Before I get going, Let's Go Tribe has an in-depth look at "trades, leverage, and value". You'll want to take a look at it, for sure.
The 2006 Detroit Tigers have a great deal of success stories, ranging from their rookies making a great deal of impact, having a rotation that can boast six strong pitchers, and being the top defensive team in the league. One of the more intriguing stories of success comes from Marcus Thames, who appears to be in the midst of a breakout season that no one expected, and even fewer people to seem to think will continue.
Thames was drafted by the New York Yankees in 1996. He was a 30th round pick in the amateur draft who did not sign until May of 1997. His time off did not seem to phase him much, as he hit .344/.393/.579 in 195 at-bats of Gulf Coast League action. His first full season wasn't nearly as productive: .284/.320/.409 in 457 at-bats for Tampa in A-ball.
Although his A-ball numbers in 1999 very much resembled his poor 1998 figures, the Yankees promoted Thames to Double-A midseason. Let's take a look at his A-AA numbers from 1998 to 2000:
Not a quality offensive season among them. His walk rates were promising, but his Isolated Power was often much, much too low. He did manage to cut down on his strikeouts by a few percentage points during the 2000 season, his first full Double-A campaign. Thames was also 23-years old at that stage, which is getting to be a little old for promising prospect at the Double-A level. In 2001, Thames exploded:
To go along with an increase in his walk rate, Isolated Power, Secondary Average and basically everything else you can look at, Thames' Batting Average on Balls in Play jumped all the way up to .351; batters BABIP is skill related and repeatable, but the fact that his previous three stops career registered well under .300 should've been worrisome. Thames was also 24 and repeating Double-A; the numbers are extremely impressive and difficult to ignore, but you had to expect some sort of regression in his production come promotion time.
Thames was indeed promoted to Triple-A Columbus for the 2002 season, and quickly fell below the previous poor levels of production. He managed only a .207/.297/.378 line; he had managed to maintain most of his walk rate (9.8%) and did not increase his strikeout rate (once again hovering around 16%), but his BABIP fell all the way to down to .222; normally this is where I would search for Line Drive data in order to determine if he was above or below his expected BABIP, but alas, such data is not available for me to use at this time.
At age 26, Marcus Thames was once again playing for the Triple-A Clippers. PECOTA projected his major league line to be .231/.231/.538 in a mere 13 at-bats. I almost forgot about the old days of PECOTA where major league playing time was the only projected value. His comment was as follows:
A fair assessment, given the lack of productivity from Thames outside of 2001. He certainly failed the test posed by Baseball Prospectus 2002 though:
Whatever he learned didn't seem to stick, although his walk and strikeout rates don't show it. Thames remained in the Yankee organization for 194 more at-bats before being shipped to Texas in exchange for Ruben Sierra, where he was placed on the Oklahoma (AAA) roster.
Thames only managed a .278/.332/.407 line for Columbus, but was able to increase his ISO and SecA slightly after moving into the Ranger organization. After putting together a slightly more respectable .258/.338/.409 (less average, but more power), Thames was called up to the Rangers for 30 games, where the results were plain awful. He slugged only .274 in 73 at-bats for an isolated power of .069. Thames was granted free agency after that performance, and latched on with the Detroit Tigers for the 2004 season.
Thames was not included in the Baseball Prospectus 2004 annual or PECOTA projections, which goes to show you just about where he stood in the eyes of analysts as of then. Even though he was already 27-years old, the Tigers placed him in Triple-A Toledo to start the season. He answered by hitting 24 homeruns in only 234 at-bats; that's a homerun every 9.8 at-bats. Hitting for power wasn't the only thing Thames did properly. His line was .329/.410/.735, and he was walking in 12% of all PA while only striking out in 14.6%. His HR% jumped all the way to 8.8%, after a career high in the minors of 5.1%. Of course, he was also at his age-27 season in Triple-A, but this was more life than was expected out of his more-often-than-not lifeless bat.
He was promoted in mid-June of 2004, and managed to hit fairly well during his 61 games. Thames hit .255/.326/.509 with a homerun every 16 at-bats or so, but with higher strikeout and lower walk rates than were his norms. Considering his previous major league performance, the Tigers most likely were not complaining.
His PECOTA projection for the 2005 season did not exactly auger the same success he had seen the previous year, but it was a step up just having a projection listed. .252/.328/.448 in 268 at-bats, with a negative Marginal Lineup Value Rate:
Thames only managed a .188/.255/.412 line in 85 at-bats before his demotion to Toledo in June of 2005. His swing was quickly back on track in the minors, to the tune of .340/.427/.679. Can you guess what his biggest issue in his stint in the majors was? That's right folks, BABIP again. After a .283 BABIP in 2004, Thames had a paltry .226 mark during his tenure as a Tiger the following season. His walk rate also fell another percentage point, while his strikeouts skyrocked to over 32% of all plate appearances. Then again, the sample size is quite small, and his rates returned to normalcy upon his demotion to Triple-A.
Like any other season of Thames career, 2006 was difficult to forecast. His weighted mean PECOTA projection was fairly pedestrian, coming in at .251/.331/.474, but his 75th and 90th were quite impressive: .264/.347/.505 and .280/.365/.543, respectively, to go along with a few nifty comparitive players in Dwight Evans (1981) and Nick Esasky (1989). The lower percentiles of his PECOTA forecast were just as ugly as the top ones were attractive.
Thames has in fact managed to hit around his 75th percentile EqA of .299. Currently, he is at .302 for EqA with a .273/.346/.587 batting line, and a .285 BABIP, only a few points above his expected BABIP of .274. (LD% + .120 = eBABIP).
Outside of the fluctuating BABIP, Thames has not had any drastic changes in his batted-ball rates. He has managed to cut down on groundballs in each of the past two seasons, and his infield flies seem to be down in 2006, but his HR/F remains steady, and his LD% is about where it was last season. Taking a look at his hit-charts, it seems like his pull tendencies made him hit into a few too many outs sometimes, but that he is using the rest of the field more in 2006. If he manages to keep his BABIP above...there's no Mendoza line equivalent for BABIP, is there?...then the Tigers should be pleased with his performance. His power this year is reminiscent of his Toledo dominance, and considering that it is actually somewhat consistent with previous performances -- although you have to dig into the numbers to see it -- the Tigers might be able to expect this production going forward, at least for a few more seasons.