Earlier this week, I attempted to bring some clarity to the debate about whether the Indians should have signed Travis Hafner by trying to quantify the impact of his bat on Cleveland’s lineup. The arguments both for and against bringing Pronk back have generally dealt with ideologies and abstractions rather than concrete numbers: roster construction, lineup protection, personal opinions of Hafner. My conclusion that the absence of Hafner’s bat will make a significant impact doesn’t necessarily mean the team was wrong to let him leave, but it at least showed that the opportunity costs of not re-signing him were not negligible.
Now that Hafner is off the market, there seems to be only one external option left to fill the Indians’ vacancy at designated hitter: Jim Thome. So I thought it was worth repeating my study to find out just how big of a deal signing him would be.
As with my previous analysis, I began by constructing a consistent framework for how the Tribe’s eight better-entrenched starters will perform this year and in what order they will hit. I used Bill James‘ 2013 projections for the rest of the lineup, and I used the most objective source we have for the batting order: what the Indians displayed on the scoreboard when they wooed Nick Swisher in December.
- Michael Brantley
- Asdrubal Cabrera
- Carlos Santana
- Nick Swisher
- Mark Reynolds
- Jason Kipnis
- [Designated Hitter]
- Lonnie Chisenhall
- Drew Stubbs
Using Troy Masters’ Lineup Simulator, plugging Thome and his Steamer projections (Bill James did not make projections for Thome and Oliver’s projections are too implausibly skeptical to be useful) into the empty DH slot yields a projected average of 4.57 runs per game, on pace for 740 over a whole season. Take that with a grain of salt because it assumes that Terry Francona would be able to use his nine best players every single game, but that would have made the Indians the eighth-best offense in the game last year and would represent a 73-run improvement over 2012.
If Cleveland doesn’t sign Thome, the most likely candidate to benefit from the open DH slot is Mike Aviles (he’s unlikely to actually play DH very often, but he’ll play the field and give another infielder a quasi-day off). Plugging Aviles in with either James’ or Steamer’s projections yields an average of 4.50 runs per game; using Oliver’s projections drops that to 4.47.
Over the course of a full season that’s a difference of between 12 and 17 runs created, or about one-and-a-half to two wins’ worth. That’s not as big of a drop as we would see relative to Hafner, but it’s still significant. Roughly speaking, it’s the equivalent of scratching a league-average MLB starter from the lineup and subbing in a Rule 5 draftee or Triple-A non-prospect (a “replacement-level” player). Think somewhere in the neighborhood of replacing Michael Brantley with Ezequiel Carrera.
Another popular idea is to move Carlos Santana to DH full-time and make Lou Marson the starting catcher. Plugging Marson and his Bill James projections into the open lineup spot yields a projected 4.48 runs per game; using Oliver’s projections puts the figure at 4.47, while Steamer’s numbers drop it down to 4.44. There are other factors to consider here besides raw offense—Marson’s catching ability and Santana’s knees figure into the equation for sure—but at least in terms of hitting ability using Marson instead of signing Thome would mean a swing of as many as 21 runs (the equivalent of more than two whole wins) over 162 games. For a team with an outside shot at competing for the playoffs, them’s no small potatoes.
This is admittedly an oversimplification of the situation: Thome’s durability, the other DH candidates, the alternative uses for what would be Thome’s roster spot, and whatever other irons the Indians already have in the transaction fire are all important factors in assessing whether the Tribe should bring Thome home to Cleveland. It may be that adding another utility man or a more multidimensional player to the bench would be preferable to signing a 42-year-old DH. But in terms of pure offensive value there is a tangible difference between Thome and whomever would otherwise get what were once Travis Hafner’s at-bats in 2013.