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Jim Thome and the Hall of Fame

Jim Thome and the Hall of Fame

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Jim Thome in 2008

Jim Thome and the Hall of Fame

(This article was written before Thome hit is 600th homerun, worth revisiting)

Awhile ago, I received a considerable amount of criticism from a reader of my book "Baseball's Hall of Fame – Or Hall of Shame?" for suggesting in my work that Jim Thome should be viewed as nothing more than a borderline Hall of Famer, at best.  Said reader felt very strongly that Thome should be considered a virtual lock for Hall of Fame induction when his name is eventually added to the list of eligible candidates following his retirement, and he admonished me for suggesting otherwise.  Before I respond to this reader, who is certainly entitled to his opinion, I think it best to list the eight criteria I used in my book to determine the strength of the candidacy of players eligible for induction to Cooperstown. 

I asked the following eight questions:

1.  In his prime, was the player ever considered to be, for an extended period of time (i.e. at least three years), either the best player in baseball or the best player in his league?
2.  For the better part of a decade, was the player considered to be among the five or six best players in baseball?
3.  Could a valid case be made for the player being one of the ten best players at his position in baseball history?
4.  For the better part of a decade, was the player considered to be the best player in the game at his position?  In his league?
5.  How did the player fare in the annual voting for the MVP or Cy Young Award?  Did he ever win either award?  If not, how often did he finish in the top 10?
6.  How often was the player selected to the All-Star team?
7. How often did the player lead his league in some major offensive or pitching statistical category?
8. Was the player a major contributor to his team's success?  Did he do the little things to help his team win?  Did he play mostly on winning teams?  Was he a team leader?  Was he a good defensive player? (i.e. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?)

At the root of each question is an attempt to uncover just how dominant the player was during the time in which he played, since the feeling here is that a certain level of dominance must have been achieved in order for a player to be deemed Hall of Fame worthy.  Statistics are extremely important as well, and they play a huge role in the analysis of the level of success a player achieved over the course of his career.  But statistics must be used in moderation, since they tell only part of the story.  The sport of baseball tends to be cyclical in nature, with numbers varying from one generation to the next.  As a result, the figures a player compiles during his career must be judged against those posted by the players against whom he competed.     

Certain statistical benchmarks have also been used to identify worthy candidates. 

Thus far, all eligible players who accumulated either 500 home runs (with the exception of Mark McGwire) or 3,000 hits during their careers have made it into Cooperstown.  So, too, have all pitchers with 300 or more wins.  Few people have objected to the use of such benchmarks when evaluating the credentials of potential Hall of Famers.  As a result, nary a word was spoken when Phil Niekro, who posted 318 victories over the course of 24 major-league seasons, was elected to the Hall of Fame by the members of the BBWAA in 1997.  This, despite the fact that Niekro had only two dominant seasons and also lost 274 games.

I, though, am somewhat hesitant to automatically admit to Cooperstown any player who reached either the 500-home run, 3,000-hit, or 300-victory plateau.  While accumulating 3,000 hits or 300 wins is certainly an outstanding achievement that signifies a certain level of consistency that few have attained, it is possible to reach either mark more because of longevity than because of greatness, as can be evidenced by Niekro.  In the case of 500 career home runs, that is a benchmark that may have to reevaluated going forward since it no longer carries with it the same significance it once did.  Prior to 1990, it was commonplace for a player to lead his league in home runs with a total that approximated 40.  Hitting 50 homers in a season was considered to be quite an achievement.  However, players have compiled more than 40 home runs in a season with great regularity over the past two decades.  Furthermore, it was not at all uncommon during the Steroid Era that lasted from the 1980s to the turn of the century for the league leader to finish with a total somewhere between 50 and 60 long balls.  It follows that more players will likely be reaching the 500-home run plateau in future seasons.  As a result, it may well be that the bar needs to be raised to 600 homers when considering future generations of sluggers for Hall of Fame induction.

That being said, the feeling here is that a player must be judged within the context of the era in which he played, and that his numbers must stand out among those of the other players of his era.  His accomplishments must far exceed those of the vast majority of players against whom he competed for him to be deemed worthy of induction to Cooperstown.  He also must meet at least half the Hall of Fame criteria mentioned above.  If not, he cannot be viewed as a legitimate Hall of Fame player.

In the case of Jim Thome,

one of baseball's purest sluggers for more than a decade, we might be looking at the first man to actually challenge whether or not the historical benchmark of 500 home runs still applies.  Even though Thome has close to 600 career homers, his name is rarely mentioned in conversations involving the greatest players of his generation.  Still, Thome's status as one of baseball's top home run hitters and run-producers of his era certainly places him in the Hall of Fame discussion.

Possessing tremendous power to all fields and a keen batting eye that has enabled him to accumulate more than 100 walks nine different times, Thome averaged 37 home runs and 102 RBIs in his 13 years as a full-time player between 1995 and 2008.  He surpassed 30 homers 12 times, topping the 40-mark on six separate occasions.  He also drove in more than 100 runs nine times, and he scored at least 100 runs eight times.

As a member of the Cleveland Indians from 1996 to 2002, Thome surpassed 30 homers each year, knocked in and scored 100 runs six times each, collected more than 100 walks six times, and batted over .300 twice.  He had his two best years in 2001 and 2002.  In the first of those campaigns, Thome hit 49 home runs, knocked in 124 runs, scored 101 others, batted .291, and drew 111 bases on balls.  The following season, he hit a career-high 52 homers, drove in 118 runs, scored another 101, batted .304, and walked 122 times.  Thome finished second in the league in home runs both seasons.

At the end of 2002, Thome signed a huge free-agent contract with the Philadelphia Phillies.  He experienced a great deal of success in his first season with his new team, leading the National League with 47 home runs, placing third in the circuit with a career-best 131 runs batted in, scoring 111 runs, and finishing fourth in the league MVP voting.  Thome had another good year in 2004, hitting 42 homers and driving in 105 runs.  However, he missed most of the 2005 season with a bad back, hitting only seven home runs, driving in just 30 runs, and batting only .207 in just 193 at-bats.  At the end of the year, Thome was traded to the Chicago White Sox, with whom he spent the next four seasons.  Serving primarily as a designated hitter after spending the majority of his career as a first baseman, Thome combined for 134 home runs and 372 RBIs the next four years.    Those 134 home runs were particularly significant because they moved Thome past the 500-home run mark.  Since joining the Minnesota Twins prior to the start of the 2010 campaign, Thome has hit another 25 homers, moving him further up the all-time home run list with a total of 589 for his career.  Here are his career numbers as of this writing:     

        AB    HITS    RUNS      2B      3B      HR      RBI      AVG       SB      OBP     SLG PCT

   7,977    2,214    1,534      428      26      589    1,624     . 278        19      . 404       . 559

Those are extremely impressive numbers; undoubtedly good enough in the minds of most people to assure Thome a place in Cooperstown when his playing days are over.  Consider, though, that, despite topping the 40-homer mark on five separate occasions, Thome has led his league in that category only once, and he has finished in the top three only two other times.  He also has led his league in slugging percentage once, and he has topped his circuit in bases on balls three times.  However, he has never finished first in any other major statistical category.  Thome has never placed any higher than fourth in the league MVP balloting, and he has made it into the top ten only four times.  He has also been selected to the All-Star Team a total of five times – a relatively modest number for a potential Hall of Famer.  Furthermore, Thome was never considered to be among the very best players in the game, and he was ranked as his league's top first baseman in perhaps just one or two seasons.

Still, Thome's career numbers compare quite favorably to those of Harmon Killebrew, longtime Minnesota Twins slugging first baseman, who was a similar player to Thome in many ways.  Like Thome, Killebrew came up as a third baseman but spent most of his time at first base.  Killebrew also possessed tremendous power, compiled huge home run totals, drove in a lot of runs, and drew many bases on balls, all while hitting for a rather mediocre batting average.  Killebrew, who was elected to the Hall of Fame by the members of the BBWAA in 1984, in just his third year of eligibility, actually posted numbers that came up short of Thome's in practically every statistical category.  In virtually the same number of career at-bats, Thome has more home runs (589 to 573), more runs batted in (1,624 to 1,584), more runs scored (1,534 to 1,283), a higher batting average (.278 to .256), a higher on-base percentage (.404 to .376), and a better slugging percentage (.559 to .509).

The thing that must be considered, though, is that Killebrew spent most of his career playing in the 1960s – a period that was far less conducive to posting huge offensive numbers than the era during which Thome has competed.  Furthermore, the Twins slugger led the American League in home runs six times, runs batted in three times, walks four times, and slugging percentage once.  He topped the 40-homer mark eight times, knocked in more than 100 runs nine times, and drew over 100 walks seven times.  In addition, Killebrew won A.L. MVP honors in 1969, placed in the top five in the voting five other times, and was named to 11 All-Star teams.  Therefore, he clearly distinguished himself from the other players of his era far more than Thome has separated himself from his competitors throughout his career.

All things considered, the feeling here is that Thome must reach the 600-home run plateau to be considered a legitimate Hall of Famer.  And, even if he reaches that milestone, he should be viewed very much as a borderline candidate.

By Bob_Cohen
Wednesday, 17 Aug 2011

 

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Harmon Killebrew, Jim Thome

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