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— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Friday, December 06, 2002
Thome or not Thome
Dan examines Jim Thome’s new deal with the Phillies.
He’s one of the best hitters in baseball. He led the American League in OPS in 2002. He finished second in our Baseball Primer AL MVP Award voting. Yet the thought of giving him a 6-year, 85 million dollar contract has left some of us with a Thome-ache.
But that’s what the Philadelphia Phillies did, signing Jim Thome to a long-term contract that will surely be the biggest of the offseason. Now, the question everyone wants to answer is whether the Phillies will get their money’s worth. Of course, we can’t know the answer to that until six years have gone by, but we can guess. And no matter how sophisticated the analysis involved, the result is still a guess; the methodology is selected subjectively. This article will be just as subjective as the rest. In case that bothers anyone, I’ve thrown in some numbers and charts to make this look more like science..
The preferred method for this kind of prediction is to see what other players have done, whether they’re all hitters at a certain age or only those deemed to be similar. Either way, there’s a big problem that I call the Canseco Conundrum. The Canseco Conundrum is simple: even twins are nothing alike. Or, as Police Chief Clancy Wiggum might say, “People are just like snowflakes. They’re both very pretty.”.
Nonetheless, comparing Thome to other players is worthwhile. Simple aging patterns tell us a lot, but they’re just an average progression. We know that many or maybe most hitters don’t do what the average hitter does. So in an effort to narrow down the possibilities, one popular technique is to observe players deemed similar to the subject—in this case, Jim Thome..
Similarity scores are the quickest way to find similar players. They were created by Bill James and are available at Baseball-Reference.com. They’re based on a variety of criteria, including measures like slugging and on-base percentages as well as at bats and games played. Do these give us the best results for projecting future performance? Well, that leads us off into more subjective areas..
The first question I’d ask in the case of Thome is “What makes Jim Thome Jim Thome?” Where does Thome’s value come from? What separates him from the pack?.
The most obvious answer is his power. So when I compare Thome to similar players, I’m interested in players who share that attribute. To measure Jim Thome’s power, we’ll need to look at a couple statistics that isolate power from other facets of his style of play. And is there a better way to isolate power than with the stat known as isolated power? The answer to that is a resounding yes..
Why I’m Not a Big Fan of Isolated Power
Isolated power is a nice little statistic. It’s very convenient to use. For those of you unfamiliar with it, it’s arrived at by subtracting batting average from slugging percentage. This is a perfectly natural thing to do; slugging percentage is a composite of frequency and magnitude. Batting average is frequency. If we want magnitude, we can just subtract that frequency right on out of there and get something left over that sure looks like magnitude. And it is pretty darn close..
But for the kind of comparison we’re looking for here, close isn’t going to cut it. Sadly, isolated power has a little frequency left in it, like the tissue that’s stuck to the bottom of the garbage can when you empty it. Here’s a glaring example:.
AB HR 1B SO AVG SLG ISO TB/H HR/CON Player 1 20 4 4 12 .400 1.000 .600 5.000 .500 Player 2 20 2 0 18 .100 .400 .300 8.000 1.000
Assume that whenever each of these players connects, they get a hit, and that the above is truly representative of their ability. Player 2, who has much more power but less ability to connect, is correctly identified as the more powerful player by TB/H and HR/Contact, but not by isolated power. The problem is that frequency residue showing up in a big way..
Now, those are extreme cases, but when we look at Thome’s power, we’re looking at an extreme case. And it shows up even in less extreme cases. For example, look at these correlations for all players in 2002 who had 300 or more plate appearances:.
ISO TB/H HR/CON Correl with AVG: .359 .055 .195
Certainly, there’s an element of power driving batting average there, but isolated power is far above TB/H, which completely weeds out frequency. As a sidenote, HR/Contact has a higher correlation with average for the simple reason that when a player makes contact, the more often the result is a home run, the less often it will be an out. Total bases per hit, by not considering outs, avoids that issue completely..
And when you look at how these statistics break down, it’s even more clear..
(H/AB) x (TB/H) = (TB/AB) is the same as saying AVG (Frequency) x TB/H (Magnitude) = SLG..
Isolated power is (TB-H)/AB. By using at bats as the denominator, frequency is inherently included..
Oh, yeah, Jim Thome. So when we look for hitters with the raw power of Jim Thome, we’ll look at their TB/H and their HR/Contact..
Let’s make up something arbitrary called a Truly Spectacular Power Season (TSPS). In order to record a TSPS, a player must be in the top 50 all time in both TB/H and HR/Contact while amassing 500 plate appearances. Such a thing has happened 32 times, and 20 different players have done it. These are the six players that have done it multiple times:.
Player TSPSs Years Mark McGwire 5 1987, 1992, 1996, 1998, 1999 Babe Ruth 4 1920, 1921, 1927, 1928 Barry Bonds 3 2000, 2001, 2002 Sammy Sosa 2 1999, 2001 Willie Stargell 2 1971, 1973 Jim Thome 2 2001, 2002
Only two of Thome’s similar players through age 31 ever accomplished the feat. They were Reggie Jackson and Harmon Killebrew. That group looks like pretty good company—even from ages 32-37..
The point isn’t that Thome is Harmon Killebrew or Mark McGwire. The point is that he also isn’t Albert Belle, Mo Vaughn, or Frank Thomas. He’s Jim Thome, and we don’t know what he’s going to do over the next six years. We don’t even know the probabilities. We can guess, but there’s a million different ways to get to a best guess..
Based on that, is it reasonable for the Phillies to give 85 million dollars to him? Maybe. We don’t know how likely it is that Thome will be that valuable for the next six years. But we do know how valuable he’d be to the Phillies if they didn’t sign him. What would they have done with the money? Could they have done something better?.
Consider also that the Phillies had a lot more money than that to play with this offseason, considering their deal with David Bell and their offer to Tom Glavine. And consider that if you can afford one of the greatest hitters around, you can try to build a supporting cast for not a lot of money. Thome’s distance from replacement value is enormous—maybe more than the sum of lesser players who can be signed for the same aggregate amount of money..
Does Alex Rodriguez’s contract prevent the Rangers from putting a competitive team around him? Does Oakland’s lower revenue prevent them from building a competitive team at all? No—we know that neither is the case, reality has already contradicted those ideas. What does Philadelphia lose, even in the worst case? They lose wiggle room. If Thome becomes suddenly worthless, then they have a smaller margin of error to work with. Is this signing worth that risk? Is the chance of Thome staying just as productive, or almost as productive, or somewhat as productive—is that worth the risk? Well, that’s for the Phillies to decide, and I don’t see the evidence that their decision—to sacrifice their wiggle room (the value of which should not be underestimated) for the chance of Thome’s potential greatness—is inherently wrong..
We have tendencies—aging patterns, old and young players’ skills, similar batter progressions—but tendencies aren’t even close to certainties. They constantly contradict each other, and they constantly run counter to chunks of reality. And even a risk that has a less than twenty-five percent chance of succeeding can be worth taking, depending on the circumstances..
If you ask me, if you think you can afford the wiggle room, Jim Thome is a risk worth taking.
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