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Spitballing: Jim Thome and Recognition July 21, 2011

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It’s no secret that I’m a fan of Jim Thome. Although he never played in my hometown, Buffalo was Cleveland’s AAA affiliate when I was a wee lad and so I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Indians. I also admire Thome’s small-town, farm-boy image. The PepsiMAX Clubhouse in the Corn ad showing Jim asking for autographs played off that image.

Thome’s pretty popular on the internet, based on the proportion of traffic I’m getting from searches for his name.  Kyle Kendrick (no, not that one) of the Winfield (Kansas) Daily Courier noticed, though, that media has been much quieter about Thome’s achievement than about Alex Rodriguez‘ same run last year. Kendrick blames the lack of coverage on Thome’s image:

Honestly, I believe it’s because he is too quiet and too humble for his own good. He isn’t flashy like Bonds, or flamboyant like Sosa or making it look easy like Griffey did. Therefore people, including the media, haven’t latched on to him like they have done with other hitters in the past. Add that to the fact that he’s never played more than one season in a very big media market town like New York or Boston or Chicago, and you may come to understand why he isn’t getting the bigtime coverage.

(Let’s leave aside the dismissal of three seasons in Philadelphia and three and a half in Chicago for a moment.)

It’s pretty clear to me why Derek Jeter‘s 3000-hit milestone got more coverage than Thome’s: Jeter is, for better or for worse, much more well-known than Thome. The average fan probably knows Jeter’s face, but it would take a much more interested fan to recognize Thome’s face. Jim was last an All-Star in 2006 and spent five and a half of the last six seasons  in the AL Central, meaning that the largest markets that he was regularly exposed to were Detroit and Chicago. (Granted, he spent half a season with the Dodgers.) He’s not well-known enough to be wildly popular, and he’s not hated enough (like Rodriguez) for people to take pleasure in any failure that might happen. As soon as A-Rod’s production slowed down, people started accusing him of choking. Thome’s been like clockwork throughout his career, but even if he did slow down, it’s no fun to call a likeable guy a choker. Gary Sheffield was a Met at the time he hit his 500th, so there was a bump in coverage from being with a large-market team, but he got a lot of coverage too. Is it any coincidence he was widely regarded as a bit of a tool?

As I said earlier, Thome will likely hit his 600th home run in August, and it’ll probably be only a few weeks before the September callups. Minnesota is five games back, but in third place in the AL Central, and 12 games back from the wild card. Thome probably won’t get his glory this postseason. Hopefully he’ll get his recognition when he hits #600, but whether or not he does, he’ll go down in history as the eighth member of an exclusive club that won’t expand for some time longer.

Jim Thome, Revised July 14, 2011

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In an earlier post, I predicted that if Jim Thome stayed healthy, he’d hit the 600 home run mark at some point in late July, with a loose prediction that he’d hit it around July 26 (the Twins’ 100th game). Since he got hurt, and since he’s been playing hurt for a while, it’s worth refiguring the date.

Thome needs five home runs.

This year, Thome has hit 6 home runs in 128 plate appearances for a rate of .046875 home runs per plate appearance, or one home run every 21 1/3 plate appearances. That’s down quite a bit from his career rate, which worked out to one home run every 13.5 plate appearances. Since his return, though, he’s hit 2 home runs in 34 plate appearances, or one every 17. If that represents his true production, then he’ll need about 5*17 = 85 plate appearances to hit five more home runs.

Since his return, Thome has averaged 2.8 plate appearances per game he played in, but he’s had two nights off. Per team game, that works out to 2.4 plate appearances. That means, roughly, he’ll need about 85/2.4 = 35.4 team games to hit those 5 home runs, or, to round it up, he’ll probably hit his 600th 35 games from now. That 35th game is team game #124, at home against the Yankees on August 18th. If he maintains his 2.4 plate appearances per team game and he produces at his career rate (every 13.5 plate appearances), he’ll need about 68 plate appearances, or 28 games and change. The 29th game is on Friday, August 12, in Cleveland. (Wouldn’t that be sweet for Thome?) If he continues hitting ever 21 1/3 plate appearances, that means he’ll need about 107 plate appearances, or about 44 games and change. The 45th game is August 27, at home against Detroit.

It’ll become easier to nail down, but there’s about a ten-day window where I’d lay my odds for Thome to hit #600. If I had to narrow it down to a week, I’d shoot for the six-game series that starts on the road at Detroit on August 15 and ends at home against the Yankees on August 21. That accounts for Thome’s depressed home run production but doesn’t penalize him for playing hurt the way that assuming his pre-injury rate would.

Ask me again… Who’s next to 600 home runs? April 10, 2011

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In an earlier post, I compared Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome and came to the conclusion that Thome would be the next player to hit 600 home runs.

I feel vindicated.

Nonetheless, it seems that some of my assumptions were incorrect. The first was the assertion that Manny and Thome were the same age. Mea culpa – Thome is actually almost two full years older. That came from a relative-age comparison I had run a few posts prior and I just misremembered.

The second is that I used a downgraded rate of production for Thome. He had been hitting at a .053 home run per plate appearance clip over the previous season and a half. If, however, I use Thome’s 2010 numbers, he hit – for the same team he’s playing for now, in substantially the same position – 25 home runs in 340 plate appearances for a rate of .0735 home runs per plate appearance, or approximately one home run every 13 1/2 plate appearances.

Finally, I assumed that Thome wouldn’t be used very often. I assumed he’d make about 2.5 plate appearances per game. However, Thome has played in six of the eight games so far this season and made … 16 plate appearances. (Okay, so this wasn’t too bad.)

I’ll make the totally unwarranted assumption that Thome will play in 75% of games and average 2 plate appearances per game. He needs eleven home runs to hit 600. At his average rate, he’ll take (13.6)x(11) = 149.6, or about 150, plate appearances to do this. That’s about 75 games to play in, or about 100 real-time games, if he continues averaging 75% play time and 2 plate appearances per game. That takes us about 62% of the way through the season. The Twins played game #100 on July 26 last year.

I therefore predict that Jim Thome, barring injury, will hit his 600th home run in the month of July.

Quickie: 600th Home Run for A-Rod August 4, 2010

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Alex Rodriguez finally hit #600 deep to center field in Yankee Stadium on the third anniversary of his 500th home run. A-Rod hit the home run in his first plate appearance. There were 51 plate appearances since #599. He had a final Choke Index of .944, but luckily he won’t run into another milestone home run for at least a few years.

The ball landed in Monument Park, so the Yankees didn’t need to negotiate with a fan to get it back. (A security guard picked it up.) According to Michael Kaye, if the ball had landed in the stands, the Yankees would have been willing to pay for the person who caught the ball to have lunch with Alex Rodriguez and Cameron Diaz in exchange for getting the ball back, on top of an autographed baseball, hat, and bat. That opens interesting questions of valuation, much like those that came up after Doug Mientkiewicz attempted to keep the ball that he caught to make the final out in the 2004 World Series.

The Choke Index August 1, 2010

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It’s been quite a while since Alex Rodriguez hit Home Run #599 – nine days since July 22, but more quantifiably, 42 plate appearances. Just how much of a slump is he in? I’d like to propose a quantifiable answer: the Choke Index.

From 2000 to 2009, A-Rod was hitting approximately .064 home runs per plate appearance. In 2008 he hit .059 and in 2009 he hit .056, so it’s probably much fairer to use a slightly lower rate. I’m going to make the assumption that Rodriguez’s true production is about .055 home runs per plate appearance, since he exhibited a downward trend and his 2010 production has been very low. (It also cuts him some additional slack in the Choke Index.)

Simply, we should assume that A-Rod’s failure to produce is merely the result of chance, and not due to choking or media distraction or even Rodriguez’s discomfort with the special chipped baseballs. (A better man than I would call this the Numbered Ball Effect.) Then, we should see how likely that is.

At .055 home runs per plate appearance, the likelihood of going 42 plate appearances without a home run is (1-.055)^{42} or approximately .093. The Choke Index is simply 1-(likelihood) or, in this case, .907. As it becomes progressively less likely that Rodriguez will go another plate appearance without hitting a home run, the Choke Index number rises. A theoretical Choke Index of 1 would indicate that the player’s lack of home run hitting is nearly impossible to describe by chance alone.

A-Rod’s Choke Index between #499 and #500 was about .877. This is a man who doesn’t handle milestones well.

Another example was Gary Sheffield in 2009, when he was attempting to hit his 500th home run. In the previous two years, he hit approximately .041 home runs per plate appearance. Much was made of Sheffield’s trouble hitting #500, but since he was hitting almost exclusively as a pinch hitter, he simply didn’t have many opportunities. Between his final plate appearance on September 26 of 2008 and his only plate appearance on April 17 of 2009, Sheffield went 21 plate appearances without hitting a homer. That gives him a choke index of .556.

Barry Bonds, meanwhile, was hitting .065 home runs per plate appearance in the seasons prior to his record-breaking home run #756. #755 was hit in Bonds’ first plate appearance on August 4, 2007. Bonds made 3 more plate appearances, all walks, in that game. He hit #756 in his third plate appearance only three days later on August 7.  He had August 5 off and made 4 plate appearances on August 6, meaning that Bonds went 9 plate appearances between home runs, giving him a choke index of .454.

Rodriguez will hit his 600th home run eventually, but it’s getting painful to watch.

The Best Game Ever July 30, 2010

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Two of my favorite things about baseball happened during tonight’s game between the Yankees and the Indians.

First of all, in the top of the ninth inning, corner infielder Andy Marte pitched for the Indians. Marte pitched a perfect ninth and coincidentally struck out Nick Swisher, who was brought in to pitch for the Yankees in a similar situation last year and struck out Gabe Kapler of the Tampa Bay Rays. I can’t promise it’s true, but I think that puts Swisher at the top of the list for involvement in position player pitcher strikeouts.

Marte’s presence was necessary because the Indians used seven other pitchers. Starter Mitch Talbot went only two innings, and the Indians got another two out of Rafael Perez. Frank Hermann took the loss for the Indians during his 1 1/3 innings. Tony Sipp pitched another 1 1/3, and Joe Smith managed to give up four earned runs in 1/3 of an inning before being removed for Jess Todd for an inning. In the bottom of the 9th, Marte was all the Indians had left.

Not to be outdone, Joe Girardi gave up his designated hitter by moving his DH – funnily enough, it was Swisher – into right field as part of a triple switch. Swisher moved to right field; Colin Curtis moved from right field to left field; Marcus Thames moved from left field to third base;  finally, pitcher Chan Ho Park was put into the batting order in place of Alex Rodriguez, who came out of the game.

Finally, A-Rod is up to 33 plate appearances without a home run. Assuming his standard rate of .064 home runs per plate appearance, the likelihood of this happening by chance is .936^{33} = .113 \approx 11.3 \% . I stand by my belief that there’s something other than chance (i.e. distraction or other mental factors) causing Rodriguez’s hitting to suffer.

The 600 Home Run Almanac July 28, 2010

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People are interested in players who hit 600 home runs, at least judging by the Google searches that point people here. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some quick facts about the 600th home run and the people who have hit it.

Age: There are six players to have hit #600. Sammy Sosa was the oldest at 39 years old in 2007. Ken Griffey, Jr. was 38 in 2007, as were Willie Mays in 1969 and Barry Bonds in 2002. Hank Aaron was 37. Babe Ruth was the youngest at 36 in 1931. Alex Rodriguez, who is 35 as of July 27, will almost certainly be the youngest player to reach 600 home runs. If both Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome hang on to hit #600 over the next two to three seasons, Thome (who was born in August of 1970) will probably be 42 in 2012; Ramirez (born in May of 1972) will be 41 in 2013. (In an earlier post that’s when I estimated each player would hit #600.) If Thome holds on, then, he’ll be the oldest player to hit his 600th home run.

Productivity: Since 2000 (which encompasses Rodriguez, Ramirez, and Thome in their primes), the average league rate of home runs per plate appearances has been about .028. That is, a home run was hit in about 2.8% of plate appearances. Over the same time period, Rodriguez’ rate was .064 – more than double the league average. Ramirez hit .059 – again, over double the league rate. Thome, for his part, hit at a rate of .065 home runs per plate appearance. From 2000 to 2009, Thome was more productive than Rodriguez.

Standing Out: Obviously it’s unusual for them to be that far above the curve. There were 1,877,363 plate appearances (trials) from 2000 to 2009. The margin of error for a proportion like the rate of home runs per plate appearance is

\sqrt{\frac{p(1-p)}{n-1}} = \sqrt{\frac{.028(.972)}{1,877,362}} = \sqrt{\frac{.027}{1,877,362}} \approx \sqrt{\frac{14}{1,000,000,000}} = .00012

Ordinarily, we expect a random individual chosen from the population to land within the space of p \pm 1.96 \times MoE 95% of the time. That means our interval is

.027 \pm .00024

That means that all three of the players are well without that confidence interval. (However, it’s likely that home run hitting is highly correlated with other factors that make this test less useful than it is in other situations.)

Alex’s Drought: Finally, just how likely is it that Alex Rodriguez will go this long without a home run? He hit his last home run in his fourth plate appearance on July 22. He had a fifth plate appearance in which he doubled. Since then, he’s played in five games totalling 22 plate appearances, so he’s gone 23 plate appearances without a home run. Assuming his rate of .064 home runs per plate appearance, how likely is that? We’d expect (.064*23) = about 1.5 home runs in that time, but how unlikely is this drought?

The binomial distribution is used to model strings of successes and failures in tests where we can say clearly whether each trial ended in a “yes” or “no.” We don’t need to break out that tool here, though – if the probability of a home run is .064, the probability of anything else is .936. The likelihood of a string of 23 non-home runs is

.936^{23} = .218

It’s only about 22% likely that this drought happened only by chance. The better guess is that, as Rodriguez has said, he’s distracted by the switching to marked baseballs and media pressure to finally hit #600.

600 Home Runs: Who’s Second? July 25, 2010

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Alex Rodriguez is, as I’m writing this, sitting at 599 home runs. Almost certainly, he’ll be the next player to hit the 600 home-run milestone, since the next two active players are Jim Thome at 575 and Manny Ramirez at 554. Today’s Toyota Text Poll (which runs during Yankee games on YES) asked which of those two players would reach #600 sooner.

There are a few levels of abstraction to answering this question. First of all, without looking at the players’ stats, Thome gets the nod at the first order because he’s significantly closer than Driving in 25 home runs is easier than driving in 46, so Thome will probably get there first.

At the second order, we should take a look at the players’ respective rates. Over the past two seasons, Thome has averaged a rate of .053 home runs per plate appearance, while Ramirez has averaged .041 home runs per plate appearance. With fewer home runs to hit and a higher likelihood of hitting one each time he makes it to the plate, Thome stays more likely to hit #600 before Ramirez does… but how much more likely?

Using the binomial distribution, I tested the likelihood that each player would hit his required number of home runs in different numbers of plate appearances to see where that likelihood reached a maximum. For Thome, the probability increases until 471 plate appearances, then starts decreasing, so roughly, I expect Thome to hit his 25th home run within 471 plate appearances. For Manny, that maximum doesn’t occur until 1121 plate appearances. Again, the nod has to go to Thome. He’ll probably reach the milestone in less than half as many plate appearances.

But wait. How many plate appearances is that, anyway? Until recently, Manny played 80-90% of the games in a season. Last year, he played 64%. So far the Dodgers have played 99 games and Manny appeared in 61 of them, but of course he’s disabled this year. Let’s make the generous assumption that Manny will play in 75% of the games in each season starting with this one. Then, let’s look at his average plate appearances per game. For most of his career, he averaged between 4.1 and 4.3 plate appearances per game, but this year he’s down to 3.6. Let’s make the (again, generous) assumption that he’ll get 4 plate appearances in each game from now on. At that rate, to get 1121 plate appearances, he needs to play in 280.25 games, which averages to 1.723 seasons of 162 games or about 2.62 seasons of 75% playing time.

Thome, on the other hand, has consistently played in 80% or more of his team’s games but suffered last year and this year because he hasn’t been serving as an everyday player. He pinch-hit in the National League last year and has, in Minnesota, played in about 69% of the games averaging only 3 plate appearances in each. Let’s give Jim the benefit of the doubt and assume that from here on out he’ll hit in 70% of the games and get 3.5 appearances (fewer games and fewer appearances than Ramirez). He’d need about 120.3 games, which equates to about 3/4 of a 162-game season or about 1.06 seasons with 70% playing time. Even if we downgrade Thome to 2.5 PA per game and 66% playing time, that still gives us an expectation that he’ll hit #600 within the next 1.6 real-time seasons.

Since Thome and Ramirez are the same age, there’s probably no good reason to expect one to retire before the other, and they’ll probably both be hitting as designated hitters in the AL next year. As a result, it’s very fair to expect Thome to A) reach 600 home runs and B) do it before Manny Ramirez.