The Yankees take care of their own. Or something. Former Yankees, Rangers, Yankees (again), and Dodgers outfielder and designated hitter Marcus Thames has apparently retired, as the High-A Tampa Yankees announced that he will be their hitting coach in 2013. Thames was never a superstar. He was not even everyday player over even one full season in the majors, as the most plate appearances he ever received in a single season was 390 in 2006. However, he was surprisingly productive despite his limited playing time. During 2006, he hit 26 home runs for the Tigers on their way to the World Series. Thames was a good example of how hitter with a limited skill set can carve out a surprisingly long career, which included his share of dramatic hits.
Thames, drafted by the Yankees in the 30th round of of the 1996 draft, was never an acclaimed prospect. When he was called up by the Yankees in 2002 (an interesting story, which will be discussed in more detail below), it was only for 13 plate appearances. After the season, the Yankees traded him to the Rangers for Ruben Sierra, but Thames did not do much in his very limited 2003 playing time in Texas. After the season, he signed with Detroit. While he spent most of the 2004 and and 2005 seasons in Toledo, he did show something in limited time with the Tigers: power. In just 302 plate appearances over those two seasons, he hit 17 home runs. In 2006, at 29, he finally got more of a look, and showed that his power was no fluke. He struck out a lot, but not unbearably often, he walked a decent amount, and, above all, hit for power (.293 ISO) in putting together a .256/.333/.549 (124 wC+) line.
Thames never hit that well again, and his outfield defense was, even at its best, poor. He had only an average walk rate. The hitting approach that generated power also lead to a low BABIP and high strikeout rates, which kept him from ever being more than a part-timer, especially for a team that had limited playing time available at DH, Thames’ best position. However, power can make up for a lot of flaws, and Thames had it in spades, never having an isolated power below .200 in any season in which he was given at least 100 plate appearances. Thames was miscast as anything more than an occasional outfielder (and fielding is what kept him replacement level, even in seasons when he hit pretty well).
Players typically are not good in their last major league chances, which is why they are last chances. But in remembering Thames in the wake of his retirement, it is perhaps better to think of his real sendoff. After his time in Detroit, Thames returned to the Yankees in 2009 and recaptured some of the old magic at the plate, hitting .288/.340/.391 (126 wRC+) with 12 home runs in just 237 plate appearances. It was very probably fluke-driven (Thames had a .345 BABIP that season after never even having a seasonal BABIP of .300 or greater once in his career), but at least it got him one more million-dollar payday with the Dodgers.
Thames was a role player, a low-end DH and fourth outfielder on a team with two starting outfielders who could play center. His lack of draft and prospect status probably prime him in his prime from ever generating the hopes and dreams that, say, Delmon Young (whose best seasons have never been as good as Thames’) still might, or that mostly washed-up veterans like Raul Ibanez still generate. Thames was a limited player, but that power also means that he could be a fun player. In closing, here are three of his biggest hits, two as measured by Win Probability Added, and one by my personal choice.
Somewhat surprisingly, Thames’ biggest overall hit according to WPA was not a home run. In September of 2006, the Tigers were on their way to the playoffs and eventually, the World Series, even if they choked away the division in the last weeks of the season. Despite Thames’ heroics, this game was part of that choke job. With rookie pitcher Justin Verlander on the mound against Joe Saunders, the Tigers took advantage of their pitching edge by scoring no runs through seven innings, while giving up one. Down 1-0 in the bottom of the eighth, the Tigers finally managed to get Cy Saunders out of the game with an Omar Infante hit. Detroit then had to face Scott Shields, a dominating middle reliever back then. However, Shields managed to load up the bases by allowing a single to Curtis Granderson and walking Craig Monroe. Thames singled in Infante and Granderson to put the Tigers up 2-1 for a massive .499 WPA swing. It was not enough, though, as the Angels tied things up in the bottom top of the ninth, then scored five runs in the top of the tenth to put Detroit away.
This hit was not actually all that dramatic, but is an example of Thames doing something in the postseason. It was yet another Yankees crushing of the Twins in the playoffs, and Thames did his part. With the Yankees up 2-0 in the bottom of the fourth, Marcus Thames crushed a Brian Duensing pitch for a two-run homer and .102 WPA. Duensing left the game not long after.
Confession: this hit is probably the main reason I am writing about Marcus Thames, and I am guessing I am not the only person for whom this game stands out. It was actually the last Yankees game I went to in the Bronx before moving away. I saT in the bleachers with group of friends, and a proto-Jersey Shore character kept jamming his knees into my back every time something interesting happened, all the while loudly speculating to the two women with him about various players’ nocturnal lifestyles. Another Yankees fan got ejected for yelling racial slurs at some of the Diamondbacks’ relievers, who were throwing directly in front of us. Good times.
There were also more baseball-related reasons that this game is memorable. For one thing, it was the year after the Diamondbacks had dramatically beaten the Yankees in the World Series. For another, Arizona was sending Randy Johnson to the mound. I also remember that Alfonso Soriano was in one of his periodic slumps, so Joe Torre briefly demoted him out of the leadoff spot.
The biggest hit of the game was actually a grand slam by Shane Spencer (wow, I feel old), who hit a grand slam off of Bret Prinz in the bottom of the eighth after Prinz intentionally walked Robin Ventura (who was pinch-hitting for Ron Coomer) to get to him. Revenge!
Thames, though, was the story of the night. He was not even supposed with the team. However, Juan Rivera got hurt before the game, the Yankees were short on outfielders, and they called up Thames that day to start in Rivera’s place. In the bottom of the third inning, the game was tied 0-0 with one out, and Spencer was on second base. Thames came to the plate for his first major league plate appearance versus surefire Hall-of-Famer (at least it seemed that way back when people actually got elected) Randy Johnson, who would go on to win his fourth NL Cy Young Award in a row that season. Thames launched the first pitch he saw in the majors into the seats for the Yankees. It was just .137 WPA, but in terms of memorable baseball moments for me, it was huge.