Nobody was really sure what to expect when the Twins inked Jim Thome to a one-year, $1.5 million deal in the offseason. He had a good 2009 for the White Sox, batting .249/.372/.493, but was awful after being dealt to the Dodgers at the trade deadline, batting .235/.235/.235 in 17 plate appearances as a pinch-hitter. Even though the price was certainly right, it didn’t really look like Thome would be a good fit for the Twins. He’s a left-handed bat in a lineup stocked with good left-handed hitters, and he can’t hit left-handed pitching at all anymore (he slugged just .421 against southpaws last year). He’s in his twilight years, he can’t play in the field, and his performance as a pinch-hitter (which was Bill Smith’s reasoning behind the signing) was disappointing. Between Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer, the Twins already had enough decent hitters who really shouldn’t play in the field. Far from being washed up, however, Jim Thome has actually been one of the best hitters on the team this season, and one of the best free agent bargains of the offseason.
How good has Thome been for the Twins? Well, he’s batting .262/.388/.560, with a .404 wOBA and .298 ISO. This makes him the second-best hitter on the team behind Justin Morneau, though he’s been about fifth-best behind Joe Mauer, Jason Repko, Delmon Young, and Danny Valencia since Morneau went down with a concussion. Not being able to play in the field certainly hurts his value a bit (he’s worth 1.8 WAR according to both Fangraphs and Baseball-reference.com), but if you believe that the market value of a win is about $ 4.1 million, then so far Thome has been worth $7.3 million to the Twins. And if you don’t, you can probably agree that $1.5 million is a bargain for that level of production. On a fangirl level, watching Thome make history and ascend the list of career-home run leaders has been a blast. He’s already surpassed both Rafael Palmeiro and Harmon Killebrew, and has just five more to go to pass up Mark McGwire for sole possession of ninth place. I would’ve loved it if he hit his 600th before A-Rod, but at just 579 578, that didn’t seem likely.
Of course, the reason Thome has been so good this year is that he’s used almost exclusively in situations that favor his skills as a hitter. Jim Jam still punishes right-handed pitching, slugging .606 with a .420 OBP, so Ron Gardenhire only starts him at DH whenever the Twins are facing a right-handed starter (or a LHP he has a history of hitting). Not that Thome has been terrible as a pinch-hitter either, batting .273/.385/.556, but again, that’s mostly because he’s only brought in to face right-handed relievers. He has just 54 plate appearances against lefties as a pinch-hitter, versus 174 against righties. Heck, Thome is slugging .444 against lefties as a pinch-hitter this season, so even bringing in a LOOGY to counter his powerful left-handed bat hasn’t always worked out so well.
Of all the free agent designated hitters available on the market last season, Jim Thome’s deal is looking like the best value. Vladimir Guerrero might be more productive, batting .301/.351/.506, but the Rangers are paying him $6.5 million this season. Johnny Damon has been doing well in Detroit, and unlike Thome, he can actually play in the field, but he’ll get paid $8 million this year. Hideki Matsui has been awful and expensive for the Angels, earning $6 million for his .322 wOBA. Russell Branyan can certainly compare in terms of salary (he’s owed just $2 million), but not in production, batting just .242/.318/.461. Only Marcus Thames has provided better value, batting .300/.400/.434 for just $900,000, though he’s mostly used as a pinch-hitter and has racked up a mere 120 plate appearances (compared to Thome’s 232). Way to exploit a market inefficiency, Bill Smith.