August 20, 2010
Hitting the Jim
In the wake of his monster walk-off blast at the expense of death-to-lefties Matt Thornton and the division-rival White Sox, there’s been a good deal of discussion around the interwebs about whether Jim Thome has been the best bargain of last offseason’s free-agent market (which at least one enlightened observer was wise enough to predict before the calendar flipped to February). Ozzie Guillen clearly isn’t convinced, but at a current return of ~$550,000/win, Thome has given the Twins little cause for buyer’s re-MORP.
Thome’s the sort of patient, plodding slugger (over the course of his career, he’s stolen 19 bases, and been caught stealing 20 times) whom we don’t think of as a safe bet to age well, though perhaps we don't always give him enough credit for the contact skills he possessed in his prime: the 2010 Twin hit a combined .293 in his age 24-31 seasons. Of course, future Hall-of-Famers often thumb their noses at the typical aging curve; that's one of the attributes that makes them such singular talents, and allows them to accumulate the career value often necessary for enshrinement among the immortals.
Thome hit at least 30 homers per season from 1996 through 2004, but broke down in his age-34 campaign, undergoing season-ending surgery (and belatedly clearing a path for Ryan Howard) in August of 2005. The Peoria native rebounded with a pair of huge years after being traded to Chicago that November, but it seemed fair to wonder whether Thome was finally making a few grudging concessions to age thereafter, what with a drop-off in production in 2008 and 2009, and a bout with plantar fasciitis that rendered him even more immobile than usual down the stretch last season. Whether as a result of that injury or not, Thome failed to post a .500 slugging percentage in 2009 for the first time since Bill Clinton’s first year in the White House (excepting his aforementioned injury year).
However, Thome seems to have recaptured something akin to his vintage stroke at the age of 39. The DH was intended to fill a part-time role and spend a significant percentage of the season riding the pine, but through a combination of injuries to other players and his own superb performance, he’s been enjoying fairly regular opportunities to make opposing pitchers pay, mashing opposite-handed hurlers and exceeding his career rates against southpaws. Thome has launched 17 homers in 257 plate appearances, despite taking up residence in what has thus far been the most difficult park in which to hit them. 10 of those dingers have been “Just Enough” shots, according to Hit Tracker, but that’s to be expected when aiming for such a distant Target. As usual, Thome has spread his moonshots around, showcasing light-tower power to all fields.
Thome turns 40 a week from today; as September approaches, he’s still staking a claim to one of the most productive offensive seasons by any batter aged 39 or older (min. 200 PA):
Thome’s stance may be easy to mimic, but his results have had few convincing imitators; unlike his Twitter alter ego, Thome speaks fairly softly, while his numbers make plenty of noise. With a host of shiny BBWAA-approved counting stats and just a shade under 72 career WARP to provide sabermetric support, Thome's Cooperstown case seems more assured with every passing day. I’ll leave the exact accounting of his plaque probability to Jay Jaffe, who not only developed a system designed to consider that question, but also sports this sweet mustache. Thome’s .222/.321/.488 career postseason line (in 238 PA) might seem like a black mark against him, but given that he’s managed to maintain most of his patience and power deep into October, it’s really more of a gray smudge. If the Twins can cling to their current 4-game lead in the AL Central, Thome may soon get a chance to whitewash even that lingering stain on his legacy.