, it's sometimes better to leave a slumping hitter alone. That being said, for Thome to continue to be effective for the next few years, he has got to adjust his approach to the plate.
If he doesn't, you can bet Kenny Williams will be forced to find a way to deal him.