Jim Thome: Tater Masher



Over the weekend, the Phillies did Jim Thome a solid, sending the future Cooperstown resident out to the equivalent of pasture for over-35 power hitters; the American League. The suddenly struggling (although their pythag always implied dark clouds on the horizon) Baltimore Orioles are likely to install Thome as their full-time (or near full-time) designated hitter in search of a bit of power in the middle of a lineup that was much quieter in June than either of the two previous months. Because of his newfound playing time, Thome has become a trendy waiver wire add in AL-only and deeper mixed leagues, but even so, still remains available in a ton of leagues (8% owned in Yahoo leagues and 2.5% on ESPN as of Monday night). Is he worth grabbing?

Thome hasn’t really gotten a ton of playing time in 2012, being limited to pinch-hitting duty for the floundering Phillies thanks to his lack of defensive skills. His trademark pop has still been on display with five homers in 75 plate appearances, but his triple slash is a slightly less enticing 0.227/0.320/0.485. 

At first glance, Thome’s 0.263 BABIP seems right in line with what we’d expect from a over-40 designated hitter who has four stolen bases in the last 15 years. However, using Robert Boden’s (slash12) updated xBABIP tool, we see that even though Thome is not fleet of foot, he certainly hits the ball well enough to merit a high BABIP. Therein lies the rub: Jim Thome has actually been quite unlucky this year, with his xBABIP pegged at 0.344. This is no fluke, either, as his 2010 (0.325) and 2011 (0.305) xBABIPs or career BABIP (0.321) will attest. Even at 41, when Thome has put the ball in play, he hits it hard enough that he’s getting on base. Looking at his actual batted ball profile, just about the only thing that’s a bit abnormal in 2012 is the switch of 14% of Thome’s fly balls over to grounders, but batted ball profiles don’t become “reliable” until 200-250 plate appearances, so it’s unlikely that Thome’s skill in lifting the ball has suddenly disappeared.

It’s a good thing Thome has a higher-than-average BABIP because he needs to make up for the fact that he fans a ton. His strikeout rate stands at 30.7% in his limited sample this year, although it’s certainly not far from his 24.1% and 28.4% figures from the past two years. Just to put the whiffs in context, if Thome qualified with his current rate, he’d only be behind Adam Dunn and Mike Napoli on the strikeout rate leaderboard. Of course, the fact that Dunn and Napoli head that list prove that you can strike out almost a third of the time and still hold significant fantasy value. Like Dunn, Thome has historically been able to compliment (maybe even offset) some of the strikeouts with a basket full of walks, although his BB% has slowly declined from 17.6% (2010) to 14.2% (2011) to 10.7% (2012). Even with a 10.7% walk rate, however, Thome’s to-date on-base percentage has been a poor, but not killer, 0.320. Projecting a bit of a rebound in walks (perhaps halfway between 2011 and 2012) and a bit of shift in his BABIP towards his xBABIP and a 0.350-0.360 OBP is not out of the question; certainly a boon to those in leagues which have gone full-on Moneyball for their last offensive category.

But lets get to the real meat of why you’d want Jim Thome on your fantasy team. The walks and base hits are nice, but everyone just wants to watch Jim Jam mash taters. And mash taters he still can do. Thome’s ISO stands at an old-man impressive 0.258 in his 2012 action, which would neatly sandwich him between Curtis Granderson and Josh Reddick if he had enough trips to the dish. Concerned about a small sample? Don’t be. Our designated hitting hero is fifth in ISO since 2008, and remember, that’s only including years where he was on the wrong side of 35. All the more impressive when you consider that power is one of the first skills that erodes as a player ages, with the average peak actually occurring at age 26 — or 15 years ago in “Thome time.”

Possibly one of the best aspects about Thome as a fantasy commodity is that, unlike some other waiver wire options with some thunder in the bat (perhaps Luke Scott, for example), he’s relatively platoon-independent. Relatively should be emphasized, since he has historically walked less (12.6% versus 18.7% career BB%), struck out more (29.1% versus 23.1% K%), and had a lower ISO (0.211 versus 0.326) against southpaws, but the splits aren’t dramatic enough to relegate him to the bench every time the opposition pencils in a lefty. In fact, in 2011, he actually had a higher ISO (0.240 vs. 0.213) and a higher walk rate (17.6% vs. 12.9%) against left-handed pitching, hinting that maybe his skill sets are atrophying asymmetrically, making him more of a balanced player as the hair disappears from the top of his head.

Put it all together and Jim Thome can still help fantasy owners. In some cases, a lot. The positional flexibility isn’t there (he’s only a utility/DH in both standard Yahoo and ESPN leagues) and, even with remarkably steady production over the last few years, history has told us the arrow has to be pointing down on any player over 40. None of this includes advanced injury risk or the fact that Thome likely will get more days off than your average regular. But all that aside, Thome’s got a great shot at putting up palatable average, a solid on-base percentage, decent RBI totals– all with a floor of double-digit home runs. ZiPS has him with eight more home runs in 133 PA for the rest of the season; conservatively double those numbers thanks to his new digs and you get a reasonable 16 dingers coupled with an 0.843 OPS. In deeper leaguers where guys like Justin Smoak and Garrett Jones might be the top power options on the wire, isn’t that worth a pickup?

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There are few things Colin loves more in life than a pitcher with a single-digit BB%. Find him on Twitter @soxczar.

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Probably worth pointing out that Thome is only one appearance at 1B away from qualifying there in yahoo so he may not be a Util all year.