February 18, 2012

Pitchers and Catchers and First Basemen

Today is the day Phillies pitchers and catchers report to Clearwater, Florida for Spring Training.

Let that sink in.

With the countdown to Phillies' Spring Training complete, today seemed as good a day as any to begin blogging away about them on our brand spankin’ new blog, Thome’s Homies.  And what better way to begin a blog dedicated to Mr. Thome than to advocate more playing time for the 41-year-old future Hall of Famer?

Ruben Amaro Jr. said on January 18, that Ty Wigginton will be the regular first baseman until Ryan Howard returns, leaving us to ponder, what the hell is wrong with Ruben Amaro Jr.?  Don’t get me wrong, my love of Jim Thome has not made me blind to the fact that he’s probably not an every-day first baseman anymore, but seriously, Ty Wigginton? With a wRC+ of 91, the guy was 9% worse offensively than league average last season.  For comparison's sake, recently departed right fielder, Raul Ibanez posted a 90 wRC+, and we bitched about him all year.  The league average wRC+ for first basemen in 2011 was 112, and Jim Thome’s was 130 in a down year. He posted a ridiculous 178 wRC+ in 2010; yes, that's 78% better than the league average. Also, the move from a park that suppressed home runs for LHB by 9% in Minnesota to a park that increases them by 16% (according to StatCorner) could only supplement his already-impressive totals.

But the obvious question marks that surround Thome are his age (41) and his defense (he’s been a DH since 2006).  I think we can dismiss the age because, frankly, he’s still a really good hitter and we’re not looking for a full season out of him, so durability isn't a concern.  Once Ryan Howard comes back, Thome could get the occasional spot start and take over Ross Gload’s left-handed bench bat duties.

So our issue with starting Jim Thome at first is his defense.  I’m not going to say Jim Thome is going to be good on defense because he wasn’t very good in his prime, and he hasn’t donned a glove since I was in grade school.  But the other option, Wigginton, is also pretty terrible on defense.  He has never posted a positive UZR at the not-so-hot corner in any season where he played more than 23 innings.  His career UZR/150 at first base is -11.0.  Looking at a list of the 28 players who played at least 500 innings at first base in 2011, that UZR/150 would fit snugly between the worst and second-worst in Major League Baseball.  Honestly, how much worse could Jim Thome really be?

My solution: platoon Thome and Wigginton till Howard gets back.  Wigginton’s 2011 wOBA against southpaws was .40 points higher than against righties, a respectable .347, with a near-to-league-average-for-a-first-baseman wRC+ of 109.  On the other hand, (get it? other hand?) Thome has been better against righties for his whole career, excluding 2011, which isn’t very reliable given that he only had 91 PAs against lefties.  The one defense for Wigginton is that the majority of his home runs have come against righties.  However, Thome has hit 81% of his 604 career home runs against righties (489, more than three times as many as Wigginton’s career total against all-handed pitchers), so I feel more comfortable with Jim in the batter’s box when I need a home run.  Combined, though, these two could make a pretty good tandem.

But that’s not to say it should be a strict platoon.  Wigginton should still get more than a few starts against righties due to the majority of pitchers being righties and Thome’s age and durability questions, but to call Wigginton the regular first baseman just doesn’t make sense.  Perhaps for once, Charlie Manual’s dog-like sense of loyalty will lead him to the right decision.

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