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September 8, 2010
Prospectus Hit and Run
One year ago, Jim Thome was almost a forgotten man. Traded by the White Sox to the Dodgers just prior to the August 31 waiver deadline, he was a fish out of water in the National League, instantly reduced to a pinch-hitting role by his inability to play the field and even further limited by a bout of plantar fasciitis. Including the postseason, Thome went just 5-for-20—all singles—with a walk and three RBI for the Dodgers. Since the team fell short of the World Series, he didn't get to serve as designated hitter in the Fall Classic, the primary job for which he was acquired. At 39 years old, he looked like he might be done.
Back in the American League a year later, Thome finds himself as a key player in the midst of a playoff race—against his old team, the White Sox, no less, that after they passed on re-signing him as a free agent at the behest of manager Ozzie Guillen. On Saturday, the Twins' DH clubbed two home runs in the first four innings against the Rangers' Colby Lewis, helping to build an insurmountable 9-0 lead. The homers, his 583rd and 584th, pushed him past Mark McGwire and into ninth place on the all-time list. After sitting on Sunday, the big slugger returned to the lineup on Monday and caromed a blast off the Target Field flagpole which was estimated at a park-record 480 feet, bettering the 449-footer he'd launched on Saturday. The moon shot moved Thome one homer behind Frank Robinson's career mark while helping the Twins win their fourth straight game to remain ahead of the hard-charging White Sox.
Thome has been a godsend for the Twins this season as few players have offered as much bang for the buck. Signed to a one-year, $1.5 million deal—quite the comedown from the six-year, $85 million deal he finished last year—the 40-year-old (as of August 27) designated hitter has hit .275/.399/.621, good for a .332 True Average, a mark which would tie for fifth in the AL given enough plate appearances. He's collected a team-high 21 homers in just 293 PA, for a home-run rate of 7.2 percent, second in the majors behind only Jose Bautista among players with at least 10 homers.
Despite his productivity, Thome has started just 65 of the Twins' 138 games, resting his balky back and steering clear of most lefties while giving manager Ron Gardenhire room to juggle Delmon Young (who's enjoying something of a breakout season), Denard Span, Jason Kubel, and Michael Cuddyer between three outfield slots and DH. That task has become somewhat simplified over the past two months ever since Justin Morneau sustained a concussion while attempting to break up a double play, and Morneau has been on the disabled list ever since. His absence has sent Cuddyer to first base, carving out more time at DH for Thome; he's started 31 of 54 games since Morneau's injury, compared to 34 of the team's first 84 games. What's more, Thome has sizzled in that span, hitting .292/.420/.670 with 11 homers in just 131 PA. He's had company in rising to the occasion; the offense is averaging 5.1 runs per game without Morneau, compared to 4.6 with him, and the team is 36-18 in his absence, good enough to vault the Twins from third place to first in the AL Central, gaining four games on the White Sox in the process.
As Thome climbs the all-time home-run list and approaches the 600 mark, the question inevitably arises as to whether he's a Hall of Famer, and it's a bit of a head scratcher for some. He's rarely been considered among the all-time greats, and as prodigious as his blasts are, his homers have come at a time when they've been more common than ever before in baseball history. Of the eight players above him on the all-time list, four (Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., Sammy Sosa, and Alex Rodriguez) are contemporaries. Furthermore, by passing McGwire, Thome now holds the distinction of having hit the most homers without winning an MVP award, though he's hardly without company among those in the 500 Home Run Club; Rafael Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez, Eddie Mathews, Mel Ott, and Gary Sheffield never won one either. Mathews and Ott are both in the Hall, the only two among that set eligible thus far.
To some extent, Thome is a product not only of the era but also of his ballparks; he's hit 327 of his 585 homers at home, compared to 258 on the road. That's the fifth-highest ratio among hitters in the 500 Home Run Club, the same ranking Thome had when I last checked in on this topic three years ago:
Thome's ratio has actually risen over the past few years, thanks mainly to homer-friendly U.S. Cellular Field. He hit 79 homers there with the White Sox from 2006-09, compared to 54 on the road, a ratio of 1.463. Target Field is a much more difficult park in which to homer; the Twins and their opponents have homered 91 times there, compared to 152 elsewhere, but Thome has bucked the trend, hitting 12 of his team's 41 homers at home. Kubel, who has eight, is the only other Twin with more than five.
Updating the "Home Doubled" and "Road Doubled" lists from a few years back shows what the leaderboard might have looked like if each of these sluggers had enjoyed the perks of home in every park or if they'd been deprived of them; we've simply doubled the split totals. While it's not rocket science, it's revealing particularly in terms of how much larger the 600 Home Run Club might be:
Thome has been about more than just home runs during his career, of course. As his lifetime batting line of .277/.404/.559 attests, he's got a keen batting eye and has taken advantage of pitchers' wariness of him to draw 1,669 walks, good for ninth on the all-time list (he's also second in strikeouts). His 165 intentional passes rank 32nd on the all-time list, 150 spots higher than the supposedly feared Jim Rice; the total might be higher were Thome not hitting in front of Albert Belle, Ramirez, or David Justice for much of his Cleveland tenure. Taking his park and league into account, Thome ranks among the great hitters of all time; his career .314 True Average ranks 25th among those with at least 8,000 plate appearances:
That said, Thome is not in as great a shape as you'd think when it comes to his JAWS case. His lack of defensive value hurts; Thome was no great shakes at his original position, third base (-24 FRAA and a 95 Rate2 from 1991-1996), or at first base (-10 FRAA and 99 Rate2, with just four games there after 2005), and he's been almost exclusively a DH for five years now. Still, he was above the JAWS standard at first base coming into the year:
*BBWAA-elected Hall of Famer
Thome's 2010 performance has been worth 3.4 WARP2 thus far, which would push him past Hernandez and Clark, with 56.5 JAWS overall. His performance and proximity to 600 homers makes it a virtual certainty he'll return next year, and with continued good work, he could push himself past Allen, Murray, and Carew as well.
Whether that will be enough to get him to Cooperstown is unclear. As noted above, Thome doesn't have an MVP award to call his own, although he did finish in the top 10 in the vote four times and does have some other solid credentials. He made five All-Star teams and led the league in homers once (2003, with 47 for the Phillies during his odd NL foray), which helps whip his Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor and Hall of Fame Standards scores (145 and 55) into above-average territory. He reached the 40-homer plateau six times, which is tied for eighth all-time. His post-season credentials aren't sterling (.222/.321/.488 with 17 homers), but he was a vital part of the Indians during the period in which they made five straight postseasons (1995-99), did hit .255/.352/.511 with three homers in the 1995 and 1997 World Series, and bashed four homers in losing causes in both the 1998 ALCS against the Yankees (suffice it to say he made quite the impression on this fan; he killed the Yanks for years) and the 1999 ALDS against the Red Sox. He's also served on three other teams that have reached the postseason and could make that four if the Twins pull through.
What Thome does have going for him along with the homers and the other numbers is a clean rap sheet. Unlike so many of the other players who have reached the 500 home-run plateau during his career—Bonds, Sosa, Rodriguez, McGwire, Palmeiro, Ramirez, and Sheffield—Thome has never been implicated as a user of performance-enhancing drugs, either via positive test, leaked test result, or involvement in a steroid-related investigation such as BALCO or the Mitchell Report. Only Griffey and Thomas, two virtual locks for the Hall, can say the same thing, and while that's not the same as knowing definitively that they're clean—we still don't know around 100 of the names on the 2003 survey test list from which some of the aforementioned players have been outed—it's the best we've got in this cynical age. McGwire is the only one of those players to appear on a ballot thus far, and the voters have treated him poorly. They're likely to snub Palmeiro, who's eligible this winter, but it won't be until 2013, when Bonds and Sosa reach, that we'll have a better sense of what fate awaits the implicated players at the 600 level.
Against that backdrop, Thome may do well in the voting when he finally becomes eligible, particularly as he's a player with a good-guy reputation and not to mention something of a throwback with his high socks and mighty uppercut. He'll certainly deserve that bronze plaque for his work, and the guess here is that he'll get it in due time.