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July 19, 2011

Expanded Horizons

What's it Thome?

by Tommy Bennett

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Jim Thome hit his 596th career home run on Sunday. The 490-foot blast was as pure a demonstration of Thome’s classic swing as any in his 20-year career. Delmon Young, who looked on from the on-deck circle, put it best when he simply gaped at the homer’s majesty. (The .gif linked above is almost certainly the finest of this baseball season so far. The way Young’s face slowly edges into the frame really sells it.) Others have written at length about the noteworthiness of Thome’s home run, but it’s worth reiterating the finer points of Thome’s style and swing.  

He starts with his legs set wider than most, and by the time he takes a step during his swing, his legs are a solid three feet apart. As his torso unwinds, generating tremendous power, it stays almost fixed in space. His head rotates slightly to follow the course of the ball into his wheelhouse. After contact, the torque on his torso reverses, pulls up his back foot, and almost catches him off-balance. His front foot springs up toward the trajectory of the ball as his bat droops lazily in front of him.

That swing has ended in a home run 596 times. (That’s not to mention the 17 he has hit in the playoffs.) The swing has produced a career isolated power of .281. It has led Thome to five All-Star games, four top-10 MVP finishes, a Silver Slugger award, and over $100 million in lifetime earnings.

But Thome’s swing does not look effortless. It doesn’t have the quick bat-flash of Griffey’s or Mays’. It doesn’t have the controlled fury of Mantle’s. It looks like it takes every ounce of muscle in his meaty frame to send the ball as far as he does. As a result, when Thome swings and misses, it can look sloppy. He has led the league in strikeouts three times and trails only Reggie Jackson on the career strikeout list. So it’s fortunate for Thome that when he does hit the ball, he gives it a ride. More than half of his career total bases are ones he took after rounding first base.

Thome switched positions—from third base to first in 1997—without a hiccup. The next year, the Baseball Prospectus annual described him as “an MVP candidate and one of the most underrated players in the game.” By 2002, the annual hinted for the first time that Thome’s eventual landing place might be Cooperstown: “He has to be taken seriously as both a potential 500-homer man and potential Hall of Fame candidate.” That was almost 10 years ago now, and the prediction seems timid. Even while playing below-average defense at first base, Thome distinguished himself with the power and patience that flowed from his swing.

What’s more, everywhere he has gone, Thome has been a fan-favorite. Although Thome has been treated as a villain in Cleveland since his departure, those fans once donned hiked-up red socks in his honor. In Philadelphia, fans wore “Thome’s Homies” t-shirts. Ozzie Guillen told ESPN Chicago last year that he still gets e-mails blaming him for Thome’s departure. In Minnesota, he has made one of the best team commercials in recent memory. His depiction in the popular internet parody The Dugout has made him larger than life, or at least in all-caps.

Given his relatively high strikeout totals and reliance on the long ball, it’s a wonder that Thome’s career numbers have been so consistent. He’s had 14 seasons with an OBP above .380 (10 with an OBP over .400). His career batting average—no doubt helped by extended stints in hitter’s ballparks in Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Chicago—is a robust .277. He is likely to end his career with no fewer than the seventh-most walks of any player ever (he needs just six more to pass Mel Ott and 31 to pass Mantle). His career True Averages by year tell the story of his consistency:

Year

PA

TAv

1991

104

0.232

1992

131

0.222

1993

192

0.299

1994

369

0.291

1995

557

0.332

1996

636

0.342

1997

627

0.333

1998

537

0.326

1999

629

0.317

2000

684

0.304

2001

644

0.342

2002

613

0.381

2003

698

0.318

2004

618

0.308

2005

242

0.257

2006

610

0.336

2007

536

0.324

2008

602

0.290

2009

434

0.295

2010

340

0.353

2011

136

0.293

Since his first full season in 1994, and aside from his injury-shortened 2005 (which ultimately ended in elbow surgery), Thome has never posted a True Average below .290. Despite a .221 batting average in 2011, he’s on pace to do it again: in-season PECOTAs project him for a .294 TAv the rest of the way.

This season, Thome has shown some of the signs of aging. He has been afflicted with a sore toe, injuries to his back, oblique, shoulder, and quadriceps, and he has been forced to spend extra games as a pinch-hitter (10 so far). He has appeared in fewer than half of his team’s games. He will turn 41 in six weeks. He says he wants to play another year, but neither his body nor a major-league ballclub has signed off on that plan yet. Imagine that this were Thome’s last season. What then?

 Thome will retire among the 10 best in home runs and walks of all time. That he never won an MVP award or a World Series will undoubtedly obscure the simple truth of his greatness. Maybe that’s because Jim Thome never did make it look easy. Looking at him looking at his 596th career home run, his heels dug in and his bat outstretched, it’s not hard to see why he has been plagued by chronic back problems and just about every other kind of injury in The Merck Manual. Even now, though, I can’t recommend throwing him a fastball in the middle of the plate.   

Related Content:  Jim Thome

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