At this time last year, the future seemed uncertain for Marcus Thames. Although his OBP was above .300 for the first time in two years, he was hitting for less power than he had in his entire career. That’s not a good sign for a guy whose sole skill is hitting a baseball hard. The extra times on base were nice, but when combined with the reduced power it amounted to a .329 wOBA. That’s not bad for a fourth outfielder that can play defense, but Thames had proven so poor in the field that he was relegated mostly to DH duty in 2009. The Tigers cold have brought him back, but the possibility of a non-tender loomed.
The situation actually never got to that point. Faced with re-adding players from the 60-day disabled list, the Tigers released Thames in early November. That made him a free agent one year early. It wasn’t going to lead to big money, but there were a few teams that could have used a righty DH/OF with some pop. Yet as the winter wore on it became clear that teams just weren’t interested in Thames. He didn’t sign a contract until early February, and even then it was a minor league deal with the Yankees. Since they had Rule 5 pick Jamie Hoffmann in camp Thames wasn’t at all guaranteed a spot. But despite a poor spring the Yankees did add him to the 25-man roster.
The idea at first was to platoon him in left field with Brett Gardner, but a combination of Thames’s horrible defense and Gardner’s excellent play brought that to an early halt. It took injuries to starting DH Nick Johnson and center fielder Curtis Granderson for Thames to get more opportunities. He took advantage, producing numbers that were previously thought to be out of his reach. Through 212 PA he is hitting .299 with a .368 OBP and a .214 ISO. It amounts to a .382 wOBA, easily the highest of his career. As with any player performing at that level it raises the question of what team will sign Thames for next year.
Since his batting average is 50 points higher than his career mark we can assume that he is playing above his head. A BABIP more than 80 points higher than his career average confirms that idea. This might signal that he’s due to regress and will become a burden to any team that signs him next season. Yet that might not exactly be true. While there is little chance that Thames will hit .299 with a .360 BABIP next season, might he be a useful bench option for a team looking for a little pop against left-handed pitching?
Throughout his career Thames has been known as a lefty-masher. His career wOBA against lefties is .362 against just .332 when facing right-handed pitching. The Yankees understand this, as they’ve sent him to the plate 123 times against lefties and 89 times against righties. The Tigers sent him to the plate against righties more often than lefties in each of his six seasons there. At first glance, this might seem like the key to Thames’s increased production this year. He does, after all, have a .370 wOBA against left-handed pitching. But the Yankees have seen him succeed smashingly against righties, too. In those 89 PA he has seven home runs and has walked 10 times, amounting to a staggering .398 wOBA.
An 89 PA sample is an awfully small one, so it would be unwise to draw from it conclusions about Thames’s ability to hit righties. In fact, running his numbers through the xBABIP calculator we get .264, which is exactly his career BABIP against righties. His performance this season, unsurprisingly, is an anomaly that shouldn’t fetch him a better contract. Even his numbers against lefties this season seem a bit inflated. He has a .383 BABIP against them, which according to the xBABIP calculator should be closer to .290. That is, again unsurprisingly, right around his career mark.
It would seem, then, that Thames’s numbers just don’t add up this season. His expected numbers appear to be right around his career averages, while his actual performance soars above his previous production. That should buy him a job on some team’s bench next season, and in that capacity he could continue to succeed. By limiting his appearance against right-handed pitching teams can avoid exposing his greatest weaknesses. There has to be at least a little concern about his BABIP-fueled numbers against lefties, but given his career success against them it might not prevent him from helping a team.