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September 8, 2010

The Unappreciated Slugger

Why Jim Thome Gets Overlooked

by Brandon Warne

Jim Thome hit three home runs over the holiday weekend to move into sole possession of the ninth spot on the all-time home run list with 585. The last of those blasts, Thome’s 21st of the season, provided the final margin of victory as the Twins defeated the Royals 5-4 to move a season-high 24 games over .500. Thome’s home run Tuesday night tied him with Frank Robinson for seventh on the all-time list.

Thome has been a godsend for the Twins this season, compiling a stunning .275/.399/.621 line while mirroring the production of the man whose lineup spot he is occupying, early AL MVP favorite Justin Morneau. In fact, since Morneau suffered a concussion July 7 in Toronto, Thome has battered opposing pitchers to the tune of a 1.090 OPS with extra-base hits coming at a rate of about one every six at-bats. Thome’s .343 TAv this season is runner up to his monstrous 2002 campaign (.304/.445/.677) and his 3.6 WARP is also very good considering he’s only pushing 300 plate appearances for the season. Moreover, his 1020 OPS is also historically good for a 39-year old, as it has been eclipsed by only Barry Bonds, Ted Williams (twice), and Hank Aaron. Elite company, indeed.

A perusal of Thome’s career accolades lends credence to the notion that he’s an all-time great. Thome appears on the all-time top-10 lists in walks, home runs, and at-bats per home run; the top-20 list for SLG and OPS; and top-50 list for OBP, total bases, RBI, runs created, OPS+, extra base hits, intentional walks, times on base, and WARP. Add to that the fact that of the top 10 home-run hitters of all-time, an ever-darkening cloud of doubt casts shadows upon fellow members Sammy Sosa, Alex Rodriguez, and Mark McGwire, and one could argue that Thome is among the 5-7 best home-run hitters of all-time.

Additionally, Thome is touted as an equally valuable teammate and has been universally loved by the fans of each of the five teams he’s played for. Thome received the following awards for his off-field accomplishments: 1995 Frank Gibbons/Steve Olin Good Guy Award, 2002 Gordan Cobbledick Golden Tomahawk Award (awarded to Indians player who has made the most outstanding contribution to the team during the preceding season, as voted by teammates), 2002 Cleveland BBWA Man of the Year Award, 2002 Roberto Clemente Award (given annually to a player who demonstrates the values Clemente displayed in his commitment to community and understanding the value of helping others), 2004 Lou Gehrig Award (given to players who best exemplify his character and integrity both on and off the field), and finally, 2001 and 2004 Marvin Miller Man of the Year Award (given to the baseball player for outstanding on-field performance and off-field contributions to his community). If you feel like you have to catch your breath after reading Thome’s accomplishments, you’re not alone. He is in rarified air when it comes to his character, just as he is with his on-field play.

Yet, in spite of all the statistical and off-the-field do-goodery, Thome is rarely, if ever mentioned among the all-time greats.  Let’s examine a few reasons as to why this may be:

Thome has yet to win a World Series ring.


This, along with the notion that Thome doesn’t sport an elite batting average, is perhaps the most frustrating of all the reasons to suggest a player isn’t great. Yet, time and time again we hear from beat writers and columnists alike that a player’s career “ain’t a thing if they ain’t got that ring.” This, of course, is refuted by stating that Carl Everett, Chris Widger, and David Eckstein all have rings. He missed out on the South Side championship parade by a season with the White Sox, joining them in 2006, but he’s certainly hoping that chilly October baseball is a reality in Minneapolis.

Thome is a “three true outcomes” player.

An article dated August 15, 2000, here on BaseballProspectus.com defines a “three true outcome” player as one who can “distill the game to its essence, the battle of pitcher against hitter, free from the distractions of the defense, the distortion of foot speed or the corruption of managerial tactics like the bunt and his wicked brother, the hit-and-run.” Hyperbole aside, the three true outcomes are home runs, strikeouts, and walks. At the time the article was published, Thome ranked fourth all-time with a 46.3 percent TTO ranking.  Basically, half of Thome’s at bats resulted in one of the outcomes. And while Thome was only 196 home runs into his major-league career at that time, little has changed the past 10 years as Thome boosted his TTO ranking to 47.6 percent. 

History hasn’t looked at TTO players in a particularly positive light. For instance, consider Harmon Killebrew, whom Thome passed on the home run list earlier this season. Killebrew, who rates as the batter most similar to Thome on Baseball Reference and second on the list of “through age 38,” has a TTO score of 40 percent. He is also not mentioned among the best players of all time. For a more timely reference, one can also consider Adam Dunn. Dunn, who checks in at 49 percent on the TTO scale, was once traded for Dallas Buck, Wilkin Castillo, and Micah Owings, who have combined to play 121 big-league games. 

The TTO players strangely tend to have a number of common characteristics. Few are fleet afoot; Bo Jackson is the exception to a list which includes Jay Buhner, Mark McGwire, Mickey Tettleton, Sam Horn, and Gorman Thomas.  Few, if any, play permissible defense. Thome hasn’t donned a fielding glove in more than a handful of games since coming over from Philadelphia after the 2005 season. Prior to moving to first base full-time in 1997, Thome carried a .940 big-league fielding percentage at third base and a ghastly .927 mark in the minors, further proving the old “have bat, will travel” adage. And finally, the TTO player is largely underrated.  Killebrew is the only Hall of Famer and Thome will likely be the second. Dunn, who with 350 home runs at age 30 has a solid shot at 500, could wind up in Cooperstown, though it seems a longshot at this point.

Thome has played an extended period of his career as a DH.

Similarly to the TTO players, Hall of Fame voters and historians have not traditionally looked kindly upon players who logged significant time as designated hitters. Players such as Edgar Martinez, who played nearly 75 percent of his games as a designated hitter, continue to wait for the Hall to call, even though his 933 career OPS is 33rd all time.  Thome is creeping up on his 800th game as a DH.

Thome lacks that certain characteristic that made all-time greats stand out.

With Babe Ruth it was his larger-than-life persona. With Ty Cobb it was that he played every game like it was his last, and that opponents hated his guts. With Mickey Mantle there was the speed, the potential, and the off-field dalliances that were poignantly portrayed in 61*. With Jim Thome, we have an ‘aw-shucks’ farm boy from Peoria, Illinois who would rather be a good teammate and citizen than one who grabs headlines.

So, will Thome be a Hall of Famer? Most certainly. Dave Winfield and Paul Molitor, who also both finished off stellar careers as designated hitters, were both first-ballot Hall inductees, and it’s likely that Thome will be as well. But what seems certain as Thome winds down a fantastic Hall of Fame career is that he will be remembered as a very good player, rather than the one who is currently 17th on the all-time OPS leaderboard, ahead of such greats as Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Mike Schmidt, and many others.

Brandon Warne is a Baseball Prospectus intern

Related Content:  Jim Thome,  The Who,  Time,  Home Run Time

23 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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I think it's mostly being a DH for much of his career. People tend to see DH's as not really baseball players. Also, as you note, the lack of all-around skills (speed and defense obviously)makes people denigrate the skills he really does have, especially since OBP is still a rather esoteric stat for most people. Plus, people tend to rank HOF candidates against the very best players of all time, such as Aaron, Mays, and Mantle, i.e, the inner circle HOFers.

I hope Thome makes it but there are still enough dumb sportswriters out there that he might not, especially since big home run totals have become somewhat devalued since the steroid era.

Sep 08, 2010 06:14 AM
rating: 0
Brandon R. Warne

It could be because he's been a DH for a good portion of his career, but when I think of "much" I think of more than half, and Thome's still only played about 1/3 of his career as a DH.

Sep 08, 2010 08:24 AM
rating: 0
Patrick M

"The TTO players strangely tend to have a number of common characteristics. Few are fleet afoot; [...] Few, if any, play permissible defense"

Barry Bonds makes for an interesting case. The last few years of his career he was a TTO powerhouse. By then he was neither fleet of foot nor commendable with the leather, although earlier in his career he was both.

Sep 08, 2010 06:36 AM
rating: 0

Late-career Bonds was only sort of a TTO powerhouse. He hit lots of HR and had an ungodly number of walks, but he was never a strikeout machine like Thome, Dunn and the like. His career high (excepting his rookie year) was 93 in 2001, and the next three years were 47, 58, 41.

Obviously his total TTO% for those years is high because of all the walks and home runs, but you could almost call him a 2TO player.

Sep 08, 2010 06:44 AM
rating: 2

TTO players are DEFINED by their common characteristics, so it's really not unusual that they share some of these...

Sep 08, 2010 08:24 AM
rating: -1
Brandon R. Warne

In my opinion, since they aren't one of the three actual outcomes, it does make it noteworthy.

Sep 08, 2010 08:28 AM
rating: 0
BP staff member Jesse Behr
BP staff

Nice job, Brandon.

Sep 08, 2010 07:03 AM
Brandon R. Warne

Thank you!

Sep 08, 2010 08:25 AM
rating: 0

A little context regarding the OPS would be nice. OPS+ would make for much fairer comparisons, and I dont understand why yu didn't use that instead.

Still, thanks for the article. :-)

Sep 08, 2010 08:12 AM
rating: 1
Brandon R. Warne

Noted. A good point and something to remember for the next article. Thanks!

Sep 08, 2010 08:29 AM
rating: 0

The biggest reason? As stated in another recent BP article about Thome ...

Furthermore, by passing McGwire, Thome now holds the distinction of having hit the most homers without winning an MVP award

Sep 08, 2010 08:56 AM
rating: 0

Edgar martinez is a poor example. He is not in the hall because while he was a DH, he only hit 309 home runs. If you are going to be a DH, you better hit HRs. Yes, he had a good OPS, but that doesn't matter to the majority of HoF voters.

Sep 08, 2010 11:16 AM
rating: 0

aka the majority of HoF voters are idiots.

Sep 08, 2010 13:02 PM
rating: 2

Pretty much, yeah.

Sep 08, 2010 14:46 PM
rating: 1

Edgar was only on the ballot for the first time this past year, and he made a pretty good showing if I remember correctly. I bet he'll make it in the next few years. He was a very, very dangerous hitter for a long time.

Sep 08, 2010 14:10 PM
rating: 0

36% on his first ballot.

For perspective, Andre Dawson got in on his 9th try, and got 45% on his first ballot. Certainly possible, but a long, long road for Martinez.

He was a very good hitter, and a very valuable player. But IMO he will never make the hall because of his lack of home runs.

Post 1960 players who are in the hall with fewer HRs:
Rickey Henderson, Ryne Sandberg, Joe Morgan, Brooks Robinson, Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, Kirby Puckett. Middle infielders, Thirdbasemen, and Kirby Puckett. Voters will want more from their DH. They want Jim Thome.

And Baseball-reference.com just gets better and better. I could waste all day sorting through that stuff!

Sep 08, 2010 14:46 PM
rating: 2

You might be right--did you read Joe Posnanski's post about how he realized that to most people, baseball is primarily about HRs?


But I hope he makes it, he was one of my favorite players.

Sep 08, 2010 15:02 PM
rating: 0
Brandon R. Warne

He was one of the best doubles hitters of his ERA. May or may not be Hall worthy, but noteworthy nonetheless.

Sep 08, 2010 21:59 PM
rating: 0
Drew Miller

This article answers a question I've long asked (myself, heh). Thanks Brandon.

Sep 09, 2010 22:16 PM
rating: 0
Brandon R. Warne

Thank you for reading, Drew!

Sep 12, 2010 19:01 PM
rating: 0

Aside, he and his wife have been positive contributors to the communities in which his teams reside. Athletes get bad press for misbehavior...nice to see some love for the good stuff. thanks for inspiration

Sep 10, 2010 04:10 AM
rating: 0
Brandon R. Warne

I agree. It is nice to focus on positives from time to time!

Sep 12, 2010 19:01 PM
rating: 0

Just for the record everyone hated Ty Cobb. "People won't waste time hating anybody, they hate great players."

Sep 13, 2010 17:24 PM
rating: 0
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