Counting on Comebacks

Perhaps it’s a flaw in the way I evaluate players, but with the Phillies and Marlins selling low on Jim Thome and Mike Lowell last week, it seems to me that teams are far too quick to give up on star players after one bad season. This time last year, Thome and Lowell were among the best players at their respective positions. Thome was coming off his fourth straight 40-homer season, smacking 42 homers with 105 RBIs in the second year of his long-term deal with Philadelphia. Lowell had made his third straight All-Star team, hitting .293/.365/.505 for Florida with 27 homers of his own.

Now fast forward exactly one year. After an injury-plagued, unproductive third season in Philadelphia, the Phillies dumped Thome on the White Sox for a solid, underrated player (Aaron Rowand) and two very intriguing prospects (Gio Gonzalez and Daniel Haigwood) while paying a huge chunk of his remaining salary. The Marlins unloaded Lowell on the Red Sox by packaging him (and his remaining contract) along with what Boston really wanted, Josh Beckett.

A year ago both players would have been viewed as huge, division-altering additions (and three years ago the Phillies were thrilled to have lured Thome away from Cleveland as a free agent). Now Red Sox fans talk about Lowell like Beckett is the cute girl at the bar they’re flirting with and he’s the ugly friend sitting next to her to whom they have to be nice. And many of my fellow Twins fans—who watched Thome absolutely destroy them on a yearly basis while with the Indians—seem to think the deal doesn’t improve the White Sox a whole lot.

A quick look at the top hitters in baseball this season is all we need to find a number of instances where star hitters bounced back in a big way after previously falling off a cliff like Thome and Lowell. For instance, in 2004 Jason Giambi put up nearly identical numbers to what Thome did this year:

                    PA      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS     IsoD     IsoP
Giambi 2004        322     .208     .342     .379     .721     .134     .171
Thome 2005         242     .207     .360     .352     .712     .153     .145

Giambi was 33 years old in 2004, while Thome was 34 this season. In both cases, a first baseman with a long history of outstanding offensive production struggled to stay healthy, narrowly kept his batting average above .200 and produced an on-base percentage-heavy OPS in the low .700s. The final results—.208/.342/.379 for Giambi and .207/.360/.352 for Thome—were about as close as you can get.

And we all know what happened with Giambi. He got off to a slow start this year, but he ended up hitting .271/.440/.535 with 32 homers to lead the league in on-base percentage and rank fifth in OPS on his way to the AL Comeback Player of the Year award. Now, certainly Giambi’s struggles and Thome’s struggles came under different circumstances. The point, however, is that one bad season after a long track record of outstanding hitting from an aging, left-handed slugger doesn’t rule out a major bounce back the next year.

Lowell’s situation is a little different, in that he isn’t as old as Thome and didn’t have nearly the same sort of dominant resume. However, there are still a couple of good comps for him among this year’s top hitters. Back in 2003, both Paul Konerko and Pat Burrell—two powerful, right-handed batters—suddenly fell off a cliff after consistently ranking among the top hitters at their respective positions.

                           2000-2002                                2003
                AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS         AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
Konerko        .294     .357     .496     .853        .234     .305     .399     .704
Burrell        .267     .361     .496     .857        .209     .309     .404     .713

Konerko’s and Burrell’s numbers are eerily similar. They both hit around .350/.500 (OBP/SLG) with an .850 OPS in the three years leading up to their horrible season and then dropped to around .300/.400 with a .700 OPS in 2003. Now compare that to Lowell:

                           2002-2004                                2005
                AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS         AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
Lowell         .282     .354     .500     .854        .236     .298     .360     .658

Look familiar? The “before” numbers are nearly identical—Lowell hit .354/.500 from 2002-2004, with an .854 OPS. And then this year he plummeted to .298/.360 with a .658 OPS. That drop is a little further than Konerko or Burrell experienced, but it’s still damn close. And what have Konerko and Burrell done since?

                AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
Konerko        .280     .367     .534     .901
Burrell        .270     .378     .482     .860

Konerko actually bounced back to become an even better hitter, posting back-to-back 40-homer, 100-RBI seasons. Burrell basically just picked up right where he left off before his mess of a season, and hit .281 with 32 homers while ranking second in the NL with 117 RBIs this year.

Comparing Giambi to Thome or Konerko and Burrell to Lowell are just examples, of course. Because one player bounced back one way doesn’t guarantee that another player will do the same thing in a similar spot. With that said, I do think it shows that teams should be a little more patient with their stars. Or, at the very least, that paying discount prices for guys like Thome and Lowell following down seasons isn’t a bad move.

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