Mailbag: Marcus Thames

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

So the Yankees have extra cash, and need a 2011 Marcus Thames. I love the case for Scott Hairston, but what about … Marcus Thames?

(Here’s my case for Scott Hairston in case you missed it)

I don’t think you’ll be able to find a Yankee fan that doesn’t appreciate the job Thames did for the Yankees in 2010. He did what he was brought in to do against lefties (.354 wOBA) while far exceeding expectations against righties (.382 wOBA) and providing big hit after big hit after big hit. Plus he was extremely easy to like, at least based on his interviews and stuff. Sure, his defense was so bad that Joe Girardi simply refused to play him in the outfield in the second half (understandably), but the man hit, and that’s what he was hired in to do.

Now, as good as Thames was this season, let’s not forget that it was the second best offensive season of his career, behind his age-29 season in 2006. His wOBA and OPS+ in 2010 were just .005 and 1 off from his career highs, respectively, and if you go by wRC+ this season was actually the best year of his career. Either way you look at it, the point stands. Thames’ 2010 season was not a level of performance we should expect him to repeat going forward, especially against right-handers and especially when you consider that he’ll turn 34 in Spring Training.

That’s not to say that Thames can’t be a valuable contributor off the bench, because he certainly could be if his exposure to righties is limited. His 2010 performance against southpaws is almost dead even with his career average (.358 wOBA career), so we can expect that skill to remain. No so much against righties however, he outperformed his career average against same-side pitchers by more than 50 wOBA points. There’s no reason to believe that at his age, the light bulb just came on. There’s also the issue of defense. Thames is basically a platoon DH, so the Yankees would be wasting one of their bench spots on a guy that can’t play the field.

I like Thames and he’d be a fine choice to fill a similar role next season, but preferably he’d be a fall back option. Guys like Hairston and Reed Johnson can also play the field, giving the team that much more flexibility, and will probably cost less coming off down years. Thames did fine work for the Yankees, but are there are players available that could be even better next season.

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Japanese club working to sign Thames

Via NPB Tracker, the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks are working to sign free agent outfielder/designated hitter Marcus Thames. Thames, of course, was fantastic after signing a dirt cheap minor league deal with the Yankees last year, exceeding all expectations by hitting .288/.350/.491 (.365 wOBA) overall. He was brought in to mash left-handers and he did just that (.365 wOBA), but he was much better than expected against right-handers as well (.382).

At 33 years old (34 in March) and coming off his best season in half-a-decade, Marcus is probably looking to cash in on what his likely his last opportunity for a big payday. If Softbank offers him two or more guaranteed years at something like $1.5-2M annually, I’m not sure Thames could turn that down.

What Went Right: Mr. Thames To You

(AP Photo)

As the 2009-2010 offseason played out, it became increasingly clear that the Yankees needed some sort of righthanded bat to balance out their lefty heavy outfield. Nick Swisher wasn’t the problem since he’s a switch hitter, but the newly acquired Curtis Granderson had significant trouble against southpaws in recent years (.267 wOBA vs. LHP from ’08-’09) and Brett Gardner was still a complete unknown at the time. Enter Marcus Thames.

The former Yankee farmhand agreed to a minor league contract in early February that granted him an invitation to Spring Training, at which point he’d have to compete for job against the likes of Rule 5 Draft pick Jamie Hoffmann, Greg Golson, and David Winfree. Thames didn’t perform well during camp at all (.135/.182/.269 in 52 at-bats), but the Yankees preferred his experience and power to whatever the younger guys had to offer. If you’re going to go for experience over youth, a bench/platoon spot isn’t a bad place to do it.

Thames started the season in a platoon with Gardner (not Granderson, contrary to what we all expected) and played in only two of the team’s first eight games. He got a start at designated hitter in the ninth game of the season, going 2-for-3 with a double in a win against the Angels. That earned Marcus another start the next day, which resulted in another two hits, and before you knew he finished the month with a .588/.650/.941 (.666 wOBA) in 20 trips to the plate. Thames kept hitting so Joe Girardi kept giving him starts through the month of May.

The Yanks started play with a 24-13 record on May 17th, certainly a dynamite record, but they hadn’t had one of those big remember-why-you-love-‘em wins yet. Thames gave New York just that when he completed a ninth inning comeback against Jonathan Papelbon by following Alex Rodriguez‘s game-tying two-run homer with a walk-off two-run homer of his own. Brought in to mash lefties, he also was getting the job done against righties, and that homer won him a place in the heart of every fan.

Mr. Thames to you. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

After a bum hamstring sidelined Thames for close to a month, he returned on Independence Day and provided an instant jolt to the team’s offense. He pinch hit for Ramiro Pena in the tenth inning of a tie game against the Blue Jays, driving in the winning run with a walk-off broken bat single. Not bad for a welcome back moment, eh? A few weeks later he helped the Yanks mount a comeback win against Cliff Lee and the Rangers by whacking a solo homer in the eighth before driving in the go-ahead run with a single in the ninth.

Thames’ role became more and more prominent as the season progressed. He hit .342/.384/.671 (.438 wOBA) after returning from the disabled list through September 1st, after which he and the newly acquired Lance Berkman went into a straight platoon at DH. All told, Marcus hit .288/.350/.491 (.365 wOBA) with a dozen homers in 237 plate appearances on the season, filling the role of platoon bat perfectly. He did his job against lefties (.354 wOBA) and was even better than expected against righties (.382).

Of course, we can’t forget the horror show that was Thames’ outfield defense. He played just 171 innings in the outfield all season, but he managed to cost the team more than four runs defensively. It seemed like a helluva lot more, I know that much. The most notable blunder came a day after the walk-off homer against Papelbon, when Thames botched a fly ball in right that led to a pair of unearned runs in the ninth and an eventual loss. Thankfully Girardi wised up, and Thames’ days as a regular outfielder were finished after he came back from the disabled list.

Mighty Marcus Thames was everything the Yankees hoped he would be and then some, giving them pop off the bench and later on, production in a damn-near every day role. As far as gambles on minor league deals go, the Yankees hit the jackpot with this one.

The need for good Thames against Texas

Mr. Thames to you. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

Marcus Thames has been everything the Yankees could have possibly asked him to be and then some. He was brought in to hit lefthanded pitching and has done just that (.300/.352/.454, .354 wOBA), but he’s also been much better than expected against righthanders (.268/.347/.549, .382 wOBA). He’s produced numerous big hits throughout the year, like this walk-off homer against the Red Sox, this walk-off single against the Blue Jays, this go-ahead homer against the Jays, and of course this go-ahead single against the same Rangers’ club that the Yanks will face in the ALCS starting Friday. As good as Thames has been this season, his team is going to need just a little bit more out of him against Texas.

Although neither team has officially released their ALCS rotation yet, the Rangers are expected to start the series with C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis before giving the ball to Cliff Lee in Game Three. Tommy Hunter is your probable Game Four starter. It’s highly likely that each team will win at least one game at some point, meaning that Texas will be able to give the ball to a southpaw three times in the first five games of the series (Wilson twice, Lee once). These aren’t your everyday lefthanders either. Wilson annihilates batters of the same hand (lefthanded batters had just a .205 wOBA with just five doubles and no homers off him this season) and Lee … well … is Cliff Lee.

Even though Curtis Granderson has improved immensely against lefties since working with Kevin Long (.380 wOBA vs. LHP since the changes that, ironically, took place in Texas), his offensive ability is likely to be somewhat compromised during those three games. Ditto Brett Gardner, even though he was more than respectable against lefties this season (.332 wOBA, .351 vs. RHP). Alex Rodriguez was uncharacteristically awful against lefthanders this year (a solid .335 wOBA, but Alex is held to different standards than mere mortals) as well. That’s why they need Thames to be on top of his game, he’s got to pick up the seemingly inevitable slack.

The good news is that Marcus has already shown he can do that, albeit in a tiny sample. When Mark Teixeira was away with his birth-giving wife in early August, Thames not only stepped in as the three-hole hitter for two games, he basically replaced (or even improved upon) Tex’s production as well. He went 5-for-10 with a homer in the two games (started by Wilson and Lee of all people), with one of the hits being that go-ahead single linked above. He took Frank Francisco deep one inning before that to bring the Yanks to within one. Of course it was all or nothing for Marcus that series, because he struck out in the five plate appearances in which he didn’t get a hit. That’s the trade off you get with a guy like him though.

The Twins learned the hard way that the Yankee lineup is extremely deep with no easy out(s), especially their two lefties Francisco Liriano and Brian Duensing. Thames was a big reason for that, as he has been all season, but the team still needs a little more out of him. They know that, he knows that, the other team knows it, everyone does. Thames has been worth every penny of his $900,000 salary so far this season, but the job isn’t done yet.

Aside: That’s easily my favorite picture of the season so far. So badass. Here’s that play, if you’re curious…Also, check out this Wall Street Journal piece on Thames. Mike Sielski spins a great tale of Thames’ friendship with former Yankee farmhands Jeff Nettles and Drew Henson as well as his time in Detroit.

Yanks guarantee series win over Toronto

Both times the Yankees faced the Blue Jays in August they lost the series 2-1. There are worse things than 2-1 series losses, especially to a team that has played like the Jays. It’s not like they lose a series to the Indians or Royals. With yesterday’s victory the Yankees locked down another series.

Biggest Hit: Mr. Automatic

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

What type of runs would you like? Do you like yours when down in a close game? How about game-tying? I hear that go-ahead runs are just the tastiest. Except walk-off, of course. Walk-off runs are the juiciest runs of them all. Marcus Thames has cooked up all of them this season. Yesterday he prepared us a helping of go-ahead runs.

The game took some early turns. Neither starter got through the fifth. Javier Vazquez did make a bid, but Joe Girardi removed him in a first and third, two outs situation in the fifth. In a scenario that we will discuss in a moment, the Blue Jays tied the game. It stayed that way for a couple of innings. Until Marcus Thames came to the plate, that is.

Thames actually led off in the bottom half of the fifth, but he realized that he had plenty of time. Instead of pulverizing a Jesse Carlson slider he merely grounded it to third. It was a gift by appearances, but Thames was just biding his time. In the seventh he recognized that the situation had become dire. Carlson retired six straight and his successor, Jason Frasor, added two to the tally. But then Robinson Cano snapped the skid with his second up-the-middle single of the game. Thames would not let the opportunity pass.

Frasor threw his first pitch, a slider, towards the inside edge. Thames swung, but he managed only to foul it away. Carlson, fool that he is, tried the same thing again, but this pitch he left right in the center of the plate. Thames put a mighty swing on it and drove it to the bit field in left-center. But it could not contain Thames. He sent the ball into the visitor’s bullpen, putting his Yankees ahead.

A curious pitching change

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

Over the course of a season the manager makes hundreds of pitching changes. There is no way that they’ll all work. Most of the time, if he’s a good manager, he’ll make the right call. But most is just more than 50 percent. There are plenty of times when the manager will make a good call that fails. Other times he’ll make a plain bad call. It happens. Joe Girardi mostly makes the right call. Yesterday he made a suspect one.

Javier Vazquez was not pitching like he had during his previous two relief outings. His fastball didn’t crack 90. He didn’t have the command necessary to compensate for his diminished velocity. He threw too many damn sliders, a pitch that just hasn’t worked this year. It amounted to three runs through four innings, both on second inning home runs. But Vazquez had settled down, allowing no runs in the third and fourth before retiring the first two batters in the fifth. But then he walked Jose Bautista. No biggie. It became a biggie, apparently, when Vernon Wells followed with a single.

That brought Overbay, who had homered earlier in the game, to the plate. Joe Girardi bound out of the dugout after the single, so it was clear that he in no way would let Vazquez face Overbay again. That might sound like a reasonable position, especially considering how Javy looked, but there were a few things to consider here. First, the tying run was 270 feet away, so it would have taken a big hit to score him. Second, the homer earlier on the game came on a slider. Letting Vazquez pitch to Overbay, but forbidding him to throw a slider, was probably the right call. But Girardi went to Dustin Moseley. I fail to see the upgrade.

Maybe if he’d gone to Robertson, or Chamberlain, or even Logan, I wouldn’t have thought it such a bad call. But Moseley? Maybe he could have brought Moseley in to eat an inning or two after that. The big guns in the pen have been worked hard lately. That tends to happen when you win a lot of games in a short span. If Girardi wants to go with the long man in the sixth with a two-run lead, so be it. But Moseley with the tying runs on base? It just seems odd coming from a guy who, just a month and a half ago, used Robertson in the third inning in a crucial situation.

This doesn’t make Girardi a bad manager. No one will make the right call 100 percent of the time. But this seemed like a fairly obvious one. Don’t go to Moseley with the tying run on base unless it’s of the utmost necessity.

Wrap-around lineup

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

For much of the season Brett Gardner has hit ninth. That makes him a “second lead-off hitter,” whatever that means. Really, it means he’s hitting ninth. I don’t know why Girardi does it, but he likes having that second leadoff hitting advantage. But ever since A-Rod‘s injury Girardi has found a spot in the top of the lineup for Gardner. Which makes sense. He takes pitches, he gets on base, and he’s a threat to steal. That means not having a wrap-around lineup. Unless you do.

Francisco Cervelli had another pleasantly surprising day. He doubled twice and came around to score both times, first thanks to a wild pitch and second thanks to a Derek Jeter chopper that — to invoke Michael Kay — fortuitously ricocheted off the third base bag. As Chad Jennings relays, it was the first multi-double game of Cervelli’s career. It’s always a little easier to score runs when the bottom of the order produces. Cervelli deserves much praise for his recent timely hits.

Graph and Box

If I just saw this graph and the final score, I’d probably think that this was a pretty good game. And I’d be right.

More green lines at FanGraphs. Fogies can get their fix with the traditional box.

Up Next

It’s never a bad game when you’re looking at not only a sweep, but a ninth straight win. Phil Hughes goes for it, while Brett Cecil tries to stop it. It’s Day Game No. 4 of 5 from the Bronx.

Mighty Mighty Marcus Thames

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

Everyone loves a nice feel good story, and that’s exactly what Marcus Thames is. He and his four siblings ran the household at a young age after his mother was paralyzed in a car accident, and after his junior year of high school Thames joined the National Guard to earn extra money for his family. Nicknamed Slick by his mother because he used to suck his thumb as a child, Marcus managed to overcome the hardship of his adolescence to become a big league baseball player that homered on the first pitch he ever saw, off a future Hall of Famer no less. It’s the kind of stuff they base movies on.

Thames’ season has been pretty storybook for the Yanks this year. His “welcome to the Yankees” moment, so to speak, was the walk-off homer off Jonathan Papelbon back in May. Another walk-off hit against the Blue Jays in July built up his good will, though his defense in the corner outfield spots tested the limits of the fans’ patience. A 2-for-23 stretch before a disabled list stint in June appeared to put his job in jeopardy, and quite a few people thought he would/should be designated for assignment after the Yanks acquired Austin Kearns and Lance Berkman at the trade deadline. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.

Free from the rigors of outfield defense, Thames has been a man on a mission this month while playing almost exclusively designated hitter. He started the month with four hits in eight plate appearances before stepping in for Mark Teixeira as the three-hole hitter during a two game series against the first place Rangers. Lefties C.J. Wilson and Cliff Lee started the two games, exactly the demographic Thames was brought in to face. He picked up five hits in the two game set including an eighth inning solo homer and a game-winning single in the ninth inning of the second game. Marcus’ latest masterpiece includes six homers in his last five starts, putting his season wOBA at .410.

Like I said, Thames was brought in strictly to pound lefthanded pitching, but he’s gone above and beyond the call of duty. He’s posted a .419 wOBA against southpaws but has nearly matched it with a .400 wOBA against righthanders. It’s his best single season performance against pitchers of the same side since he wOBA’s .378 off righties in 2006, the year he helped the Tigers to the World Series. In a year where almost every offseason acquisition – Nick Johnson, Javy Vazquez, Randy Winn, Curtis Granderson, Chan Ho Park – has failed to meet expectations, Thames stands out as the one great move.

The inevitable question will arise about Thames’ future with the Yanks, which of course is something we can’t answer until the season is over and we see how things play out. The answer right now is an unequivocal yes, but as always we have to remember to keep things in perspective. At .318/.398/.556, he is currently sporting career highs in all of the triple-slash categories, and it’s really not all that close either. It’s practically impossible for Thames to repeat that next year, and if he drops back down to .249/.315/.496 (his career average) as a 34-year-old next year, how useful is he to this team?

That’s a debate for another time, but right now Thames has been worth every penny of his $900,000 contract (there’s another $900,000 in performance bonuses in there, and I’m sure he’s met a few of those already). Every great team needs to get big time production from an unexpected sources throughout the season, and for this year’s Yankees, it’s Marcus Thames. Mr. Thames to you.

Yanks open series with 11-5 drubbing of A’s

Heading into last night’s game, Trevor Cahill held the AL’s second lowest ERA, trailing just Clay Buchholz. So when the A’s staked him to a 3-run lead in the first, things didn’t look so good for the Yankees. It took all of five batters to change that outlook. The night continued to get better, and it ended with an 11-5 Yankees victory.

Biggest Hit: Swisher ties it early

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

For the most part Dustin Moseley has done a good job filling in for Andy Pettitte. He’s had some rough outings, but that’s expected. He is, after all, Dustin Moseley. All the Yanks ask is that he keeps them in the game. From the outset last night it looked like he would fail. Two singles and a walk loaded the bases, and the A’s struck for three before heading out to the field. That had to feel good with Cahill on the mound.

The Yanks wasted no time in evening the score. Gardner started with a walk, Teixeira followed two batters later with a single, and then Robinson Cano brought home the first run with a single of his own. That ball was so well struck that even though Mark Ellis was in a position to field it, he just couldn’t make the play. That brought Nick Swisher to the plate, and Swisher delivered.

Cahill delivered five sinkers during the at-bat, but only one of them ended up down in the zone — Swish took that one for ball two. The sequence went ball, foul, ball, ball, foul, double to deep center. Coco Crisp made a valiant effort, but the ball went beyond his outstretched glove. It took him a moment to recover, which gave Cano enough time to score from first and tie the game.

In a span of just five batters the Yanks turned this from a frustrating game into a new game. That’s what happens when you have such a high-powered offense.

Meet Saturday’s starter

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

When Moseley walked Kurt Suzuki in the fifth he accomplished two things. First, he guaranteed that Girardi would take him out of the game. The last pitch hardly had time to cross the plate before Girardi was out of the dugout and on a brisk jog to the mound. Second, he opened the door for Javy Vazquez‘s return to the rotation. For the next 4.2 innings, Vazquez made his case clear.

It took a Jeter jump toss to get out of the fifth, but from there Vazquez had things under control. He started the game by retiring seven straight and allowed just one run on two hits, striking out six. He even hit 90 consistently. Though, for what it’s worth, Moseley’s final pitch was also 90 mph.

Moseley’s next turn in the rotation would come on Saturday, but I’d bet on Vazquez slotting in there. It seems like a good time to see if he can be that guy he was from May into July. That will be a big boost to a rotation going through a rough patch.

Filling in for A-Rod

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

Marcus Thames hit his 10th home run of the season this year, though it certainly feels like he’s hit more than that — probably because he’s hit six in his last six games. The tear comes at a great time. It’s like not losing Alex Rodriguez at all. In fact, since A-Rod’s injury Thames is 11 for 34 (.324) with three walks (.432 OBP) and six home runs (.765 SLG).

Mark Teixeira, too, has been cruising along since A-Rod started missing time. He was 3 for 3 with a walk last night, and is 14 for 41 (.342) with six walks (.429 OBP) and seven extra base hits (.659 SLG). He and Thames have made missing A-Rod not as big a deal as it could have been.

Miscellany

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

Brett Gardner got on base three times and didn’t score. You won’t see that happen often.

How many young pitchers have we see throw 100 mph? How many of those pitchers sustained that speed? How many of them lasted long-term? Sorry, Henry Rodriguez, but you are no Billy Wagner.

Swisher is back up to .298, for those of you who are still holding out hope that he’ll finish the season at .300.

Trevor Cahill has allowed 50 earned runs this season. The Yankees have 14 of those.

Graph and Box

More at FanGraphs. You know, FanGraphs has the box score, too. But just in case you like ‘em simple, here’s the regul’r box score.

Up Next

Phil Hughes attempts to recover from a poor start, while Vin Mazzaro starts for the A’s. Considering the sparse crowd last night, I’m sure Mazzaro will be able to get all of his buddies into the game.