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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

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