Jim Thome Signs with Philadelphia Phillies: Can He Replace Ryan Howard?

Matt TruebloodSenior Analyst INovember 5, 2011

Jim Thome Signs with Philadelphia Phillies: Can He Replace Ryan Howard?

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    Jim Thome is no first-base savior for the Philadelphia Phillies. He last played the position in 2007. He hasn't been a regular there since his last stint with the Phillies in 2005.

    Nonetheless, Thome agreed to a one-year, $1.25 million deal with the Phillies Friday. That move sets up Philadelphia with a very good pinch-hitting slugger; Thome's 40 home runs in 664 plate appearances the past two years ably demonstrate that Thome can still do that.

    But Phillies manager Charlie Manuel might ask a bit more of his long-time friend and sometime protege. With Ryan Howard out for an indeterminate period after tearing his Achilles' tendon, Thome could be a candidate to make some starts at first base early in the year.

    Read on for a thorough examination of the viability of that idea.

Making a 41-Year-Old a Regular First Baseman

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    Though Ryan Howard seems on track to return at or a little before the All-Star break, signing Jim Thome signals that the Phillies are at least considering plugging him in as a regular until that time.

    That might work, but if it does, it will be the first time it has worked in recent memory.

    Two kinds of players commonly play 100-plus games at age 41. The first group are designated hitters, like Edgar Martinez, Dave Winfield and even (in 1975, the twilight of his career) Hank Aaron. The second are up-the-middle guys whose positional value and athleticism has extended their careers to that point. This includes players like Steve Finley, Craig Biggio and Honus Wagner.

    Obviously, with the DH not in play, Thome will be forced to play first base at least a few times in order to have utility for the Phillies. If he does so, and succeeds, he will become the first first baseman to post an average or better OPS at age 41 since Stan Musial in 1962.

Remembering Jim Thome, Defensive First Baseman

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    Even the younger, more agile Thome we once knew was no defensive marvel. Though born and raised in industrial, Caterpillar-owned Peoria, Ill., Thome was country big and country strong from the time he was a rookie. He also had all the range of a silo.

    Soft hands served Thome well for years, though, and it stands to reason that a bit of hard work over the winter could make him viable again when it comes to scooping low throws and fielding bunts.

    Thome's lack of range guarantees he would be at least an occasional liability with the glove, but it need not be an irredeemable disadvantage for the Phillies. 

Getting Back in the Saddle

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    So what goes into recovering Thome's defensive prowess, such as it is?

    Primarily, it comes down to practice. Five years is a long time. Rust can really accumulate in that span, and come spring, it will have been that long since Thome donned a first baseman's mitt. Presumably, he will spend part of the winter in that mitt, working on his fundamentals around the bag and testing his own range.

    At 41 years old, though, his body might not appreciate the reminder of what it is to crouch in anticipation of every pitch, let alone to lunge after one-hop ground balls or to scoop a Jimmy Rollins short-hop rocket out of the dirt.

    Ultimately, the question of Thome's defensive readiness and his body's response to preparation will be the most critical determinant of his versatility and utility to the Phillies. If he can play defense, he is a huge asset. If he cannot, he is a low-impact addition.

Is Thome Still an Everyday Hitter?

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    Jim Thome has been very good the past two years. 

    He has added 43.8 runs to his teams' ledgers with his bat in 664 plate appearances, according to wRAA (which assigns empirically accurate values to all batting events, thereby providing a precise evaluation metrics like OPS, homers and batting average cannot match).

    For perspective, consider that Ryan Howard himself added just 42.5 runs to the Phillies' cause in 1,264 plate appearances over that span.

    Of course, those numbers do not tell the whole story. Playing more often exposed Howard to the ravages of baseball's relentless schedule. Though Thome's .362 wOBA was eight points better than Howard's in 2011, regression analysis based on Howard having batted 340 more times puts the Phillies' injured slugger (.352) back in front of its aged one (.351).

    That's just the statistical side of the issue. The subjective side is nearly as important. How will Thome handle increased playing time, if it comes? Can his knees and back withstand playing every day, let alone playing the field every day, even for half a season?

    It's impossible to know, but Thome must think he can handle the workload, or else he would not have agreed to this deal.

The Lefty Problem

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    Both Jim Thome and Ryan Howard bat left-handed. That's an advantage. It gives them each the platoon advantage over half the time. It has been a bit more of an advantage for Thome over the last two seasons, though, than it has been for Howard.

    Because Thome has not been a full-time player during the past two seasons, he has been used somewhat selectively. Of his 664 plate appearances, only 185 have been against southpaws. That's 27.6 percent.

    Howard, meanwhile, has played every day, at least as far as health has allowed, and thus 401 of his 1,264 plate appearances have been against lefties since 2010. That's 31.8 percent.

    If Thome had faced left-handed hurlers in 26 more plate appearances the past two years, enough to cover that difference, he could have been expected to do roughly four percent worse overall. 

    His numbers still suggest Thome can sustain offensive success in an expanded role, but he's not likely to perform even quite as well as Howard would given the information we've looked at thus far. 

Ballpark Adjustments

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    To this point, all the objective evidence says that Thome would be a serviceable but wholly unspectacular offensive substitute for Howard and that he might be a defensive liability. It was mostly bad news,

    Now comes some good news. There are factors for which we still need to account that change the equation.

    Howard has called Citizen's Bank Park home for his entire career. That's a big boost for a power hitter, especially one who uses the whole field, as Howard and Thome do. Meanwhile, for the past two years, Thome has battled the cavernous dimensions of Target Field in Minnesota, and the grounder-friendly environs of Progressive Field in Cleveland.

    Taking into account the depressive impact on Thome's numbers wrought by those parks, Thome's .362 2011 wOBA (scaled to OBP, but a more holistic estimate of offensive value based on the run values of all offensive events) rises to .367.

    Howard's .354 figure, meanwhile, drops to .352 after accounting for the luxury of being cozy with the right-field wall in Philadelphia. Thome, then, might be even better than he looked over the last two seasons.

Competitive Adjustments

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    As member of the Twins and Indians last season, Thome was playing in the American League, and missing two of its weaker pitching sisters—because he was on their side.

    Now Thome moves to the NL, most likely a lateral move in terms of competition at this point. Instead of facing the league's best pitchers and having the worst on his side, though, Thome will now play next to and behind the best hurlers in all of baseball.

    Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels are three guys no batter wants to face, and Thome now has the advantage of being on their side. It might seem a small thing, but it can make a three percent difference in offensive production to face slightly worse pitchers over the course of a season.

    That three percent could make Thome even more viable as a regular player.

The Phillies Infield and Its Impact

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    If Thome's defense is a concern, the Phillies' infield is a reassuring presence. Jimmy Rollins seems sure to get his best offer right there at home. He is a solid fielder, but most importantly, as it relates to Thome, he has a very accurate arm.

    Placido Polanco does, too, and despite the silly suggestions of some, he will be back at third base. That will help Thome. With such a steady left side of the infield, Thome need not be dipping and diving after errant throws if he does play the field.

    Chase Utley, though, is the true difference-maker. He, too, has a good arm, but more importantly, he is an exceptional second baseman in terms of range. He can close the right side of the infield a bit, limiting the ground Thome is forced to cover wide of the bag at first.

    No second baseman in the game is better suited to complement Thome. 

John Mayberry to the Rescue?

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    It isn't as though Thome is a sure thing to play first base at all. He is not all the Phillies have, even as they await Howard's return.

    If he does play the field, it will almost certainly be in a platoon role. That alleviates some of the problems posed by having Thome more exposed to left-handed pitchers than he has been recently.

    Enter John Mayberry, Jr. A career backup, Mayberry will get next season what may be the best shot he will ever see to prove himself as a solid semi-regular.

    The opportunity suits him perfectly. As part of a pairing with Thome, Mayberry could start almost exclusively against left-handed pitchers. His career OPS against such opponents is a very stout .945. Some regression is due, but Mayberry is a true lefty-masher.

    He and Thome in tandem could have as much offensive value as the missing Howard. Maybe more.

The Verdict: Do It!

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    The Phillies probably do not have the guts to actually try this. Thome will ride the bench, pinch hit a lot and watch Mayberry make the huge majority of the starts in Howard's absence, for better or worse.

    It would be a good risk, though, to go ahead and plug Thome in at first. He can handle the gig as well as his injured teammate, at least in a partial-season and platoon setting. He will also fade happily back into the woodwork once Howard returns, to a greater extent than Mayberry might if he plays exceptionally for three months.

    It's a worthy chance to take, but it's an unlikely one.