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August 16, 2011

The BP Broadside

"Compiler" Jim Thome for the Hall of Fame

by Steven Goldman

Jim Thome hit home runs number 599 and 600 last night, in the process raising his season’s rates to .254/.359/.497, very nice numbers for a 40-year-old in any season. The big round number will probably cue another recapitulation by handwringing Hall of Fame voters mooing that Thome should not be a Hall of Famer, or isn’t a Hall of Famer to them, or some variation thereof. It’s silly stuff on any level, particularly given the wide variance in standards the BBWAA voters have shown over time, never mind the various Veterans Committees. If the Writers could conceptualize Rabbit Maranville, Luis Aparicio, and Tony Perez as Hall of Famers, then it doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to come up with a definition of Hall of Famer that applies to Thome, unless you’re playing politics of an entirely misplaced kind.

The knocks on Thome will be his lack of black ink and major award hardware, as well as the era in which he played. He didn't win an MVP award, and correctly so—look at his season by season WARP: In a big offensive era, he was often outgunned by other players (ironically, for some recalcitrant voters who will tar Thome with the brush of the steroids era just by dint of his having played through it, the fact that he did not ascend quite the same heights as some of his contemporaries should serve as a kind of negative proof that Thome himself was clean). In his long career, he had only four seasons in which he finished in the top 10 in WARP, and was only twice in the top five, in 1996, when he finished fourth, and in 2002, when he was a close second to Alex Rodriguez. The MVP voters chose Miguel Tejada that year. Thome hit .304/.445/.677 with 52 home runs to Tejada’s .308/.354/.508 and 34, but the latter was a shortstop on an A’s team that won 103 games, while Thome was a first baseman on an also-ran Indians club.

Because Thome so rarely led the league (he does have the 2003 NL home-run title to his credit, as well as three seasons leading the AL in walks) but was more often just “there,” he will be dismissed as a decent player, somewhat short of stardom, who simply hung around for long enough to put up big numbers. Yet, while the term "compiler" is often uttered with disdain by Cooperstown aficionados, I don't accept the stigma. In baseball, longevity is an accomplishment in itself, but Thome has been no mere Ancient Mariner (to invoke either Coleridge or Diego Segui, whichever you prefer) hanging balefully around the banquet, not a Bob Hope doing unfunny television specials into his late 80s, but a solid producer throughout. That is a different kind of accomplishment than dominating a league and winning the big awards, but it's an accomplishment nonetheless in a league in which most players flame out by their early 30s.

However overshadowed Thome has been, the compiler tag doesn’t really hang on him. Only 26 players have had a 50-home run season. Thome is one of them. And while 62 players have played in more games than Thome, only five of them have more home runs. You could arbitrarily adjust for Thome’s era and make 100 of his home runs vanish if you want to, and you would still have a 500-home run player. You could take 200 of them away and you would still have a power hitter with a .400 on-base percentage who helped put the Indians—if you had grown up when I did, you would know how amazing that sounds—into two World Series. Yeah, he struck out a lot. Yeah, he wasn’t a great defender at third base or first. Yeah, he wasn’t an MVP winner, but he could have been—and in his time they were giving out MVP awards to guys like Mo Vaughn and Juan Gonzalez (twice!) so how meaningful is that, anyway? This is a historic player, and if he subsisted at the level of very good for a very long time, so be it.

Trying to gerrymander the Hall of Fame so it leaves out Thome is perverse given the demonstrably inferior players who are already in. It’s an attempt to make Thome the standard-bearer for a presumably corrupt era when there isn’t any reason to do so except that he happened to be in the vicinity at the time. It’s taking Thome’s signature ability, power, and using it against him in a way that would be inconceivable with an Aparicio or Lou Brock-type talent, even if the line from doping to performance is more easily drawn from consumption to running than consumption to hitting.

In any case, the Writers’ definition of a Hall of Famer has always been more expansive than simply “major award winners and league leaders.” The aforementioned Tony Perez never led his leagues in anything but grounding into double plays, nor did he win an MVP vote. Billy Williams won one batting title, no MVP award. One could keep going—it’s a big Hall.

Recently, while working in another context, I happened to ask myself, “Who is the greatest third baseman in the history of the Detroit Tigers?” Only three third basemen have played 1000 games at the position for the Tigers—Aurelio Rodriguez, Tom Brookens, and Don Wert—and none of them could hit. Indeed, Rodriguez, a defensive wizard who played 2017 games for seven teams over 17 seasons, is  likely a top-ten candidate for the longest career of any player who never actually hit anything. The best bet is probably Hall of Famer George Kell, who played just seven of his 14 full seasons in Detroit, hitting .325/.391/.433 in 826 games from 1946 to 1952. They’ve had a few very good seasons from the hot corner since then—Ray Boone’s .308/.403/.518 in 1956, Ed Yost’s .278/.435/.436 in 1959—but on the whole they’ve spent about 60 years waiting for the next long-term starter at the position to come along and be as good as Kell.

It happens that Kell is in the Hall of Fame; the Veterans Committee voted him aboard in 1983. His plaque describes him as a “Solid hitter and sure-handed fielder with strong, accurate arm.” It’s not the most ringing of endorsements. Kell was clearly a very good player, but only that; he had a short peak, came up young, and was done at 34. He had only 2054 career hits and 78 home runs. Had they been giving out Gold Gloves in his day he probably would have won a few. He probably wasn’t as good a player as, say, Robin Ventura, but in his last year of eligibility on the Writer’s ballot, 37 percent of the electorate voted for him. A few years later, Maury Wills picked up 41 percent of the vote. Harvey Kuenn was a popular candidate for awhile, and Marty Marion, and Allie Reynolds. Tony Oliva got his percentage up into the 40s. There are even some people who believe that Jack Morris belongs in there, for gosh sakes.

You can call almost anyone a Hall of Famer for any reason, and if you look at any player with a career of an appreciable length you will likely find that someone has tried; since there is no official definition of Hall of Famer, you can try out any rationale, and if enough people believe you, congratulations, you’ve got your candidate a plaque. We like to pretend that’s only true of the Veterans Committee and not the Writers, but in truth it has applied to both at times. Given that, there is no rationale by which one could deny entry to one of only eight players with 600 home runs—none, that is, except a general prohibition on players from a certain period of time, as if coexisting with a Jose Canseco or Ken Caminiti made one a Canseco or Caminiti. But who would be so reckless as to even imply such a thing without a shred of proof?

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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

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Lou Doench

Everything about You've said about Thome I apply to Bagwell and Sosa as well.

Aug 16, 2011 05:40 AM
rating: 0

Except Sosa has the cheater cloud hovering above him, and Bagwell (I would say undeservingly so) has a small cloud of his own brewing. The only reason there's even a discussion about Thome is because of the era in which he played. Being perceived as clean makes all the difference.

Aug 16, 2011 19:29 PM
rating: 0

Bert Blyleven made the hall with the same type of career. Ks = HRs.

Aug 16, 2011 06:34 AM
rating: 0

I've always thought of Harmon Killebrew for a good comparison to Thome's career. Both came up as 3B before spending more time at 1B. Took a few years to become a gain a full time spot in the lineup. When they did, both hit HRs and maintained a high BB rate (and Ks).

Aug 16, 2011 07:36 AM
rating: 4

He also has another number that I have not seen pushed nearly enough - that .400 OBP. Who has 600 HR and a 400 OBP? Bonds, Ruth and Thome.

In some ways, I see him similarly to Murray, who was rarely spectacular, but gathered enough counting stats to be a sure HOF'r. Thome doesn't have the hits, but he has the extra 100 HR and the 400 OBP. I think he is in easily.

Aug 16, 2011 07:48 AM
rating: 2

Now that even ESPN watchers know what OPS is, maybe that number should be thrown around more in that context.

Aug 16, 2011 08:15 AM
rating: 0
Lou Doench

That's an interesting comparison, especially since Eddie Murray was one of my favorite players. Just glancing at some era normalized stats like ops+, Thome actually looks a lot better than Murray. Murray took a couple of years to go in, a lot will depend of what things look like 5 years from now. (or six, do we know if Thome is done this year?)

Aug 16, 2011 17:47 PM
rating: 0
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Murray gained entry in his first year of eligibility, getting 85 percent of the vote — and well he should have, as he was a plus defender as well as a very good hitter for a very long time. Thome's power and walks made him a more valuable hitter, but his lack of defensive value hurts him in a direct comparison.

Aug 17, 2011 15:42 PM

Who's actually arguing that Thome doesn't belong in the Hall?? I've seen another such article on another 'stat' site and now this one. But neither quotes a single specific 'Ralph Important Guy' as saying that Thome doesn't belong.

Aug 16, 2011 08:27 AM
rating: 6

Couldn't you have the same thing after Bagwell retired? The voters don't value walks, and god help you if you ever hit a home run during the 90s-00s, because if you did, you obviously cheated

Aug 16, 2011 13:13 PM
rating: 1

I believe it is in reference to this article:


Though the article doesn't argue that Thome "shouldn't" get in, he does argue that he does not expect him to.

Aug 17, 2011 06:24 AM
rating: 0

"But who would be so reckless as to even imply such a thing without a shred of proof?"

Because sportswriters are sometimes lazy and blanket statements cause dramatic undertones for their articles?

Aug 16, 2011 09:17 AM
rating: 0
Richard Bergstrom

Blanket statements also stir controversy which give the sportswriters even more attention and even more things to write about. The same writers who decry the players from the steroid era are the same ones who made their living praising those same players.

Aug 16, 2011 20:59 PM
rating: 2
Richard Bergstrom

If people want to subtract homers from Sosa or Bonda or whomever for PEDs, should Thome get a boost, maybe just a moral one, for hitting against the pitchers who used PEDs?

Aug 16, 2011 09:52 AM
rating: 0
Shaun P.

I think the idea of adding and subtracting is impossible to figure out from a practical perspective. I also think its ridiculous, but I can see how others might feel differently.

But let's say we had a way to do it, fairly. In that context, I think you're right, Richard, Thome should get a boost. But to be consistent, I think you have to give everyone a boost. Maybe some guys (Bonds, Sosa, etc.) also get something taken away, too. I don't see how you "add" to just the "clean guys".

Aug 16, 2011 11:40 AM
rating: 2

If a juiced hitter takes a juiced pitcher deep, where is the "unfair competition"?

Aug 16, 2011 17:23 PM
rating: 2
Richard Bergstrom

I realize the amount to add/subtract is pretty much impossible since people can't even agree on how much PEDs affect the game. I meant the question more rhetorically, figuring it might stir a bit of discussion. I think the ironic thing about all the Thome coverage is people keep comparing his numbers to those linked to PEDs but rarely compared to Griffey or Thomas, neither of whom have been linked to PEDs.

Career-wise, I always compared Thome to Palmerio and I remember journalists saying Palmerio wasn't a Hall of Famer even before he got 3000 hits (and before the PED revelations came out). Though, at the time, I thought both were Hall of Famers.

Aug 16, 2011 20:55 PM
rating: 0

As I was watching the highlights last night, they showed Thome's first home run. He wasn't the beefy guy he is today. It shows the fallacy of looking at body type changes and assuming the player is on PEDs.

Aug 16, 2011 11:14 AM
rating: 5

That's odd; I thought Travis Fryman played for Detroit at one time.

Aug 16, 2011 11:50 AM
rating: 0
BP staff member Steven Goldman
BP staff

He hit .274/.334/.444 in a league that hit .268/.338/.415 during those years while spending a good chunk of his time at shortstop. He was a decent hitter as a third baseman, but hardly franchise-best material.

Aug 16, 2011 12:00 PM

What are Thome's JAWS numbers?

Aug 16, 2011 15:34 PM
rating: 0
Jason Wojciechowski

Looks like 58 -- 74.2 career, and 41.8 peak. From this piece, the 1B averages are 53.5 JAWS, 43 peak, and 64 career.

The peak isn't far enough below the average peak to make any never mind, and his career value is quite high.

I wonder, by the way, whether "consecutive peak" players get more love than "scattered peak" players -- that is, as JAWS takes your best seven seasons, regardless of when they occur, as your peak, it treats someone with a couple of great early or great late seasons equally as someone whose best seasons are in the standard middle part of his career. I have no disagreement with this method, but I wonder whether guys who have a narrative built for them by sympathetic media types have an easier time doing so when they can point to a sustained run of dominance.

For what it's worth, Thome's best seasons were (in chronological, not value, order): 1995, 1996, 1997, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2006.

Aug 16, 2011 17:40 PM
rating: 2

Thome is tied with Ruth, Robinson (Frank), Mantle, Foxx, and Musial in career walk-off home runs with 12.

8 players reached 600 home runs; 28 had 3,000 hits; it strikes me that HOF voters underappreciate the value of power, and overinflate the value of "hits" (to me, Pete Rose might be considered the ultimate "compiler"). . .

Is it heresy to apply the Potter Stewart standard ("I know a Hall of Famer when I see one")?

If you watched Thome over the past 20 years, and you appreciate good hitting, you had to say "HOF hitter" -- a rare blend of power and plate discipline.

What he lacked in "black ink" he more than made up for with consistency, longevity, and the liklihood that his presence in the lineup made others around him better given his blend of power and patience.

Just a gut feel, but it seems as if over the years,(PED) era aside, Hall voters are kinder to "ball striking" one trick ponies (Carew, Boggs, Gwynn, those type of players) than "power/OBP" one trick ponies.

From all accounts, he could be a HOF'er on character alone.

Aug 16, 2011 20:54 PM
rating: 0
Richard Bergstrom

I fear Thome will get the one-dimensional argument that has been applied to Mark McGwire and might still be applied to Frank Thomas. And, unfortunately, character didn't help Dale Murphy's HoF chances. The best indication on whether Thome gets in is if Frank Thomas gets in.

Aug 16, 2011 20:56 PM
rating: 0

"If Frank Thomas gets in."

That comment shows how cowed rational, objective fans have become in the face of years of illogical voting by the BBWAA.

My response would be: "If not Thomas, the WHO is left to vote in?"

A month or so ago I went to baseball-reference.com and went through year by year by date of birth to get a feel for who the best players were by year.

This approach allows you to see how few special (in the discussion for possible serious HOF consideration) players are born each year. If you begin to eliminate players from consideration based on either known, or suspsected PED use, the number of players coming down the pike over the next 10-15 years that meet both "really great numbers" and "absolutely ZERO shred of inference of possible PED use" criteria is really small . . .

Aug 16, 2011 21:20 PM
rating: 0
Richard Bergstrom

I'm not cowed, just addressing the reality of a voting process that most "rational, objective fans" have no say in.

I think Raines is the best indication/test of how difficult it will be for Thomas. The voters won't value Thomas's OBP and instead focus on how he was a DH during the steroid era or that he only was an All-Star five times or that he just hung around long enough to get to 500 home runs.

Aug 17, 2011 06:45 AM
rating: 0
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

I don't think Thomas is going to have any problem getting in. Yes, much of his value comes from his walks, but he had tremendous power, won back-to-back MVP awards, had black ink all over the place, and emerged as one of the few players about whom there was little question of steroid use - he advocated for testing as early as 1995, and was the only active player to cooperate with George Mitchell's investigation. He cleared 500 homers easily with a solid penultimate season, and will probably go in to the Hall on the first ballot.

Aug 17, 2011 15:52 PM
Richard Bergstrom

Jay, what you say is what I'd like to think..

But I also know how uninformed a lot of voters are and I think many will just assume he did steroids, or was underpowered for the steroids era, or refuse to vote for him because he was a DH or his "surly" reputation. And I don't think those voters will give him credit for advocating testing or cooperating with the Mitchell Report since those same voters won't do much research on him. I mean, you still have current voters who, a few years ago, left Rickey Henderson off the ballot.

I think he will get in eventually, but I think it will take three to five years. There's also a chance that, once Griffey gets on the ballot, it'll distract from Thomas accumulating votes since the voters might be eager to get _one_ hitter from the steroid era in.

Aug 17, 2011 20:02 PM
rating: -1


Born in 1960 -- Ripken, Puckett, Gwynn all in

Born in 1961 -- Mattingly? weakest year for hitters between 1960 and 1976

Born in 1962 -- Strawberry?

1963 -- McGwire, Edgar Martinez (yes in my book), McGriff?

1964 -- Bonds, Palmeiro, Barry Larkin, Will Clark (??)

1965 -- Biggio . . . . . .Steve Finley????

1966 -- Larry Walker (I would vote for Walker) . . .

1967 -- Deep year without any serious candidates

1968 -- Vintage year -- Thomas, Bagwell, Sosa, Piazza, Kent, Sheffield, Bernie Williams. Robbie Alomar was born in 1968.

1969 -- Griffey

1970 -- Thome and Edmonds (I'd vote for Edmonds)

1971 -- I-rod and Posada (must have been the year of the catcher)

1972 -- Manny (yes) and Chipper (very much yes)

1973 -- Helton (I think will get there), Nomar (no) and Damon (quietly "compiling") . . .

1974 -- Jeter and Abreu (borderline . . .)

1975 -- ARod and Vlad, and two interesting borderlines with Rolen, Ortiz

1976 -- age 35 guys --- Konerko making a late run, Berkman, and maybe Michael Young

That's it for hitters -- the other problem for the non-
PED guys is that players born in the late 60s-early 70s is that their peak ages (26-31) ocurred at the height of PED usage (1998-2003) -- so what may have looked like spiking performance due to usage may have actually only been great players at their physical peaks at a time that happened to coincide with the PED peak . . .

Aug 16, 2011 21:40 PM
rating: 1
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