Saturday, December 11, 2004

2005 Dodgers: Joe Thurston

The standard narrative is that Joe Thurston has spent the last two seasons earning the title "Flop." Joey Ballgame seemingly fell off a clip, with his Vegas numbers falling from .334/.372/.506 in 2002 to .290/.345/.401 in 2003 and .284/.356/.394 in 2004.

That decline, however, probably should not have come as a surprise. His batting average on balls in play in 2002 had been a ridiculous .360, way up from his .322, .335, and .292 in 1999, 2000, and 2001, respectively; Thurston's 2002 was simply a good example of a big rise in BABIP creating unrealistic expectations for a player. On top of that, his home runs had jumped in 2002 even though he'd never projected as much of a power hitter. In fact, there was reason to predict a substantial decline, as his walk rate in 2002 was half what it had been in his previous three seasons in the minors while his strikeout rate only managed a marginal gain. In 2003, he found out that his "What the heck, let's just swing at this darned pitch and see what happens" approach was not suited to long-term consistency; his BABIP shrunk from .360 to .307. The 44 point deflation in batting average and his failure to maintain the anomalous power outburst of 2002 made his 2003 an ugly year, although he did manage to regain some of the lost walk rate.

In 2004, Thurston perhaps was being instructed to be more selective, which would explain the tandem of increased BABIP, walks, HBP, and strikeouts. The increase in strikeouts, however, nullified all the other gains in terms of value. His ability to be struck by pitches is noteworthy, meaning that his secondary average is a bit better than his terrible base on balls rate would indicate. But it's pretty clear that his ability to convert balls in play into hits and to hit for power in 2002 was out of line with the rest of his career, although he still looks to be a good line drive hitter.

Thurston's production at Vegas over the last two seasons indicates he'll probably hit for decent but not very good average, draw an occasional walk or HBP, and hit a reasonable amount of doubles. My analysis projects him out at .260/.298/.345; Dan Szymborski's ZiPS is only slightly more optimistic, forecasting .271/.308/.372. I don't know what Thurston's platoon splits are like, so perhaps he'd be a bit better than that if he only faced northpaws.

In my Ricky Ledee profile, I wondered if the Dodgers should fill a slot on the bench with a left-handed contact hitter for use in pinch hitting situations with runners in scoring position because most of the players they have on hand are most valuable due to their walks and home run power. When I made that comment, I had in the back of my mind the thought that perhaps Joe Thurston could fulfill that role, with the pinch hitting of Ledee (and Brian Myrow) being used mainly when no one was on base. To test this hypothesis, I used the linear weights data from Tangotiger's site. I used two projections for each Ledee and Thurston, one composed from the subjective analysis I'd done for each and one using the ZiPS forecasts.

Thurston didn't fare quite as well as I'd hypothesized. That extra bit of batting average isn't enough to swamp Ledee's advantages in OBP and SLG. With no runners on, Ledee is 3 runs better than Thurston over the course of 100 plate appearances using both projections. With a runner on first, Ledee is 5 runs better per 100 PA using my projection and five and a half better using ZIPS. With runners in scoring position, that gap is narrowed to only 1.1 R/100 PA (ZiPS) or 1.7 R/100 PA (me). The only runner situations where Thurston has an edge involve first base being open with a runner on third, beating Ledee by 1.4 R/100 PA (ZiPS) or .6 R /100 PA (me) with only a runner on third and beating Ledee by 2.5 R/100 PA (Z) or 1.4 R/100 PA (me) with runners on second and third.

Contrary to my prior assumptions, Ledee's advantage actually grows slightly when there are two out. Ledee's scores increase across the board except with runners on first and second and two out, where Thurston is still far inferior but not by as wide of a margin, and with runners on second and third, where Thurston's advantage grows to 2.8 R/100 PA with two out.

So Thurston's the better player to put up with runners on second and third, but the Dodgers will probably pinch hit in that situation only 20-30 times per season, meaning that Thurston's advantage there means less than a run over the course of a year. Thurston could, of course, still squeeze onto the 25-man roster if two of Antonio Perez, Alex Cora, Cesar Izturis, and Adrian Beltre are not with the team, injured, or unavailable, but would probably be the last bat off the bench in that situation. Factor in that his defense is believed to be okay but unspectacular, and Thurston's a long shot to contribute much in 2005 and, unless he shows improvement for the first time in two years, is a long shot to become a very useful contributor at any point in his career.

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