Indians Acquire Jim Thome: How Much Difference Will He Make in Cleveland?

The Cleveland Indians showed that they’re not giving up on this season yet Thursday night when they acquired designated hitter Jim Thome from the Minnesota Twins.

The move is obviously a feel-good story for Tribe fans. In addition to the front office’s clear message that this team is in it to win it, many consider Cleveland to be his baseball home—he spent the first 12 years of his career with the Indians and was a key piece of the 1990′s Tribe mini-dynasty.

At first, Cleveland fans held a grudge against Thome for leaving town as a free agent when the Philadelphia Phillies offered him an $85 million contract after the 2002 season instead of accepting the Tribe’s $60 million offer (let’s see you leave that kind of money on the table) but in recent years that seems to have become water under the bridge. Thome received a long ovation when he made his first plate appearance of the series at the Indians’ last homestand, and it’s fair to say the team will sell a few extra tickets as Clevelanders come to see their old hero again.

But beyond that, Thome definitely makes the Indians a better team. With Travis Hafner possibly out for the rest of the season, the team had a big hole at DH. Thome fills that void quite nicely.

In 70 games with the Twins this year, Thome has popped 12 homers with 40 RBI. He’s got an .842 OPS, a 131 wRC+, a 15% walk rate, and a .960 Power Factor. He might not be quite as intimidating as he once was, but dude can still rake.

For their last two games, the Indians have turned to Shelley Duncan as their DH. He’s been a decent hitter this year—.268/.319/.441 (105 wRC+) in 138 PA’s—but clearly he’s no Thome. How much of an improvement will Thome be?

Based on Thome’s .364 weighted on-base average and Duncan’s .325 wOBA, Thome gets the Indians an extra .14 runs per game (assuming four PA’s per game). If he plays every game over Duncan, he’ll net the Indians an extra 4.75 runs over the rest of the season—or about half a win. Use instead ZIPS’ rest-of-season projections (.369 wOBA for Thome, .324 for Duncan) and Thome adds 5.48 runs.

Alternatively, we can measure the difference with the Baseball Musings Lineup Analysis tool, which puts Tuesday night’s Tribe lineup at 4.30 runs per game. Plug in Thome for Duncan and that jumps to 4.42 runs per game; use instead his ZIPS projections and it climbs to 4.44. Again, it works out to an improvement of about half a win.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Thome won’t play every single game—though a platoon probably wouldn’t be optimal, considering he’s actually hit significantly better against lefties (163 wRC+) than righties (120) this year—so his impact will be somewhat muted. Moreover, Thome will become redundant if Hafner is able to come back (not that a recovery would be a bad thing, it just would lessen Thome’s opportunities to help out).

The deal was definitely a huge moral boost for the team and fanbase and it will almost certainly lead to an increase in ticket sales at Progressive Field over the next few weeks, but projecting Thome to add even a single full win to the Indians’ final record would be extremely optimistic. Even if Thome were to play like he was 10 years younger, there’s no way he could single-handedly save the Tribe’s season.

But looking at the standings now, there’s no way the Indians win the division in a landslide. If Cleveland can make a comeback, it’ll be a close race, and a single game can make all the difference. He can’t carry carry this team on his shoulders, but if the Tribe can manage to climb up to the top, Thome could very well give the Indians the necessary boost.

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