Years ago when he was still with Cleveland, Jim Thome said one of the smartest things a baseball player ever said to me. We were talking about his approach against Jamie Moyer, and he said he could basically tell from the first pitch whether Moyer was going to challenge him or nibble the corners and pitch around him in any particular at-bat.
That wasn’t the smart line, although it does give you a little insight into how the man was able to hit 600 home runs in the major leagues. (Those thick, powerful forearms helped as well, of course). He said his job was to take whatever Moyer gave him and taking walks was OK. “The only individual goal I set each season is to score 100 runs,” he told me. “That means I’m getting on a base lot, because I’m not exactly the fastest guy around.”
The power is easy to appreciate and Thome became just the eighth member of that exclusive club with his two home runs on Monday night: Bonds, Aaron, Ruth, Mays, Griffey, Rodriguez, Sosa, Thome. We don’t need first names for those guys and we shouldn’t need a first name for Thome.
While few players hit ‘em as long and as often as Thome, that is just one skill that made him of the premier hitters in big league history: The dude also took his walks. He topped 100 walks in a season nine times and only seven players have drawn more than him. Take what the pitcher gives you. All those walks helped Thome reach his goal of 100 runs eight times and 90 runs three other times. That’s more seasons of 100 runs than much faster player such as Ryne Sandberg, Tim Raines, Paul Molitor, Robin Yount or George Brett. It’s as many 100-run seasons as Tony Gwynn, Kirby Puckett and Dave Winfield combined.
From his peak from 1995 through 2007, Thome hit .284 with a .416 on-base percentage and .577 slugging percentage. Over those seasons, the only players with 3,000 plate appearances with a higher OPS (on-base + slugging) than Thome were Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Albert Pujols, Larry Walker, Todd Helton and Manny Ramirez. That’s six players -- three with PED connections and two who played their home games at Coors Field.
Yes, Thome that was devastating. He should be regarded not only as one of the best home run hitters of all time, but one of the most productive hitters of all time. His Hall of Fame case should be a slam dunk, but probably won’t, for the following reasons:
1. He played in the steroid era.
While Thome’s name has never come up in PED allegations or rumors, the era has stained everyone, especially the sluggers. Similar to how many voters declined to vote for Jeff Bagwell in his first year of eligibility, I fear the same bias will be held against Thome.
2. He never won an MVP Award.
Winning an MVP Award isn’t a must for a Hall of Fame candidate (recent inductee Roberto Alomar never won one, for example), but it’s something the voters could hold against him. The other seven members of the 600 club all won one. Thome’s highest finish in MVP voting was fourth, in his first season with the Phillies in 2003 when he led the NL with 47 home runs. His best season was probably 2002, when he hit .304/.445/.677 with 52 home runs. But Cleveland lost 88 games and Thome finished seventh in the voting, including behind four players (winner Miguel Tejada, Alfonso Soriano, Garret Anderson and Torii Hunter) with an OPS at 240 points less than Thome’s. Baseball-Reference ranks Thome as the second-best player in the league behind Alex Rodriguez.
3. He made only five All-Star teams.
This can be used to argue that Thome wasn’t viewed as a big “star” during his peak. But this is mostly a fluke of position overload and roster space.
From 2001 to 2003, Thome averaged 49 home runs and 124 RBIs and didn’t make an All-Star roster. In 2001, John Olerud was voted the starter; Tony Clark and Mike Sweeney represented the Tigers and Royals. In 2002, Jason Giambi was voted the starter and Paul Konerko and Sweeney selected as reserves. Randy Winn, Robert Fick and Tony Batista were All-Stars, but not Thome. In 2003, two backup second baseman (Luis Castillo and Marcus Giles) made the NL roster, but just one backup first baseman (Richie Sexson). You get the idea.
4. He hit only .277.
Yes, many voters still don’t know the value of walks and on-base percentage. You never know. Then again, Tony Perez was elected in 2000 despite a .279 career average and far less impressive statistics otherwise.
Hopefully the voters will overlook these “negatives” and make Thome a first-ballot selection. Among players who played at least 1,000 games at first base, the only ones Baseball-Reference ranks as more valuable are Stan Musial, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Pujols, Bagwell and Rod Carew.
In the end, Thome will probably make it after a couple years on the ballot. And during his speech, I’m sure Thome will again thank Charlie Manuel, his hitting coach and later manager in Cleveland, like he did Monday night.
“Charlie’s been my guy a long time,” Thome said. “He taught us how to hit home runs.”
No doubt. But it helped that he had a pupil who always had a smart approach at the plate. Even if it meant taking a walk, scoring some runs and helping his teams win a lot of ballgames.
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