Jim Thome Returns to Cleveland

In an Indians uniform, Jim Thome had a better on-base percentage than Manny Ramirez, a better OPS than Tris Speaker and more home runs than everyone by a country mile. And with Travis Hafner ailing once again, Thome gets the 41st-birthday present that we all wish for — he gets to come home.

On the surface, it would seem that Thome would only be a superficial upgrade over Hafner. For the season, Thome’s wRC+ is 131, while Hafner has posted a near-identical 125 mark. But Hafner hasn’t been effective since June ended, posting a 90 wRC+ in July and then dropping to 81 in August before being sidelined. Thome, on the other hand, has been coming on strong, with 140 and 139 wRC+ marks in July and August, respectively.

Over his past 25 games — 23 of which he started — Thome has hit .305/.387/.585, with 13 extra-base hits and a dangerous .280 ISO. He reached base in 22 of the 25 contests, and one of the three times he did not reach base was a meaningless pinch-hitting appearance in the ninth inning of a game that the Twins trailed 7-1. In short, Thome has been putting in work. In August, in particular, he’s been driving the ball — his line drive percentage for the month has been a gaudy 29.4%.

Thome’s production could be the life preserver that the Indians need. In losing six of its last seven games — including three of four this week to a Seattle team that entered the series with the fourth-worst road record in the Majors — the Tribe has been outscored nearly two to one. Jason Kipnis and Hafner reside on the disabled list, while Michael Brantley has been teetering on the edge of a visit there the past couple of weeks. Shin-Soo Choo went from postgame hero on Tuesday to literally not being able to rest the bat on his shoulder on Wednesday. And who knows if Grady Sizemore will be back this season. Among the able-bodied, Lonnie Chisenhall has hit the rookie wall sooner than expected, re-opening the door for Jack Hannahan to get playing time. While Hannahan has run with the opportunity, there was a reason he ended up on the bench in favor of The Chiz Kid in the first place. Meanwhile, Matt LaPorta continues to do a worse impression of a first baseman than Josh Girard does of Jay Leno. That basically leaves the Tribe’s two rocks this season — Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana — to carry the team, and they don’t hit with anything resembling the power that Thome brings to the table.

Thome’s HR/FB mark of 21.8 percent — though his second-worst mark in the past decade — easily becomes the highest on the Indians (not counting Kipnis’ torrid start). And as guys like Ezequiel Carrera and Jason Donald have been pressed into playing time, the Indians’ team HR/FB has only dropped further — over the past 30 days they place in the bottom third of the league in HR/FB. And again, Thome is playing better than his overall season line at the moment. Since returning from the DL on June 25, eight of the 25 fly balls he has stroked have found the cheap seats, for a robust HR/FB of 32%. It’s a small sample, but then so is the rest of this season.

But this trade is about so much more than where Thome fits in the order, or whether he can upgrade the Indians by a half-win or a whole win these next five weeks. Realistically, the Indians have a huge mountain to climb if they are going to make the last three games of the season with Detroit matter, and Thome can only do so much. But whether or not he really regretted leaving the Indians after 2002, Thome now has an opportunity to do what few Indians greats before him have done after they left, and that is to come back. Early Wynn and Kenny Lofton came back for their victory laps, but they number among the few. Lou Boudreau and Earl Averill finished in Boston, Speaker and Nap Lajoie finished in Philly. Joe Sewell finished in New York, Larry Doby in Chicago, Albert Belle in Baltimore and Manny Ramirez in Tampa. No one knows if Thome will hang it up after this season, but if he does, this is how it should end. With all that the sports fans of Cleveland have had to endure the past few years, they deserve to see Thome with the Chief Wahoo on his helmet one last time — win, lose or draw.

That’s not how Hollywood would write it, of course. In the movie, the legend returns, is greeted with thunderous ovations — the kind that rattles the ice in the beer coolers — dons Superman’s cape one last time and carries his old-new team, and the city that cheers it on, back to the postseason on his broad shoulders. The now-below-.500 Indians are in need of such a boost in the worst way, and Thome and his hot bat could be just what the Tribe, and the scriptwriters, ordered.

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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times and a writer and editor for FanGraphs. He has written for the Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

22 Responses to “Jim Thome Returns to Cleveland”

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  1. Ted Lilly says:

    “That’s not how Hollywood would write it, of course. In the movie, the legend returns, is greeted with thunderous ovations — the kind that rattles the ice in the beer coolers — dons Superman’s cape one last time and carries his old-new team, and the city that cheers it on, back to the postseason on his broad shoulders. ”

    That narrative relies on the Tigers choking since the Indians are 6.5 games behind. Well, the Indians have a 1.8% chance of making the playoffs according to Baseball Prospectus. They didn’t even parlay their early season winning streak into serious contention for the AL Central in September.

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  2. Bascinator says:

    One thing that’s very underrated and not mentioned in this article – this is a great business/PR move for the Tribe. The Indians have been struggling to sell tickets, with a struggling Cleveland economy and a team that hasn’t shown they can hit well enough consistently to stay in the race. Bringing fan-favorite Thome back for one last time may increase the attendance enough to slightly boost the Indians’ revenue for next year. Additionally, the Indians may receive draft pick compensation for Thome if he decides to play another year.

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  3. MikeS says:

    It’s interesting that Indians fans treated him very poorly when he returned there with the White Sox in 2006. This is not universal. I was at Frank Thomas’ first game in Chicago in an A’s uniform (also in 2006) and he got a standing ovation. It’s a little different since he chose to leave Cleveland for Philly as a free agent but it’s also a little different in that Cleveland fans apparently waited three full years for a chance to boo him vigorously since he was in the NL and they never got a chance. Holding on to that kind of anger over a baseball player can’t be healthy.

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    • Barkey Walker says:

      I think there might have been a basketball player that left Cleveland recently and wasn’t welcomed back warmly.

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    • joser says:

      There are still people at Safeco who boo A-Rod whenever he returns, over a decade later.
      And no, it’s not healthy.

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    • hans says:

      Yes I’ve noticed my fellow Clevelanders keeling over left and right ever since the trade because of this “unhealthy” aspect of fandom, thanks for the observation doc.

      You show the understanding of a newt by the way, which I assume is a misrepresentation on my part because you likely just don’t know the full story of Thome’s departure (and it’s not that he simply signed with another team).

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      • Matt C says:

        I just don’t know how you could boo Thome. I’m a Tigers fan and was at the game a couple weeks ago where he hit his 600HR and we all gave him a standing ovation despite the fact that he has destroyed us throughout his career(especially the past 5 years when the Tigers have become relevant), in fact I think they said he hit more HRs against the Tigers than he has any other team. On top of that, his HR basically put that game out of reach.(and at the time I believe the Tigers were only up by 1 game in the standing) Plus on top of that it’s not like Detroit fans are known for being courteous and gracious. So if we could give him a standing O I don’t see how anybody could boo him. He’s just way too likable.

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    • dan says:

      That’s ridiculous. I’ve been at several Tribe games where Thome came to town with the Sox or Twins…he gets cheered by the Cleveland fans every time. Same for Vizquel with the Sox.

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  4. Chris K says:

    I was at that Thomas game, too. Can’t exactly boo a first-ballot HOFer who made growing up with the White Sox all the more awesome.

    I know that both teams are pretty much out of contention, but I’m now in “anyone but the Tigers mode”. Jim Thome is too awesome a player (and human being) to wish anything but success for him.

    If we hadn’t stupidly decided it wasn’t worthwhile to pay him a couple million dollars to finish his career in Chicago, and instead gone out and overpaid Adam Dunn, we could be watching him and Konerko take the Sox to the postseason instead. I don’t think a team that’s ever let Thome go has done anything but regret it.

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    • Barkey Walker says:

      As a Twins fan, I pre-regretted it since he was placed on waivers.

      His draw is far exceeded by what his WAR would suggest and his WAR already far exceeds his pay.

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  5. Mike B. says:

    I hope Thome sees success in Cleveland and that he plays for a couple more years at a similar level. Still befuddled and upset about the Lofton ordeal–considering his 2007 season I can’t believe he didn’t find employment the next year. A dozen teams could’ve used him and he would’ve been a bargain.

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  6. Broadcasterkll says:

    It’s a six-game and a half game lead for the Tigers, and the Indians have six games head-to-head with Detroit the rest of the way. I vaguely remember a time that the Tigers had a 7-game lead over the second-place Twins as late as September 7th, and they somehow lost the division (it was 2009, by the way). Anything can happen, and if it’s Thome bringing Cleveland through, great. If it doesn’t work out that way, I think Tribe fans can relish in the fact that they were much better than expected (I can’t remember an expert picking them above fourth for the division) and they got to see one of their all-time greats’ swansong.

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  7. Have To Do It says:


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  8. Breadbaker says:

    In the list of Indians legends who came back, you didn’t mention the one beloved most of all: Rocky Colavito.

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    • RéRé says:

      And on the complete opposite side of the spectrum, the Indians brought back some local favorites at the tail end of their careers in the late 90’s. Tom Candiotti and Mark Whiten come to mind.

      Carlos Baerga was also brought back to that dominant 1999 team, but then took 3 years off and had one last hurrah posting a 120 wRC+ with the DBacks in ’03.

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  9. Robbie G. says:

    Two observations:

    1) Jim Thome is presently behind Ken Griffey, Jr. by 29 dingers. Thome has 601, Griffey wound up with 630. Alex Rodriguez obviously winds up moving well past Griffey (he has 626 at the moment) but Thome has a decent shot at catching Griffey for what will wind up being sixth place on the all-time HR list. He’d likely stay at #6 all-time for a long, long time, too, since the only current player with any chance at all of winding up in the 600+ club is Albert Pujols, and he’s a ways off right now (439).

    2) The fact that Thome continues to hit the ball this hard so late in his career, and several years after steroid use has (presumably) been eliminated, is yet another indicator that Thome never used steroids, in my mind. Thome is quite a few years past his prime years yet he is still awfully good. Thome’s face and body never had the classic steroids look, either. Any idiot who does not vote this guy in on the first ballot into the HOF seriously needs to be disqualified from voting in the future.

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    • Barkey Walker says:

      I can see the Twins resigning Thome next year if nobody else does. That and not resigning the mid-relief were the two good moves Bill Smith made last off season.

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      • Omikron says:

        I can see the Indians making him an offer. I believe this is the last year of Travis Hafner’s contract, and the Indians are not likely to sign him again. While he is a great hitter and a fan favorite, his contract was also much to high for a small market team like Cleveland. Signing Thome again could be a viable stop gap measure for the DH spot.

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  10. kick me in the GO NATS says:

    I am a Nats fan, but would prefer if Cleveland won the AL central. Small market teams always deserve an extra cheer when they do well since the system is stacked against them.

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