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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

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