With a pair of home runs Monday against the Detroit Tigers, Jim Thome accomplished two things: He became the eighth and most nondescript member of baseball’s 600-homer club, and he ignited a silly Hall of Fame debate.
To begin with, we mean “nondescript” in the nicest way possible. Thome is a great hitter, reputedly a fine gentleman, and 600 home runs is 600 home runs.
It’s just that 600 home runs is the realm of the gods. Thome has joined Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, and Sammy Sosa in that group. That’s 16 MVP awards worth of greatness (and Ruth would have won more if the award had been established earlier), while Thome has never finished higher than fourth in the balloting.
That is one of the reasons that Thome’s ascension has led to questions about his Hall of Fame worthiness.
Mind you, everybody I have seen has argued that Thome is, indeed, a Hall of Famer. But the idea that the question needs to be raised points out the uniqueness of his situation. Did anybody question whether Willie Mays was a Hall of Famer when he hit his 600th homer?
So let’s ignore the home runs and the arbitrary milestone. (I mean, is Thome more or less of a player than he would be if he retired with 599 home runs?) And let’s look at his value, regardless of how it was compiled.
To begin with, according to baseball-reference.com, the most similar players to Thome are Frank Thomas, Sosa, Mike Schmidt, Harmon Killebrew, Mickey Mantle, Willie McCovey, and Willie Stargell.
Thomas will be a Hall of Famer, probably in the first year he is eligible. Sosa would be except for the whole steroids thing. Schmidt, Mantle, McCovey and Stargell went into the Hall in their first year, Killebrew in his fourth.
Under the established parameters of Hall of Fame induction, there’s no way Thome can be left out.
But similarity scores are only one way to gauge a player’s worthiness. Let’s look at actual value.
Thome is credited with 71.2 Wins Above Replacement in his career. This assesses how superior a player is to a hypothetical replacement player — the kind of guy a team could call up from Triple-A. Thome’s career total ranks 80th on the all-time list — between Johnny Bench and Derek Jeter, two clear Hall of Famers.
Wins Above Replacement includes fielding value, but Thome could have taken the field wearing a waffle iron on his hand all these years and nobody would have cared. He has earned his living with his bat.
So let’s compare him to a marginal Hall of Fame candidate who also demonstrated his value at the plate — Edgar Martinez. Both Thome and Martinez have an OPS+ of 147; Thome’s Offensive Winning Percentage is .716, while Martinez’s was .712; Thome has created 8.5 runs per 27 outs, Martinez 8.3.
Thome and Martinez have been equally effective as hitters, but there’s one big difference: Thome has more than 10,000 plate appearances, while Martinez had 8,672. Thome has played almost three full seasons more, and that means his value is vastly superior.
Yet Thome remains underappreciated. He has five All-Star appearances and has been in the Top 10 of the MVP voting on four occasions. Those aren’t the numbers of a surefire Hall of Famer.
That’s because, despite his prodigious home run numbers, Thome’s skills are the type that often go unnoticed. He has led the league in walks three times, has nine 100-walk seasons, and ranks eighth all-time in the statistic.
Sure, he has a .277 batting average, but his on-base percentage of .403 is higher than that of Joe DiMaggio, Rod Carew, Tony Gwynn, and whole bunch of other players who had higher batting averages.
By any measure, Thome has been a great hitter, one of the best of his generation. And barring some unforeseen revelations, he should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Question or comment for By the Numbers? You can reach Greg Jayne, Sports editor of The Columbian, at 360-735-4531, or by email at email@example.com. To “Like” him on Facebook, search for “Greg Jayne - the Columbian.”