Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Power: Past, Present and Future

On Monday night, Jim Thome became the eighth player in baseball history to reach 600 home runs. It was a long time coming for the future Hall of Fame slugger, who debuted in the majors and hit his first career home run back in 1991.

Since then, Thome has averaged 29 homers per year, topping out with 52 in 2002. During that same span, the Twins have had only three players hit more than 29 bombs in a session (Justin Morneau three times, Michael Cuddyer and Torii Hunter once apiece). In only five of the past 20 years have the Twins' top two home runs hitters combined to go deep 52 times.

It's oddly fitting that Thome would reach this rare and awe-inspiring milestone while playing for an organization that has been so starved for home runs over his entire career.

We've long admired his majestic bombs from afar, while he was hitting 445 of them with the division-rival Indians and White Sox. And over the past two years, we've had the pleasure of observing one of baseball's great all-time power hitters from up close. To say Thome has stood out from the pack during his time in Minnesota, despite aging into his 40s, would be an understatement.

Fans have grown tired of hearing Twins' hitters pile up excuses for their lack of long-ball success in the home yard, but Thome has experienced no such issues. Twenty-one of his 36 dingers over the past two years have come at Target Field, and he completely owns the park's leader board; five of the six longest home runs hit by a Twin in the young stadium belong to Thome, according to ESPN Home Run Tracker.

That Thome has been so successful at an age where even the great all-time power hitters have generally fizzled out is incredible, but one has to wonder how much is left in the tank, especially in light of all the back problems.

Whether or not Thome chooses to continue his career after this season, he'll turn 41 in 10 days and it seems safe to say that he's at least nearing the end of his lengthy reign as one of the game's foremost slugging machines.

When he's gone, it isn't clear who will carry the torch as Minnesota's top bopper. I wrote last week about the organization's gloomy power outlook, with no legitimate home run threats in the high minors and with the future statuses of players like Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer in doubt (either due to health or expiring contracts). Trevor Plouffe leads the organization in homers this year, and it's not clear whether Ron Gardenhire will ever find a defensive position where he's comfortable playing him regularly.

It would seem that the Twins' next true beacon of hope might be Miguel Sano, who is currently 18 and playing rookie ball in Elizabethton. Signed out of the Dominican Republic with a hefty bonus after the 2009 season, Sano is already starting to fulfill his immense power-hitting potential, as he's launched 13 home runs in 51 games this year in the Appalachian League. More than half of Sano's hits have gone for extra bases, aiding a .589 slugging percentage.

Sano has had his issues with plate discipline, but to be pounding the ball like this -- at an age where power is typically an undeveloped tool -- is exciting. When Thome was playing rookie ball at 18 (all the way back in 1989), he hit zero home runs with a .296 slugging percentage in 55 games.

Sano has the type of raw power and potential that makes some analysts believe he could one day sit beside Thome on Target Field's all-time distance leader board. But he is of course only 18 years old (allegedly), and we'll have to wait a long time before that could become a reality.

For now, we'll have to simply appreciate the exceedingly rare specimen that Thome is, especially if this is his swan song.

Jim Thome, the long-time Twin killer, retiring as a Twin after reaching an historical milestone the very same year that Harmon Killeberew -- a legend in his own image -- passed on.

Oddly fitting.


James said...

It's also a very enjoyable fact to me that the replays and stills of that 600th home run will include Killabrew's number on his arm.

mgraves said...

How far out is Sano? Can Joe Benson provide 20 homeruns, in addition to solid defense?

The homerun is exciting and can turn around a game--witness Kubel's grand-slam against Rivera a couple years back--but the Twins (2001-2010) were successful with middling power, good defense, and decent pitching. Do you anticipate the Twins attempting a different tack, or attempting to return to pitching a defense (as evidenced by the unloading of DY)?

mgraves said...

"pitching and defense", not "pitching a defense"

Anonymous said...

James ---

Learning to spell the man's name correctly may increase your enjoyment.

USAFChief said...

Do you anticipate the Twins attempting a different tack, or attempting to return to pitching a defense (as evidenced by the unloading of DY)?

Is there some rule I'm not aware of that says it has to be 'pitching and defense' or 'a different tack?'

As far as I know, you can pitch well, play defense, and still feature an offense that includes power.

kirby96 said...

While the Twins were successful withhtout a big power hitter (say, 40+ hr) over the past decade, I think they would have been a much better team with someone like that and likely would have done significantly better in the playoffs. Yeah i know that's stating the obvious (if they would have hit better they would have won more. Duh.), but what I mean was they almost totally lacked the 'one swing of the bat' threat that a guy like Thome brings. I can't even count how many times the Twins would be down by 2-4 runs late in the game, would manage to get a runner or two on and I'd find myself thinking, "unfortunately the Twins will still need to get another four hits or so to be back in this game. Unlikely." Those situations are where the big power hitters are huge. You are automatically still in those games that for the Twins are basically out of reach.

mgraves said...

Most power hitters do not excel at defense.

That said--perhaps the context was not clear, USAFChief, although it seems rather clear to me--different than middling power, decent pitching and good defense, e.g. different than what was moderately successful for a decade.

mgraves said...

USAFChief--I apologize for taking your response seriously. The context clearly indicates a "different tack" than what they had been doing from 2001 to 2010. There is really no room for the deduction that I was implying that teams that can pitch and play defense cannot also hit for power.

The sarcasm font must have been off.

Steve L. said...

"While the Twins were successful withhtout a big power hitter (say, 40+ hr) over the past decade"

Last player for Twins to hit even 35+ HR's was Harmon Killebrew in 1970, when he hit exactly 35. I think that's pretty sad...

Jim McGruder said...

I'm starting to think that nobody wanted slowey.

Anonymous said...

Let's fix that batter's eye. First it was the trees and now we have a big black eye sore out in center field. May be paint it was a TC on it or something?