Saturday, June 25, 2011

Lineup Reparations (Or: Eric Thames is Adam Lind)

(Full disclosure: this post was conceived as an "Eric Thames should be called up" post. Now that he's been called up, I suppose I'll have to settle for "Why is Eric Thames here?")
The Blue Jays' offense in June has been anemic. Since scoring 17 runs in 2 games against the Royals, which says far more about the latter's pitching staff than anything else, the Jays have scored 35 runs in 14 games, or 2.5 runs/game. Which is...let's just go with awful. To put that in perspective, if the Jays scored two and a half runs per game over an entire season, they'd end up with barely 400 runs scored. (The 2010 Mariners scored 513 runs over an entire season, which says a lot about just how pathetic that team was).

As the offense sputtered through Cincinnati and Atlanta, the cries went up. Snider, Thames, Cooper! Lawrie! Anyone! We need offense! And I must admit, I was among the masses. I wanted to see the kids come up and gag on those inflated PCL balloons being shoved down their throats by coy, nasty major league veterans like Tim Hudson and hotshot rookies with ungodly breaking stuff like Brandon Beachy. There were a few reasons for this, but none of them really had much to do with upgrading the offensive production of the 2011 Blue Jays.

Rajai Davis is a better center fielder than Corey Patterson, but with a wOBA of .277 he makes for a great pinch-runner. Benching Davis to push Patterson to center and open up a lineup spot wouldn't thrill the pitchers short-term, but I think the value of letting Eric Thames (er...Travis Snider/Adam Loewen) flail at sliders in the dirt instead of Rajai Davis outweighs that relatively minor tradeoff on a franchise level.

AA's interest in Davis was entirely reasonable, if belated. Throughout his minor league career, he was a stolen base machine with a great on-base percentage who never really got a chance to crack the major league roster. Snapping up high-OBP guys trapped in other teams' system is the (well-documented, you think?) formula that Billy Beane built an empire on, and Beane acquired Davis in time to give him 500 PAs in his peak, age-28 season. And when Davis responded with a .360 OBP and 40 steals at a 77% success rate, he was pretty much the new Scott Hatteberg.

However, as Beane has done throughout his reign, he moved the player once he realized that he had maximized that player's potential. Think back: Koch, Foulke, Thomas, Davis. How many players have departed Oakland and never again had a season as good as their best with the A's? At age 29, he saw Davis put up a .697 OPS and realized that there were flaws in the player that would only be exploited as major league pitching caught up to him. In Patterson's case, the flaw is high fastballs; in Davis's, it's breaking balls at the knees and two feet outside.

In the case of slap-hitting speedsters moving out of their prime, the adjustment is generally negative. But adjustments can go the other way, as well; a young player who had been exploited can develop into a plus major league hitter as he enters his prime. The most obvious example on the current Jays' roster is Adam Lind. Exposed to certain weaknesses over two half-seasons between 2007-8, he exploded in 2009 and appears to be picking up off of that after last year's disappointment. His career major league wOBA progression has gone as follows:


Can you spot the outlier? From ages 23 to 27 he's improved in every season except for last year's hiccup, and will only be entering that all-important age-28 season in 2012. (For reference, in addition to Rajai Davis's career year, age 28 is also the year in which Aaron Hill and Ed Sprague had their 36-homer outliers. It a good age to be a big league hitter.)

When Lind first came up he was a little younger than Eric Thames is now - and, after raking in the minors, he struggled. He OBPed under .300 after never hitting under .299 in the minors. Major league pitchers found the holes in a 23-year-old's swing and never gave him a pitch to hit, and he put up numbers that would have been terrible for a shortstop, nevermind a DH.

But he came back the next year and hit a little bit better. The power still wasn't what it should have been, but he managed to hit some singles. Then came 2009, when he put up a major league line which would have fit in gorgeously with any of his minor league ones.

When Eric Thames first came up for a cup of coffee, the numbers weren't bad in a tiny sample size, but those that actually watched him knew that he wasn't a polished hitter. The swing was pretty, but against good major league stuff he looked as overmatched as any rookie should. In other words, he's not Jason Heyward, and we should expect some tribulations over the rest of the season if he remains with the club. Maybe it won't quite be as bad as watching Rajai Davis flail at outside pitches all day long, but it won't be pretty.

But it's going to happen eventually. And why not get that part over with now?

Because, at the end of the day, I think Eric Thames can become every inch the hitter that Adam Lind is. Their minor league slahlines are almost identical:

Lind: .320/.382/.512
Thames: .308/385/.535

To be fair, there are differences. Lind started younger, so he got more at bats in the minors. He was a year younger than Thames when he put up his .900 OPS at AA New Hampshire - although, given that he had spent an extra year at Dunedin, maybe that age gap doesn't mean the world. And, of course, Thames' AAA line has to be adjusted for PCL inflation.

But, regardless, they profile as very similar players. And as long as it's clear that Thames has nothing more to prove against AAA pitching, we might as well get his .291 wOBA learning curve out of the way in a meaningless developmental year - i.e. when he's only taking at-bats away from the likes of Davis rather than the Sniders and Lawries of the world.

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