Cleveland Indians: Who's Better, Jim Thome or Johnny Damon?

Charles Bennett@chasbennettonbrSenior Analyst IMay 1, 2012

At the end of last season, the Cleveland Indians let 41-year-old Jim Thome go after his second run (or, considering his athleticism, should I say go-around?) with the ballclub.

Recently, they fulfilled their apparent quota of AARP hitters by signing 38-year-old Johnny Damon.

So the question seems here for the taking: who's better, Jim Thome or Johnny Damon?

Although Thome is three years older and four years longer in the big leagues, Damon has over 1,000 more career at-bats than Thome.

Thome is one of the career leaders in homers, being one of a handful of men to hit 600 home runs without using performance-enhancing drugs.  Thome's 604 career homers are almost thrice as many as Damon's 231.  Thome also has half again as many RBIs as Damon.

Damon, by contrast, is a better hitter for average, with over 400 more career hits (2,723 versus 2,289) and a better lifetime batting average (.286 against .277)

In contrasting such different hitters, you should use a stat that can measure both power and precision: OPS.  Thome has a much better OPS than Damon, .958 (18th all-time) versus .789.  Thome also has over 400 more total bases in a lot fewer at-bats.

Thome also has a better career wins-above-replacement, 71 to 51.

In terms of hardware, neither have an MVP, and only Damon has a World Series ring.  But Thome has three more All-Star appearances, and only Thome has finished in the top five in league MVP voting.  This is probably why Hall of Fame Monitor projects Thome as in the Hall of Fame and Damon as out.  

On the face of it, it would seem that Thome has had the better career.

There are three things going for Damon, however, at least right now.  One is that he's still got a halfway decent season or two left in him, whereas Thome's decent seasons are beyond him.

Looking at the 2009, 2010 and 2011 seasons, we first see that Damon was less marred by injuries and had almost twice as many at-bats as Thome.  Although Thome had more homers (63 to 48), Damon bettered Thome in nearly every other statistical category, including RBI (206 to 186), runs (267 to 135), hits (453 to 239), total bags (728 to 479) and batting average (.271 to .261)

Looks like less of a drop off from the prime.  Thome's prime was better than Damon's, but longer ago, and Damon is also closer to his prime in terms of aptitude.

Damon has also been more valuable over the last few years in that he was still able to be a position player, while almost all of Thome's at-bats came as a pinch hitter or DH.

Another area that Damon is a much better player than Thome, as already alluded to, is baserunning.  When Thome was with the Dodgers as a pinch-hitter and interleague game DH, he had people running for him.  That was two and a half years ago. 

Damon has more runs scored than Thome (even without the benefit of almost 400 run-generating homers), he also obliterates Thome in career stolen bags, 404 to 19.

Besides the catcher-esque stolen bags numbers, another number that exemplifies Thome's lack of legs is that no fewer than 38.5 percent of his career runs he scored he didn't have to work for: they were the result of homers he himself hit.

Thome's lack of a lower body is one of the main contributors to the third and final area that Damon is and has been better than Thome at: defense. 

Damon is not a good defender, but is still much better than Thome.  Over a 21-season career, Thome has a negative defensive WAR.  3.7 in the negative, to be precise.  And that's with spending the last few years mostly as a DH.

Could Damon to Cleveland work for the Indians?  Perhaps. 

I'd say it's a safe bet that Damon's tenure with them will be better than Thome's second tour with Cleveland (or his current tour with the Phils), but not as good as Thome's first tour.