Hitting coach Marcus Thames shines for Yankees. Can he save Detroit Tigers as manager?

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold
 
| Detroit Free Press

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A .364 batting average won DJ LeMahieu the American League batting title in 2020. Twenty-two home runs secured Luke Voit’s crown as the 2020 home run king.

While the faces of the franchise, Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, battled through injuries, LeMahieu and Voit — as they helped to do last year — carried the New York Yankees to the postseason.

Credit must be given to their hitting coach, right?

That is former Detroit Tigers outfielder Marcus Thames.

Thames is one of general manager Al Avila’s candidates for the Tigers’ managerial vacancy after former manager Ron Gardenhire retired Sept. 19. Now that the Yankees have lost the American League Division Series to the Tampa Bay Rays, conversations between Avila and Thames may spark. 

“In the event that candidate is still in the playoffs or World Series, we may have to wait until November or, obviously, after the World Series,” Avila said Oct. 2. “At this time, I really don’t know where it’s going to end. Right now, we’re not in a rush. We’re kind of taking our time with it.”

[ Tigers managerial search: These are candidates, traits Al Avila is looking at ]

Thames, 43, spent six of this 10 major league seasons in Detroit (2004-09). He also played for the Yankees (2002, 2010), Texas Rangers (2003) and Los Angeles Dodgers (2011).

Through 485 games for the Tigers, Thames hit .245 with 99 home runs and 255 RBIs. He smashed career-highs in doubles (20), home runs (26) and RBIs (60) during the team’s surprising 2006 season.

Other reported candidates under consideration for the job are A.J. Hinch and Alex Cora — each involved in the 2017 Houston Astros cheating scandal — and Fredi Gonzalez, interim manager Lloyd McClendon, Don Kelly, George Lombard, Will Venable, Vance Wilson, Pedro Grifol and Mike Redmond.

[ Tigers considering A.J. Hinch and Alex Cora, both suspended after cheating scandal ]

Why Thames makes sense

Hitting, hitting and more hitting.

Thames launched a home run on the first pitch in his first career at-bat against Hall of Famer Randy Johnson (with the Arizona Diamondbacks) in June 2002 at Yankee Stadium. He continued with a power-hitting approach during his career, hitting 115 career homers, one every every 15.9 at-bats (14.8 for the Tigers). 

For reference, Mark McGwire has MLB’s record with 10.6 at-bats per homer, followed by Babe Ruth (11.8), Barry Bonds (12.9), Jim Thome (13.8) and Stanton (13.9).

In 2013, Thames became the hitting coach for the Class A-Advanced Tampa Yankees (now called the Tarpons). He moved up to Double-A and Triple-A in 2014 and 2015, respectively, before earning the Yankees’ assistant hitting coach role for the 2016 season.

By the 2018 season, Thames was promoted to hitting coach.

For subscribers: Making the case for hiring A.J. Hinch as next manager

This season, the Yankees were 14th in the majors in batting average (.247), but fifth in home runs (they were first in 2018 and second last year), fifth in on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.789) and 23rd in strikeouts.

The Tigers could use his help, especially while trying to project the future from small sample sizes because of the shortened season. A few uncertainties Thames could iron out include Jeimer Candelario’s rise from a .203 batting average last year to .297 in 52 games this season. And shortstop Willi Castro‘s .349 average in 36 games. And outfielder Daz Cameron‘s 10-for-30 (.333) stretch in his final nine games of the season.

Are those numbers for real? Or were they just hot streaks?

Also, keep Victor Reyes and Isaac Paredes in mind. Each player has shown he can do damage offensively — Paredes’ 10-game hitting streak and Reyes’ .307 batting average in 44 of his 57 games — but it’s tough to predict if those outputs will be sustainable.

That’s where Thames could step in and make sure the successes continue, as well as the aiding the development of outfielder Riley Greene and third baseman Spencer Torkelson. They are expected to anchor the batting order when the rebuild is complete.

Maybe Thames could salvage something of Christin Stewart’s career, even if it ends up as a designated hitter. There must be insight Thames can offer to allow Stewart one more chance to prove himself, especially considering the Tigers’ 2021 season is unlikely to result in a postseason berth.

[ Why Christin Stewart’s struggles with Tigers is a sign of a bigger problem ]

There’s a lot to like about Thames, possibly enough to give the Tigers — with the sixth-most strikeouts (567), sixth-fewest home runs (62) and fewest walks (147) in 2020 — a reason to pick him over candidates with rings.

Why Thames doesn’t make sense

Thames has never been a manager. While that’s been a common theme in these evaluations, it’s true: Avila can’t play the guessing game. Sure, Kelly could become a great manager, as could Thames and Lombard.

But what if they aren’t any good, and after a few years of trying to finish the rebuild, the Tigers aren’t able to do anything productive? That would be a disaster. It’s why Avila is more likely to lean toward Hinch, Cora, Gonzalez or McClendon. He knows enough about what he will get from them based on their resumes.

[ Tigers manager search: Why Don Kelly isn’t Brad Ausmus 2.0 ]

Even if the Tigers go with someone with no managerial experience, Thames is more of a gamble than a Kelly, who has seen the scouting side, and has been a base coach and bench coach in the majors.

Thames has shown he can aid players in the batter’s box, doing so with LeMahieu, now a feared hitter, Voit and Gio Urshela. But Gary Sanchez’s future is up in the air because of his .147 batting average this season, and Gleyber Torres took a massive step backward in 2020.

If the successes are attributed to Thames, so should the failures. 

[ Fredi Gonzalez missed out on Tigers manager job once. Is second time the charm? ]

Thames is a hitting guru, and with pitchers Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning and Alex Faedo as the cornerstone pieces of the Tigers’ rebuild, a seven-year hitting coach might not suffice for the role Avila is seeking to fill.

“It would be important to bring a guy that can help evaluate the talent on the field,” Avila said Oct. 2. “For me, that’s important to go along with our analytics department, our scouting department, our front office. And be a part of that group, part of that decision-making process as we move forward.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Detroit Tigers content

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