Jim Thome's coming back in 2011, and with the possible of exception of the Yankees not getting Cliff Lee or Zack Greinke, this might be the best news of the winter. Because Thome's been one of the great hitters of this era, and when he's gone he'll be missed.
Granted, 2011 isn't likely to be as wonderful as 2010. Thome's probably not going to post another .627 slugging percentage, and he probably isn't going to get his picture on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
He's probably going to do well, just not as well as he did last year.
But how much less well?
I thought it might instructive to look at other players like Thome, with similar performances at similar ages. There's just one teensy-weensy problem with this method ... There's never been anyone quite like Thome.
In 2010, Thome was 39 and finished the season with 340 plate appearances.
Through the mysterious powers of Baseball-Reference.com, I made a list of all the players since World War II who were 38, 39, or 40 and finished their seasons with between 300 and 400 plate appearances.
There are 76 player-seasons on the list. A few players -- notably, Moises Alou -- shows up more than once. There are two problems with using the list as some sort of forecasting tool. The biggest problem, I'll tell you about in a moment. The second-biggest problem is that most of the players on the list weren't big-time sluggers.
So I winnowed down the list a little. Actually, I winnowed down the list a lot. Thome's isolated power -- slugging percentage minus batting average -- last season was .344.
That's a lot.
I cut the list down to just the players with isolated powers of .200 or better.
That left only nine hitters, including Thome.
The most interesting thing about the list is the high quality of the players on it: Thome, Cal Ripken, Ron Cey, Moises Alou, Larry Walker, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial, Ruben Sierra, and Andre Dawson (granted, Sierra and Dawson didn't actually have good seasons).
But the second most interesting thing about this list -- and the biggest problem with using any of this stuff to guess what Thome will do in 2012 -- is that our subject simply blows everyone else away. After his .344 isolated power, No. 2 is Cal Ripken's .244. After Thome's 178 OPS+, No. is also Ripken, at 143.
Essentially, Thome last season had the best hitting season for any part-time player since World War II. And by a lot, so comparing him to his peers really doesn't seem all that useful because he doesn't really have any peers.
All I'm willing to say is that Thome won't be anywhere near as good this year as he was last year, but that he will be good, and well worth whatever the Twins are paying him.
As a fan, I want to see him playing until he can't play anymore. We've probably never appreciated Jim Thome was much as we should have. He's never really been considered a superstar; his best MVP finishes were fourth, sixth, and seventh (twice). Thome's rarely been described as a future Hall of Famer, even though he's spent 20 years creating huge numbers of runs.
He'll enter this season with 589 home runs. If he gets to 600, maybe a few Hall of Fame voters will at least take a long look instead of giving it the ol' "I didn't think he was a Hall of Famer when he was playing so I can't think of him as one now."
Of course, this assumes that most of the voters won't just tar him with the steroids brush that so many of them so lovingly employ.