Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Happy birthday, Big Hurt!

In unbelievably perfect timing, Frank "The Big Hurt" Thomas turns 40 today, and his Oakland Athletics take on the Toronto Blue Jays this evening. Everyone remember how shabbily he was treated by the Jays' organization, including being benched for the supposed crime of not producing in April (which probably had more to do with his contract, despite the denials by J.P. Ricciardi, who is known to be as truthful as Clay Bennett)? Well, I didn't like the move then, and wrote that I thought it might weaken the team this season for purely penny-pinching reasons. Also, the logic is somewhat stupid, as the Jays are now paying Thomas almost $8 million this year to tear up the league for Oakland, who got him for the bargain-basement price of $337,000.

Anyways, let's look at some stats to examine the impact of the move. As I pointed out in my post on Thomas' release, April had always been his worst month, and he'd always come around. Before leaving the Jays, he went .167/.306/.333 (average/on-base percentage/slugging for the non-sabermetrically inclined) in 60 at-bats over 16 games. With Oakland, he's hit .315/.415/.506 in 89 at-bats over 27 games. His OPS+ has jumped from a lousy 77 to an awesome 161. In fact, he's on an even hotter streak right now, hitting .389/.450/.722 in his last five games (all the usual warnings about small sample size apply, but the point is, he's clobbering the ball). That, combined with his well-known propensity for proving general managers wrong about him (see Williams, Kenny), suggests that the Jays may be in for some Hurtin' tonight.

Now, how about those Jays? Well, they released Frank the Tank on April 20. They won 5-3 against Detroit later that day, but then lost six in a row. Three of those losses were to the Tampa Bay Rays, who are currently leading the AL East with a 31-20 record, but the other three came against Detroit and Kansas City, who are tied for last in the AL Central with identical 21-30 records). The Jays pulled off one win against the Royals on April 27, but then lost 1-0 and 2-1 to the Red Sox to end the month by wasting a couple of great pitching performances (what else is new?). Ironically, the Big Hurt played better against the Red Sox than anyone else he faced with the Jays this year, putting up two homers and eight RBIs in the season-opening series. With him in the lineup, that could mean a couple of extra wins instead of losses against the team most expect to win the AL East, which could be huge down the road.

The Jays' record improved a bit in May, but their hitting still wasn't great. As a team, they've hit .250/.338/.360 this month. By contrast, Thomas hit .348 /.429/.561 in May. Wouldn't it be nice to have him putting up those numbers for Toronto, instead of paying him almost $8 million to bat for the A's? Billy Beane must be rubbing his hands with glee at the moment.

Not convinced yet? Let's look at the Jays' replacements for Thomas at DH, Matt Stairs and Shannon Stewart. In 86 at-bats at the DH position, Stairs has hit .267/.337/.407 with three home runs, eight walks and 19 strikeouts. Now, those are acceptable numbers, and I love Matt Stairs, but I would much rather have him as a platoon outfielder and have Thomas cranking the ball from the DH slot. His production also declined in May, hitting .238/.314/.429 as opposed to the .315/.354/.452 he put up in April. There's also a good reason he's intended as a platoon guy against right-handed pitchers: he's .301/.356 /.480 against them this year, but just a pitiful .077/.143/.077 against lefties. Granted, that's in a small sample size of 13 AB in 9 games, but you don't want this guy hitting against lefties, which makes him a bad choice as an everyday DH. Career, he's .237/.330/.415 against LHP and a much better .274/.365/.503 against RHP.

Shannon Stewart, the other guy to take a fair number of reps at DH, has been abysmal (and Shannon Stewart should never be a DH in the first place). In the admittedly small sample size of 19 AB, he's .263/.364/.263. That's a nice OBP, but his lack of power from that slot is brutal.

The fun isn't complete yet. Removing Thomas and using Stairs/Stewart as a DH meant that other guys had to be brought in to fill the left field slot. Adam Lind was given an unacceptably brief trial, which further erodes the supposed logic behind getting rid of Thomas. It might (emphasis on the might) have been a defensible move if he was released to pave the way for a young, promising prospect in Lind, but that clearly wasn't the case. Instead, the Jays got Brad Wilkerson, who was hitting so poorly that he got released by the Seattle Mariners, the 24th-worst hitting team in baseball, and Kevin Mench, who wasn't even in the majors this year. Wilkerson hit .232/.348/.304 in Seattle this year in 56 at-bats, and you can't even argue that it was that much of a down year for him: that's better than his last two seasons, where he put up the pretty horrendous lines of .234/.319/.467 and .222/.306/.422 with the Texas Rangers. Really? A "Moneyball" team wants a guy who had a .306 OBP last season? Apparently, that makes him supremely qualified to be a leadoff hitter for the Jays. Since he got to Toronto, he's been even worse, hitting an appalling .179/.242/.304 in 56 at-bats and striking out 15 times while collecting only 5 walks (that would be a 3:1 strikeout to walk ratio, for those of you keeping score). His career numbers are a little better (.248/.352/.445), but most of that's behind some solid early years with the Expos, and he's gone downhill ever since he left Montreal.

Mench isn't much better. Career, he's .269/.325/.462, which is okay, but nothing special. Last year with Milwaukee, he hit .267/.305/.441. Hmm... another guy with a terrible OBP to add to Eckstein, Wilkerson and the like. Maybe J.P.'s decided to abandon Moneyball in favour of grit and scrappiness? Anyways, he too has been even worse in Toronto, going an atrocious .136/.208/.136 in the admittedly small sample size of 22 at-bats.

So, here's the executive summary. Thomas was released, and promptly signed with Oakland, forcing the Jays to pay him almost $8 million to play for another team. In doing so, he's hit .315/.415/.506 in 89 at-bats over 27 games. His main replacements at DH, Stairs and Stewart, have hit .267/.337/.407 and .263/.364/.263 out of that slot. The guys brought in to play left field for them, Wilkerson and Mench, have hit .179/.242/.304 and .136/.208/.136 respectively. Does getting rid of Frank the Tank look like a bad idea yet?

Besides all the previous logic, axing Hurt was a classless move from a classless organization. The man has shown he can still produce, and he has always been a slow starter, so releasing him in April was absolutely brainless. It would have been nice to let him finish out his career where he hit his 500th homer, and Lord knows the Jays could use his hitting. Thomas has always been a classy guy, and he really is one of the best hitters of all time (read this excellent Andy Behrens piece from a couple of years ago if you're not convinced). Moreover, in an age of steroid-fueled skepticism, Thomas was the one slugger everyone knew to be clean: in fact, he was arguing against the 'roids back in 1995, long before most people had any idea what was going on. He was also the only player to voluntarily talk to George Mitchell for his report on steroid use in baseball, which deserves a thumbs-up of its own. He's a feel-good story in a sport where they've become exceedingly rare, and he also has his name on possibly the best baseball game ever. I'm not sufficiently jaded to cheer against the Jays tonight, but as a birthday present, I hope Thomas goes something like 4 for 4 and drives in all the Oakland runs in a 7-6 loss. It would be nice to see him wipe that godawful smirk off J.P. Ricciardi's face.

- ESPN The Magazine's fantastic birthday ode to Thomas
- Andy Behrens' 2006 ESPN Page 2 feature on the Big Hurt's greatness.
- An interesting win-share analysis of Ricciardi's tenure as Blue Jays' GM, which suggests that releasing Thomas isn't his only bad move: according to this, he's cost the team 91 wins since he came on board.

Some updates, 11:51 P.M. ET, May 27:
- AthleticsNation has a great interview with Billy Beane where they discuss this situation. Here's some of Beane's quotes:

"We’re always going to look for opportunities. If we find something that we perceive as a great value, we’re going to jump at it. You always try to do both. It’s not a zero sum game where you’re either this or that. You can accomplish this while still trying to do that. You can try to get young players and rebuild and create a good situation and also try to be competitive. Quite frankly, Frank was such a positive influence when he was here. The thing I like about having Frank around the younger players is how he prepares himself. He prepares himself similar to how Barry Zito used to prepare himself to pitch in a game. That’s good for young guys to watch. And I have such a soft spot for Frank. He had such a great year (when he was here). And you can’t beat the price for a guy who brings all he does. ... Our history suggests that if you can make incremental improvements, you should. Yeah, it’s hard to imagine not being interested in Frank." (emphases mine).

So, Thomas is seen by at least one GM (and one of the best in baseball, in my opinion) as a good clubhouse influence (contrary to what J.P. and co. would have you believe) and an incredible bargain. That sure makes the Jays' handling of this look even better.

- A bit of a discussion on Thomas over at the always-excellent Drunk Jays Fans. Dustin Parkes made a good point on Mench: he was brought in specifically to hit LHP, and he's been pretty good at it over his career (.302/.358/.553) He isn't great against RHP though (.254/.310/.419), and many of his better seasons were earlier in his career. There's still hope for him though, unlike Wilkerson.

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