Posted by: Larry Smith Jr. | July 28, 2009

Should Clete Thomas Be A Full-Time Starter?


I wrote this piece prior to the existance of this blog. In order to maintain continuity of my writing and to get as much of it into one place as possible, I added this post at a later date and time stamped it to the date and approximate time that I originally wrote it. This is the reason why it appears before the “introduction” blog entry. It is because this piece actually predates the blog. What follows below is the original entry as written whenever I wrote it.

After listening to the Detroit Tigers lose yet another game due to their punchless offense last night, 5-2 to the Texas Rangers, I was particularly frustrated by a scenario in the ninth inning.

The Texas Rangers brought out their closer, C.J. Wilson. Wilson has for a fair while now been a pretty good pitcher, but not great. A couple of years ago his name was linked to the Tigers in a deadline deal that obviously never materialized. Wilson has a strange quality for a closer — He’s left-handed.

The oh-so-rare left-handed closer Wilson also had the fortune of taking on the 7/8/9 portion of the Tigers lineup, which happened to be Inge/Laird/Everett in last night’s game.

Inge struck out on six pitches. This was to be expected. He really should be on the disabled list now, and I do not understand why the Tigers insist on running him out there to play injured and hurt the team in so doing, as he currently is a near automatic out whose defensive play has been adversely effected by his knee injury. That’s not the point right now, though.

Laird walked on six pitches. Then, Jim Leyland pinch-hit for Adam Everett with Marcus Thames. Thames went on to strike out on six pitches. Listening to the radio call, the sixth pitch was far-and-away a ball, but the umpire made a bad call and rung him up. Finally, Curtis Granderson faced Wilson and struck out on four pitches. Game over.

So what was my problem with the ninth inning, other than the fact that the Tigers lost after Wilson struck out the side? Well, my problem is that I would’ve preferred that Leyland allowed Everett to bat in his spot and saved Marcus Thames for a situation where the player at bat was more likely to fail. Specifically, I’d have rather seen Thames pinch-hit for Granderson, instead of Everett.

And therein lies the problem. On the face of it, the idea of holding out on pinch-hitting Marcus Thames for Adam Everett in favor of pinch-hitting him for Curtis Granderson SEEMS proposterous.

But let us look a little deeper.

Curtis Granderson right now is just horrible against LHP. Absolutely horrible. Last season it appeared he had made tremendous strides to hitting better against LHP, but it appears that this may have been an illusion, because this year he is 188/273/274 against them in 117 at bats. This in a career where he’s been 214/278/363 in 621 PAs.

And frankly, I’m a little tired of it.

By “tired”, I don’t mean that I want to be rid of Granderson. Far from it. He remains one of my favorite Tiger players. I’m happy he’s here, signed long-term, and ready to represent the Tigers the way I know he can. However, he’s no longer in the category of “young player” anymore. He’s not “old player” either, but he’s not a prospect or someone who you would count on to continue elevating his game any longer. He’s 28 years old, has been a full-time starter now for four seasons, and has played parts of six seasons in the big leagues. He pretty much is what he is as a player. And for all of the virtues of his game (and there are many), one of the things he is, is someone who cannot hit left-handed pitching well. It seems completely asinine that Jim Leyland continues to bat him leadoff vs. LHP when his on-base percentage in that scenario is .273.

However, I would go one step further. I wouldn’t start him at all against left-handed pitching anymore. At least not in this season.

Much has been made about the Tigers lack of offense, and rightfully so. Many (including myself) think that the answer is to seek out a bat in a trade. However, there are things the Tigers could do to maximize their offense outside of the trade market.

And one of those things, I’d suggest, is to make Clete Thomas a full time player.

Right now Thomas is the platoon starter in Right Field. The left-handed hitter plays against right-handed starters, while Magglio Ordonez starts against LHP.

That platoon is a tremendous idea. A rare one by Leyland. Ordonez has (deservedly) gotten alot of heat for his (lack of) performance this season, but he still is actually a pretty good player against LHP. He is batting 311/367/500 against them this season in 98 PAs, good for an OPS+ of 123, which essentially means that he is 23% better than the league average against LHP. While some Ordonez defenders have used a few of his recent home runs as reasons why he still “has it”, many of them neglect to mention that virtually all of his big hits have been against LHP. He certainly does not “have it” anymore on the whole, but he is still a very good hitter against LHP and therefore should remain in the platoon situation.

But here’s something wild. For all the (deserved) heat that Ordonez has taken, what has he done against RHP this season? Well he’s put up this line: 237/313/289. Yuck. That’s terrible, right? Right. Except one thing: It’s better than what Curtis Granderson has done against left-handed pitching this year.

Think about that. Whatever bad things you’ve said, thought, or heard about Magglio……….he’s still hitting right-handed pitching better than Granderson is hitting left-handed pitching.

My solution to the problem?

A double platoon, wherein Clete Thomas is a full-time player. When right-handed pitchers start, Granderson ought be your starting Center Fielder, with Thomas starting in Right. When left-handed pitchers start, Thomas ought be your starting Center Fielder, with Ordonez starting in Right.

Granderson’s OPS+ vs. RHP is 135, or 35% better than league average……which is elite level production. Ordonez’s OPS+ vs. LHP is 123, which is very good production.

And Thomas? Well, there is limited data on him due to his limited playing time in the MLB, but in his career, he’s faced RHP 242 times and posted an OPS+ of 99, or 1% below league average. Or 28% better than Magglio has done vs. RHP this year. He’s faced LHP 54 times with an OPS+ of 102. That’s 2% above league average. And 46% better than what Granderson has done vs. LHP this year.

Looking at Thomas’ minor league numbers against LHP, they aren’t as impressive as his MLB numbers, but they still are better than Granderson’s MLB numbers against LHP: In his minor-league career, Clete is 247/328/332 against LHP. That is not very good, but its better than what Granderson has done, albeit Granderson’s numbers are in the majors. At worst, Clete has shown enough (and Granderson has shown enough) to at least warrant giving it a shot. He has succeeded against LHP in the majors and was poor-but-better-than-Granderson-at-it in the minors.

Of course, we all know that Granderson is an elite defender. Surely one of the criticisms of such a move would be the impact of removing him from Center Field in roughly 25% of the teams games.

Here’s the thing. Thomas is a pretty good defender too. Granderson has a range factor of 2.4 this year and a UZR (runs saved defensively) of 0.9 this season in 96 games and 843 innings. Thomas numbers are a little shakier due to his relative lack of playing time, but they clearly show that he can hold his own defensively. His numbers are better as a RF than as a LF, but in RF his UZR is 7.6 (I think this may be skewed by playing time, but its still very good no matter what) and range factor is 2.6. As a LF, his UZR is .4 and range factor is 2.2. This is in a combined 48 games and 347 innings. He’s also played Center Field at some minor league stops, so he has experience there. Overall, he may even be better defensively, though only time can tell if he can make the big catch like Granderson could.

Overall, I think this is a move that could dramatically upgrade the offense without making a trade (though I think a trade still needs to be made). I’m not willing to give up completely on Granderson vs. LHP (though one more season of this and I will be), but I AM willing to give up on him vs. LHP for the rest of 2009. We have too few games remaining and every one counts as we head towards trying to win our first division title in 22 years.

So I submit that the Tigers should make Clete Thomas a full-time player, taking away Magglio Ordonez’s at bats against RHP as the starting right fielder, and taking away Curtis Granderson’s at bats against LHP as the starting center fielder.


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