By all accounts, Thome has been a Larry Lunchpail kind of player—a heartland guy (he is from Peoria, Illinois) who shows up to play ball without any flash or pretension. (In looks and demeanor, Thome has always struck me as being the Larry Bird of baseball.) Moreover, despite hitting tape-measure home runs and being just this close to 600 of them, he has always been regarded as a clean player, with no whiff of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) about him; given how the PEDs taint has clouded the accomplishments of three 600-plus-homer players—Sammy Sosa, Alex Rodriguez, and the lifetime leader in home runs Barry Bonds—the fact that Thome hit his "the right way" bolsters the integrity of game and the record book, at least in the eyes of many fans.
So, why don't we have a "Thome watch," with fans hanging onto every Thome at-bat to see if he gets that much closer to history? One reason is that Thome has never been the spotlight player on the five teams he's played for in his career. Another, related, reason is that Thome was a steady contributor during his prime, but he never had the one spotlight season that stands out in the memory. The five-time All-Star placed fourth, his highest showing, in Most Valuable Player voting in 2003, when he led the National League in home runs with 47. That was the only year in which Thome led the league in home runs, despite the fact that he hit 40 or more home runs six times in his career, and hit 30 or more home runs twelve times, nine of those consecutively. Furthermore, Thome drove in 100 or more runs nine times, six of those consecutively, in his career. These are the kinds of consistent power numbers associated with Jimmie Foxx, Alex Rodriguez, and—dare we say?—Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron. Yet Thome has always seemed to be the Second Banana.
Part of that perception stems from Thome's start. He began his career in 1991 with the Cleveland Indians, which went to two World Series in the 1990s with high-profile players Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, Omar Vizquel, and Kenny Lofton, and with veterans David Justice and Eddie Murray chipping in while Roberto Alomar joined in the late 1990s. Starting as a third baseman, Thome moved to first base in Cleveland before he signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2003. In his first year in the National League, he led the League in home runs with 47, but injuries made their presence felt in 2005 as Thome, playing first base on a regular basis for the last time in his career, was traded to the Chicago White Sox for the 2006 season to make room for Phillies' first baseman Ryan Howard. In Chicago, Thome was the designated hitter as his fielding days appeared over for good; indeed, he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers near the end of the season and saw action only as a pinch-hitter. In 2010, he signed as a free agent with the Minnesota Twins; in 340 plate appearances as a designated hitter, Thome produced a .283/.412/.627 slash line with 25 home runs and 59 runs batted in.
This year with the Twins, at age 40 (he turns 41 on August 27), Thome in 213 plate appearances is hitting .243/.352/.459 with 9 home runs and 33 RBI. Thome does seem to be hanging on just to get to the vaunted 600-home run circle; at 41, Thome is unlikely to attract serious attention next year—there is simply no room on any team's roster for an aging slugger who cannot play the field; with a career defensive wins above replacement (WAR; Baseball Reference version) of minus 3.8 games, Thome was never known for his glove, anyway. The expectation seems to be similar to that of recently retired Trevor Hoffman: Let Thome get to his milestone (Hoffman's was 600 saves), and hope that he has the good sense to announce his retirement shortly thereafter.
That's not always an easy decision to make, especially for sluggers: Hank Aaron, Ken Griffey, Jr., Reggie Jackson, Harmon Killebrew, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, and even the immortal Babe Ruth all hung on at least one season too long. That might be because even if the defense is gone (if it was ever there in the first place), even if the speed is gone (ditto), even if the ability to get on base is gone, there is still the threat of the big fly from that aging bat. The circumstances are not similar but the image is appropriate: Cue Kirk Gibson, hobbling to the plate in Game One of the 1988 World Series, hitting a walk-off home run off ace Athletics reliever Dennis Eckersley to win it for the Dodgers. Pure Roy Hobbs, right? The aging, wounded lion with one mighty roar left. (In fairness, Gibson's 1988 season was an MVP one—albeit definitely not one based on statistics alone—and injuries sustained during the National League Championship Series effectively kept him from the World Series; he came pretty darn close to matching those 1988 numbers—in 250 fewer plate appearances—six years later in his penultimate season.)
Assuming that Thome reaches 600 home runs and retires, the next question becomes: Is he a Hall of Famer? In one sense, it's a silly question because if he were to retire today with 598 homers, his chances for the Hall wouldn't diminish just because he did not reach a neatly defined plateau. (Al Kaline is no less a Hall of Famer because his .297 batting average and 399 home runs do not round up to convenient thresholds of .300 and 400, respectively, and let's not discuss the asinine premise behind the baseball movie Mr. 3000 here.) In another sense, questioning Thome's Hall-worthiness is still a silly question because even if he did retire today, he has still hit more home runs than anyone who has played major league baseball except for seven other men. And of those seven, three bear the stigma of having been associated with performance-enhancing drugs, while Thome earns plaudits for having hit his home runs "the right way."
But are home runs alone enough anymore? We've had a decade-plus in which long balls came, if not cheaply, then certainly plentifully, and exacerbating that devaluation is of course the PEDs controversy, which casts its pall over every home run hit, clean or not, in the last fifteen years. With respect to the Hall and the numbers, the recent saga of Bert Blyleven has been instructive: He certainly flashed the counting numbers—wins (albeit 13 of them shy of the nice, round threshold of 300), strikeouts, and shutouts—but they were not sufficient in and of themselves to get him elected. It took a concerted qualitative analysis to convince voters that Blyleven was a Hall of Fame pitcher. Perhaps we need to look past Jim Thome's auspicious home run total to measure his true worth.
Thome in his prime certainly delivered outstanding numbers. In a ten-year period from 1995 to 2004, he posted a .288/.418/.585 slash line while averaging 39 home runs, 102 runs scored, and 107 runs batted in every season, proving himself as a run-producer, while his average of 112 walks per season accounted for that gaudy on-base percentage—and those 153 strikeouts he averaged every year marks him as a true power hitter; in fact, he led the League in walks three times and strikeouts three times—practically his only multiple appearances on the leaderboards. (We'll get to the Three True Outcomes soon enough.) During this ten-year period, Thome posted an adjusted OPS+ (an on-base percentage plus slugging percentage measured against the entire league) of 157 and a WAR of 5.3 per season—a WAR of at least 5 is considered All-Star quality—while Thome amassed a total WAR of 53.2 during this period; that WAR from that ten-period alone puts him in the top 150 lifetime.
Thome's best year offensively overall might be 2002, when he hit .304, got on base at a .445 clip, and slugged at a .677 pace to lead the American League; this gave him an OPS of 1.122 and an OPS+ of 197, both of which were League-leading as well. Averaging one home run every 9.2 at-bats to lead the League, his 52 home runs placed second to Alex Rodriguez and his 57 homers, and it marked the only time Thome reached the 50-HR plateau while he scored 101 runs and drove in 118. Thome also led the League in walks (122) while cutting down his strikeouts to 139 (Thome's 2002 total is framed by 185 strikeouts in 2001 and 182 in 2003). Although Thome led the League in offensive WAR (9.0), his defensive deficiencies knocked down his position-player WAR to 8.1, just a tick behind Rodriguez's 8.2, while Thome did pace the League in runs created with 155. Despite this stellar season, Thome came in seventh in voting for the League's Most Valuable Player, behind not only Rodriguez and winner Miguel Tejada but also Garret Anderson and Torii Hunter. Thome's best showing as MVP was the following year when he placed fourth in his first year in the National League, where he led the League with 47 home runs.
Despite an outstanding prime, Thome's hitting accomplishments do seem to have been obscured by the offensive explosion that coincided with that prime. However, Thome's performance might also, paradoxically, be devalued as baseball writers discount the statistics generated during this period, in no small part because of the perceived impact of performance-enhancing drugs that have ostensibly inflated those numbers. Furthermore, Thome does appear to be the poster child for the Three True Outcomes.
The Three True Outcomes are regarded by modern baseball analysts as those results that have the simplest and most direct impact by either a pitcher or a hitter: a home run, a walk, or a strikeout. In other words, no other player has an effect on the result of the outcome—on a batted ball that stays inside the ballpark, both the pitcher and the hitter are at the mercy of the fielder or fielders who interact with the ball; whether a fielder can get to a ball and make a play will result in a safe hit, an out, or an error, and those outcomes are out of the hands of either the pitcher or the hitter (although the pitcher-as-fielder can affect the outcome of himself as the pitcher-as-pitcher). Simply put, the Three True Outcomes are the most direct measures of a pitcher's or hitter's controlling his own fate.
Prime exemplars of the Three True Outcomes among hitters include Reggie Jackson, Harmon Killebrew, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa, as well as lesser lights Rob Deer, Adam Dunn, Dave Kingman, and Dale Murphy (with Mark Reynolds already making himself auspicious—at least in the strikeouts department). The popular perception is that you only saw players like these strike out, hit a home run, or draw a walk. Not surprisingly, these players rank highly in home run frequency (at-bats per home run). If Thome retires tomorrow, he will indeed be among the top ten lifetime in the Three True Outcomes categories: eighth in home runs (598), fifth in home run frequency (one home run every 13.65 at-bats), eighth in walks (1710), and second in strikeouts (2453), although lifetime leader in whiffs Reggie Jackson probably doesn't need to worry about being passed by Thome.
But Thome, while never a defensive asset or a baserunner, is more than a Three True Outcomes hitter. He has amassed more than 2200 hits and 400 doubles, and his .277 batting average is better than TTO Hall of Famers Jackson and Killebrew as well as putative Hall of Famers McGwire and Sosa. Moreover, his .403 on-base percentage is also superior to theirs, and it is in the top fifty lifetime. This accounts for his 1551 career runs scored, currently tied with, appropriately enough, Reggie Jackson, although Thome scored that same amount of runs in 1400 fewer plate appearances than did Jackson. (Thome is also in the top thirty lifetime with 1657 runs batted in.)
Jim Thome seems to have been overshadowed by playing during an offensive-rich era that saw other players have conspicuous seasons with gaudy numbers, although Thome in his prime, from 1995 to 2004, posted Hall of Fame-caliber seasons, primarily as part of two powerhouse Cleveland Indians teams that went to the World Series twice. Moreover, Thome played in an era when performance-enhancing drugs tainted those gaudy numbers, yet Thome himself has never even been suspected of PEDs usage, thus burnishing his record (along with others like Frank Thomas) by having "done it the right way." Finally, it is easy to regard Thome as a Three True Outcomes kind of hitter, but hitting for average, including a .288 batting average during his ten-year peak, combined with all those walks pushes his on-base percentage above .400, an outstanding batting accomplishment.
So, should Thome hang up his cleats without reaching 600 home runs, he still looks like a Hall of Fame hitter and not simply because of all those really long balls he hit. But while he is trying to reach that rarefied milestone, baseball fans should be hanging onto every Thome at-bat because it will be several years at least before another hitter has a chance to come close. And when Jim Thome does reach that inner circle, we should greet him with the hats and horns. It is a rare and fine accomplishment.