August 4, 2003

There's no place like home

Jim Thome, despite consistently destroying the Twins throughout his days with the Cleveland Indians (I wrote an entry about him last September entitled: "Jim F-ing Thome, aka The Twin Killer"), is one of my favorite baseball players, and has been for quite some time.

That, as well as the fact that he is the starting first baseman on one of my Diamond-Mind teams, has caused me to keep a very close eye on his first season with the Philadelphia Phillies. Philadelphia's box scores are usually among the very first ones I check and I often watch their games on DirecTV (I also have Placido Polanco and Vincente Padilla on that same Diamond-Mind team).

Before I get into the real "meat" of this entry, I have to point out that Jim Thome is having an excellent season. He is currently hitting .262/.379/.534 and is on pace for 39 homers, 35 doubles, 112 walks, 104 runs and 121 RBIs. He's 9th in the NL in homers, 6th in RBIs and 2nd in walks. He's also 2nd among National League first basemen in Equivalent Average (EqA) at .308 and 5th in the NL in Equivalent Runs (EqR) with 78.7.

It's a very good, All-Star level season, there's no doubt about it. It's also a somewhat disappointing season, for Jim Thome's (lofty) standards at least.

Take a look at Thome's EqAs since he became a full-time player in 1995:

Year      EqA

1995 .338
1996 .346
1997 .337
1998 .332
1999 .325
2000 .308
2001 .342
2002 .367

Those are some truly monstrous offensive seasons. Thome's .367 EqA last season was third in all of baseball, behind only Superman and Manny Ramirez.

While I don't think anyone expected him to repeat last year's amazing numbers in his first season with the Phillies, I suspect his .308 EqA is below what most people, including the Phillies, expected from him. A .308 EqA would match his 2000 EqA as Thome's career-low in 8 seasons as an everyday player. In fact, in those 8 seasons prior to this year, the only time Thome's EqA dipped below .325 was that 2000 season.

Right off the bat, there are two very good explanations for Thome's offensive "drop-off" (if you can even call a .308 EqA a drop-off). First of all, Thome turns 33 years old in a few weeks, so he's definitely well on the "wrong side" of 30, where declines are to be expected. Also, after 1,377 games in the American League, Thome is in the NL for the first time, and it seems reasonable to think that someone may struggle a little with a completely new set of pitchers.

Beyond those two things, Thome moved from Jacobs Field (a slight hitter's park) to Veterans Stadium (a major pitcher's park). A move like that is going to hurt any hitter's numbers, but it appears to have been particularly damaging to Thome's. Take a look at what Thome did at Jacobs Field from 2000-2002, compared to how he performed on the road:

JIM THOME 2000-2002

Home Road
AVG .319 .256
OBP .450 .388
SLG .687 .529

That's a massive difference - 63 points of batting average, 62 points of on-base percentage and 158 points of slugging percentage. Thome was still an excellent hitter on the road, but he was absolutely incredible at home. This isn't a case of "small sample-sizes" either. Those stats are from over 1,900 combined plate appearances, spread over 3 full seasons, and Thome was consistently much better at home in each of the 3 years:

THOME'S OPS (on-base % + slugging %)

Year Home Road +/-
2000 1.034 .827 + 25.0%
2001 1.137 .949 + 19.8%
2002 1.253 .986 + 27.1%
TOTAL 1.137 .917 + 24.0%

Basically, Thome's offense was about 25% better at Jacobs Field than it was everywhere else from 2000 to 2002. That's extremely significant and it should definitely have been an issue this off-season, when he switched teams, leagues and home ballparks.

And wouldn't you know, it was an issue - at least on this website. Here's what I said about Thome back on November 22nd, when he was still a free agent and without a team:

"I am not sure exactly what it is, but Jim Thome is a much better hitter at home, almost freakishly so.

The Phillies seem to be offering Thome a whole lot more money than the Indians are, so they almost have to be the favorites. It is tough to turn down an extra $30 million or so and I am pretty certain I couldn't do it, but for a guy who already has his millions, taking less money to stay in Cleveland might not be such a bad idea.

He is a fan favorite there and has a chance to play his entire career with one team. He has had great success there over the years and has also shown a tendency to be a much better hitter at Jacobs Field than he is anywhere else.

I say if it aint broke, don't fix it - because if he puts up those road numbers (.256/.388/.529) in Philadelphia, no one is gonna be real happy with his decision, except for his agent."

I didn't bring that quote up to talk about whether or not Thome made the right decision leaving Cleveland. I'm sure he's very happy, I know he's very rich and the Phillies and in the playoff hunt, while Cleveland is not.

I brought that quote up because I said that, "If he puts up those road numbers (.256/.388/.529) in Philadelphia, no one is gonna be real happy with his decision, except for his agent." Meanwhile, "those road numbers" (.256/.388/.529) are almost identical to the ones he has put up so far this year (.262/.379/.534).

Thome's hitting on the road this year has actually been quite good (.294/.425/.556), and significantly better than his hitting on the road from 2000-2002. He is, however, getting absolutely killed by his new home ballpark, Veterans Stadium, where he is hitting just .234/.337/.514.

It's really quite interesting. Thome is a guy who was extraordinary at home while with the Indians, massively better than he was on the road. Now, he switches teams and leagues, and finds himself actually doing a little better on the road, but he is struggling big-time at home. I guess maybe that's irony or a sign from God that he should never have left Cleveland or something, who knows.

I thought it might be interesting to take a look at exactly how often he is doing certain things at home versus how often he does them on the road, to see specifically which areas are giving Thome problems this year. Below are the rates at which Thome hits singles, doubles, homers and extra-base hits, as well as how often he strikes out and walks:

(For 1B, 2B, HR and XBH rates, I used % of at bats. For SO and BB rates, I used % of plate appearances)


1B% 2B% HR% XBH% SO% BB%
Home 10.3 5.1 7.0 13.1 26.0 13.6
Road 16.0 7.0 6.4 13.4 26.7 18.5

Thome is hitting doubles more often on the road, but he is actually homering more often at home. Plus, he's got 2 triples at home compared to 0 triples on the road, helping to make his extra-base hit rate essentially equal at home (13.1%) and on the road (13.4%). He's also striking out at the same rate at The Vet and everywhere else.

The biggest differences are that he is hitting a single in just 10.3% of his ABs at home, compared to 16.0% of his ABs on the road, and he is walking in 13.6% of his PAs at home, compared to 18.5% of his PAs on the road.

The difference between hitting a single in 10.3% of his ABs and 16.0% of his ABs may seem extremely small, but it actually makes a pretty big difference. Over the course of 275 at bats (roughly what Thome gets at home in an average season), that comes out to a difference of about 16 singles, which is worth 58 points of batting average (and 58 points of OBP and SLG too).

Let me attempt to explain the lack of singles at home first, because I think the lack of walks at home sort of follows along with that...

For whatever reason(s), Veterans Stadium is a bad place for posting high batting averages, and particularly for hitting singles. It is even more of an issue for left-handed batters (which Thome happens to be) than for right-handed batters. Last season, The Vet decreased singles by left-handed batters by 16% over a "neutral" ballpark.

If you give Thome 16% more singles at home this season, his new "singles rate" at Veterans Stadium goes up to 12.2%, which is still quite a bit lower than his road rate, but a lot closer than 10.3%. The Vet, at least last season, was fairly neutral for extra-base hits by left-handed hitters, so I guess it makes sense that Thome's XBH hit rate is the same at home and on the road.

Which brings me to his lower home walk rate. This is completely without actual data to support it, but I would guess that part of Thome's lower walk rate at home comes from the fact that he has gotten so many fewer hits there. Think about, this could become an issue in at least three ways:

1) The opposing managers/pitchers/catchers look at his actual numbers and see that he's hitting .237 at home, so they're more willing to pitch to him.

2) The opposing managers/pitchers/catchers have been able to get him out at a decent rate while they are playing him in Philadelphia, so they are willing to pitch to him.

3) Thome himself realizes that he is struggling at home and is more willing to swing at pitches outside the strike zone.

Of course, I have no way of knowing whether or not any of that is actually the case, but it seems somewhat logical and that's good enough for me. Also, one final possibility for his struggles this season is that he is facing a larger percentage of left-handed pitchers than he did over his last few years in Cleveland.

Thome has one of the larger platoon splits you'll ever see from an MVP-caliber player. Here are his numbers against righties and lefties from 2000-2002:

JIM THOME 2000-2002

vs R vs L
AVG .305 .243
OBP .445 .348
SLG .680 .428

And it's been more of the same this season. Thome is batting .265/.391/.595 (.986 OPS) against righties and just .254/.352/.393 (.745 OPS) against lefties.

So far this season, he has faced a left-handed pitcher in 29.6% of his plate appearances. From 2000-2002 combined, he faced a lefty in 27.4% of his plate appearances. Again, a difference of slightly over 2% doesn't seem like a whole lot, but when a hitter has as big a platoon split as Thome has, it can bring down his overall numbers.

Jim Thome is earning an awful lot of money playing for the Phillies this season, his team is currently 2 games up in the Wild Card race, and the Indians are struggling to play .400-baseball, so I'm pretty sure he isn't regretting his decision to leave the Indians. In the back of his mind though, I bet he wouldn't mind getting a few more hacks in Jacobs Field.

Link of the Day:

View From the 700 Level - "Thoughts and ramblings about the Phillies and baseball in general"

Today's picks:

Montreal (Vargas) +220 over Arizona (Johnson)

San Diego (Lawrence) +145 over Chicago (Prior)

Tampa Bay (Sosa) +120 over Toronto (Hendrickson)

Total to date: + 1,095

W/L record: 193-195 (No picks yesterday because there were only 3 games and the website I get my lines from wasn't working.)

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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