The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2018 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year's ballot, please see here. For an introduction to JAWS, see here.
Of the nine players to hit at least 600 home runs, Jim Thome was the quietest and the least flashy. Unlike the other eight, he never won an MVP award, nor did he project the kind of outsized personality that, when combined with his prodigious power, would turn him into an icon. Yet Thome did become an icon of sorts—the humble, barrel-chested, country-strong throwback who succeeded because of a tireless work ethic and a tremendous uppercut swing.
Indeed, Thome could mash taters with the best of ’em. He tallied at least 40 home runs in a season six times, with a high of 52, and topped 30 homers 12 times from 1996 to 2008. While so many of the era's other longball kings—including 600 club members Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Alex Rodriguez—were eventually connected to performance-enhancing drugs, Thome never was. Indeed, he was spoken of in the most glowing terms throughout the game—not just “the nicest guy in baseball,” but also “the world’s nicest man.”
Fittingly, Thome drew comparisons to Harmon Killebrew, a wholesome, barrel-chested home run hero from an earlier era who made his mark in the Midwest as well. In fact, Thome surpassed Killebrew's 573 home runs while as a member of the Twins, in the shadow of the Minnesota slugger's brand new statue at Target Field. But Thome's biggest impact came as a member of the Indians. Alongside Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez and several other stars, he helped turned one of the American League's afterthoughts into a powerhouse—one that set a modern standard for offense—in the second half of the 1990s. After a detour to Philadelphia, he wound up on the south side of Chicago, just a few long fly balls from where he grew up in Peoria, Ill. As he bounced around for the last few years of his career—including not one but two returns to Cleveland, where he was eventually honored with a statue of his own—the appreciation of his feats widened. His earnest nature was even the subject of a gentle, hilarious satire.
With Thome eligible for the Hall of Fame for the first time, there's little doubt he's going to get his bronze plaque, even with a crowd atop the ballot that includes another likely first-year honoree (Chipper Jones) and two returning candidates who missed by just a handful of votes last year (Trevor Hoffman and Vlad Guerrero). Unblemished by controversy, Thome’s accomplishments certainly merit enshrinement, and there's every reason to expect he'll be in Cooperstown next summer.
Avg. HOF 1B
Born in Peoria in 1970, Thome came from a baseball- and softball-minded family that was essentially royalty in that central Illinois factory town. Grandfather Chuck Thome Sr. played regularly in Peoria's Sunday Morning League—a still-functioning adult baseball league founded in 1916—from 1923 to '48. Father Chuck Jr. and uncle Art starred in the league for nearly two decades as well. All three played semipro softball locally, and all are in the Greater Peioria Sports Hall of Fame. So is his aunt Carolyn, the most accomplished athlete of the family, a member not just of the GPSHOF but also the Amateur Softball Association Hall of Fame and the Illinois State Softball Hall of Fame. "Jimmy's a good young player," one Peoria native told Sports Illustrated's Michael Bamberger in 1998, "But his aunt could rip it."
As a kid, Thome rooted for the Cubs and was particularly enamored with Dave Kingman, who led the NL with 48 homers in 1979 as a Cub and hit 442 for his career—or at least he was until the slugger snubbed the youngster's autograph request. A free-swinging hacker at the plate, a butcher in the field and an obnoxious misogynist off of it, Kingman was the antithesis of Thome, a heel instead of a hero.
At Limestone High School, Thome earned all-state honors in basketball and baseball, but as a skinny 6'4" shortstop, he couldn't attract the interests of scouts or four-year colleges. He headed to Illinois Central Junior College, where he played for a year before being drafted in the 13th round by the Indians in 1989. After signing, he headed to their Gulf Coast League affiliate, where he hit a thin .237/.314/.296 without a single homer and just eight extra-base hits in 55 games. The following spring, hitting coach Charlie Manuel helped Thome open up his stance, positioning his back foot close to the plate to enable him to crush outside pitches to the opposite field while still being able to pull the ball. He also encouraged Thome to take a page from The Natural:
We were looking for a swing key, something that would open Jimmy up, let him hit to all fields. Redford steps in there and holds the bat with his right hand, way out in front of him, shoulder high. We both said, 'Let's try that.' Right away, it worked."
The adjustments worked. Thome, who had shifted to third base, hit a combined .340/.466/.609 with 16 homers in 67 games across two levels in 1990 and cracked the Baseball America Top 100 Prospects list at No. 93 the following spring. He followed up by hitting a combined .319/.395/.449, albeit with just with seven homers, in 125 games split between Double and Triple A in 1991.
At the latter stop, Colorado Springs, Manuel was the manager. By September, the 20-year-old Thome was in the majors, going 2-for-4 with a run and an RBI in his Sept. 4 debut against the Twins, with his first major league hit coming off Tom Edens. Thome played 27 games that month, hitting .255/.298/.367 with one homer, a game-winning two-run shot off the Yankees' Steve Farr on Oct. 4. Such highlights were few and far between for a team on its way to a 57–105 record, their worst in franchise history.
Thome climbed to No. 51 on BA's prospect list in the spring of 1992, but he began the year on the disabled list due to a right wrist injury and played just two games in May before a shoulder strain knocked him out until late June. Playing sporadically upon returning, he hit just .205/.275/.299 in 40 games before being demoted and ultimately shut down for the season. He spent most of 1993 back in Triple A under Manuel, though the affiliate was now located in Charlotte. Called up on Aug. 13, he homered in his first game back, then added six more while batting .266/.385/.474 in 47 games.
The Indians had improved to 76–86 in both 1992 and '93 but still had recorded just one winning season since going 52–51 during the strike-shortened '81 season. Better days were ahead as they moved from cavernous Municipal Stadium to Jacobs Field for the '94 season with a talented nucleus in place: 22-year-old rightfielder Manny Ramirez, 25-year-old second baseman Carlos Baerga, 27-year-old leftfielder Albert Belle, 27-year-old centerfielder Kenny Lofton, 28-year-old catcher Sandy Alomar Jr., and the 23-year-old Thome. With Manuel rejoining the big league staff as the hitting coach under manager Mike Hargrove, the Indians went 66–47 in the strike-shortened 1994 season; they were one game out of first place in the brand new AL Central, leading the wild-card race by 2 1/2 games when play stopped. Thome fully established himself by hitting a respectable .268/.359/.523 with 20 homers and a 127 OPS+.
He was just getting started, and so were the Indians. With former World Series hero Orel Hershiser joining the ageless Dennis Martinez at the front of the pitching staff, the Indians went a sizzling, MLB-best 100–44, leading the AL in both run scoring and run prevention. Belle bashed 50 homers, Ramirez 31, and Thome 25 while hitting .314/.438/558; he ranked third in on-base percentage, 10th in slugging percentage, fifth in OPS+ (157) and seventh in WAR (5.9). The Indians not only made the playoffs for the first time since 1954, but they also won the AL pennant. Thome hit four homers and drove in 10 runs that October, with go-ahead hits in each round, most notably a towering two-run homer off the Mariners' Chris Bosio in Game 5 of the ALCS (complete with bat flip) and an RBI single off Greg Maddux in Game 5 of the World Series. Alas, the Indians lost to the Braves in six games, with Thome's eighth-inning warning track fly ball off Tom Glavine just not enough to erase a 1–0 deficit.
In 1996, Thome clubbed 38 homers, walked 123 times and ranked fourth in the AL in OBP (.450), OPS+ (167) and WAR (7.4) as the Indians went 99–62. But in the Division Series opener against the Orioles, he fractured a hamate bone in his right hand while fouling off a pitch. He managed to collect a pair of hits in Game 2, but by the end of the series—a three-games-to-one defeat—he could barely grip a bat.
That winter, the Indians traded deadline acquisition Jeff Kent to the Giants in a deal that brought back third baseman Matt Williams. Thome, who had played the hot corner adequately but not spectacularly (-11 runs in 493 games, according to Total Zone), shifted across the diamond to first base. Though his defense at the new position was rough (-6 runs), he made his first All-Star team in 1997 and was all over the offensive leaderboard: first in walks (120), third in OBP (.423), fourth in homers (40), fifth in SLG (.579) and OPS+ (156) and ninth in WAR (5.5). The Indians went just 86–75, but they eked out a Division Series win against the Yankees and slipped past the Orioles in the ALCS, both without much help from Thome, who went a combined 4-for-9 with just one RBI in those series. He recovered his stroke in the World Series against the Marlins, going 8-for-28 with two homers, albeit both in losses.
In May 1997, the Indians picked up Thome's $3.6 million 1998 option, then signed him to a three-year, $24.5 million extension covering 1999–2001, with an additional option for '02. At the same time, the team announced extensions for David Justice and Marquis Grissom. Proactive deals such as those by general manager John Hart, buying out arbitration and early free agency years, did wonders to help the small-market Indians remain contenders.
Though a fractured metacarpal cost him 35 games late in 1998, Thome's 30 homers and 153 OPS+ helped the Indians back to the postseason for the fourth straight year. He homered six times in 10 postseason games, four of them against the Yankees in the ALCS; his pair off Andy Pettitte in Game 3 helped put the 111-win juggernaut in a two-games-to-one hole, and his grand slam off David Cone in Game 6 trimmed a 6–1 lead to 6–5. But while they gave the Yankees a scare or two, the Indians ultimately went down in defeat.
Thome made his third straight All-Star team in 1999, hitting 33 homers and drawing a league-leading 127 walks. The 97-win Indians, who had added Roberto Alomar to the fold, scored 1,009 runs—the only team to top 1,000 since 1950—and won their fifth straight AL Central title. Facing the Red Sox in the Division Series, Thome hit a game-tying two-run homer off Derek Lowe in Cleveland's Game 1 victory, a grand slam off John Wasdin in a Game 2 rout, and a pair of two-run blasts in Game 5, one off starter Bret Saberhagen and another off Lowe. The latter gave the Indians an 8–7 lead, but as Pedro Martinez threw six perfect innings out of the bullpen, the Red Sox offense scored five runs and ousted the Indians.
Though the Indians won 90 games in 2000, their first with Manuel as manager, they missed the AL Wild Card by a game. Thome hit 37 homers, but his 132 OPS+ and .398 OBP were his lowest marks since 1994. He rebounded with career highs in homers (49) and OPS+ (170) in 2001, both good for second in the AL, as the Indians returned to the top of the AL Central but were ousted by the Mariners in a five-game Division Series. Picking up Thome's option was a no-brainer, and the 31-year-old slugger again set career highs with 52 homers (second in the league) and a 197 OPS+ (first). His .677 SLG and 122 walks also led the league, and his .445 OBP and 7.4 WAR ranked second.
The times were changing in Cleveland, however. Ramirez departed via free agency after the 2000 season, Hart left for the Rangers after the '01 season, and the Indians sank to 74–88 in '02. Though Cleveland, now with Mark Shapiro in the GM role, offered the 32-year-old Thome a five-year, $62 million deal, the Phillies—who were about to move into Citizens Bank Park—offered six years and $85 million plus an option—a head-scratching move given the slugger's age and eventual migration to the DH role.
The contract wasn't a bad one in the short term. Playing a career-high 159 games, Thome bashed a league-high 47 homers—his only time leading the league—while hitting for a 154 OPS+ with 4.7 WAR. He followed that up with a 42-homer, 144 OPS+ season, though various aches and pains limited him to 143 games (his lowest total since 1998) and 3.2 WAR (his lowest mark since '94). But those were nothing compared to the disaster that was 2005. A lower back injury cost Thome three weeks in May, and he didn't play a big league game after June 30 due to elbow tendonitis. Though he tried to rehab the injury, he eventually underwent season-ending surgery to repair frayed tendons in the elbow. In all, he hit just seven homers in 59 games, struggling to a .207/.360/.252 line.
During Thome's absence, 25-year-old Ryan Howard played well enough to earn NL Rookie of the Year honors by hitting 22 homers in 88 games and helping the Phillies to 88 wins, their highest total since 1993. Thome understood that he’d lost his job to the younger slugger. "When I leave the game of baseball someday, I want people to recognize that I always put my teams first," Thome told The Philadelphia Inquirer. "That's what I love about the game—being part of the team. I see in Ryan Howard what someone saw in me when I broke into the big leagues."
Thome waived his no-trade clause to enable a deal to the White Sox, who had just won the World Series; the Phillies kicked in $22 million of the $46 million remaining on his deal and received centerfielder Aaron Rowand, lefty Gio Gonzalez and another pitching prospect. Working almost exclusively as a DH for the first time—he played just three games in the field—the 35-year-old Thome returned to form, thumping 42 homers (good for third in the league) and hitting .288/.416/598 for a 155 OPS+ (fourth) and making his fifth and final All-Star team. But the White Sox, despite winning 90 games, couldn't get past the Tigers and Twins in the AL Central.
Though he missed four weeks early in the 2007 season, Thome still bashed 35 homers (again third in the league) and hit for a 150 OPS+ (sixth), but the White Sox sank to 72–90. Twelve of those homers came in a 20-game span in September, including the 500th of his career on Sept. 16—a walk-off shot off the Angels' Dustin Moseley that completed a comeback from a six-run deficit. The milestone blast came on Jim Thome Bobblehead Day, with 25 family members in attendance, including his father, expectant wife Andrea, and four siblings.
Thome began showing his age in 2008, his age-37 season. Though he still hit 34 homers in 149 games, he battled back spasms and hit .245/.362/.503, his lowest marks since becoming a regular (save for his injury-shortened 2005). Though he carried the White Sox back into the playoffs via a seventh-inning solo shot off the Twins' Nick Blackburn that provided the only run in a Game 163 tiebreaker, he went just 2-for-16 in Chicago's Division Series defeat at the hands of the Rays.
The White Sox picked up Thome's $13 million option for 2009. Battling plantar fasciitis, his production declined again. On Aug. 31, he was dealt to the postseason-bound Dodgers. It was a strange detour, as Thome went 4-for-17 as a pinch-hitter in September and 1-for-3 (with a walk and a hit-by-pitch) in October, never taking the field. After the season, he returned to the AL Central via an incentive-laden one-year deal with the Twins, with a base salary of just $1.5 million.
Suffice it to say that the Twins got plenty of bang for their buck. Working primarily in a platoon DH role and fending off the occasional back flareup, the 39-year-old Thome hit .283/.412/.627 with a team-high 25 homers in just 340 PA, good for a 182 OPS+ and 3.6 WAR. Fifteen of his homers came at Target Field, the Twins' spacious, brand new home, where his teammates added just 37 more homers, and opponents hit just 53. On July 3, he hit home runs No. 573 and 574, tying and then surpassing Killebrew while the Twins hosted the Rays. Thome's power helped the Twins win the AL Central, but for the fourth time in eight years, the Yankees flattened them in the Division Series.
Thome reprised his role with the Twins in 2011, albeit with diminishing but still respectable (12 homers and a 126 OPS+ in 242 PA) returns due to age and injuries; he did stints on the disabled list for quadriceps and oblique strains, dealing with a back injury while already shelved as well. On Aug. 15 against the Tigers, he hit two homers, the second of which, a three-run opposite field shot off Daniel Schlereth, made him the eighth player to reach 600 in his career.
With the Twins bound for 99-loss oblivion, ten days later, Thome waived his no-trade clause and was traded to the Indians, who all wore high socks in tribute to his return. Though he homered in his second game back, hit well down the stretch, and made a one-pitch cameo at third base during the Indians' final home game, he couldn't do enough to help the team catch the Tigers.
In November, he agreed to another homecoming, this time in Philadelphia as a pinch-hitter, interleague DH and backup to Howard. Despite missing over five weeks due to a lower back strain, he still had life in his bat, hitting .242/.338/.516 with five homers in just 71 PA. On June 30, the Phillies dealt him to the Orioles, who were desperately in need of a DH, but unfortunately, a herniated disc in his neck laid Thome up for eight weeks.
He returned in late September, hit his 612th and final regular-season homer, and made one last trip to the postseason but went just 2-for-15 in the AL Wild Card Game and Division Series. Thome did not play again, though he didn't officially retire until Aug. 3, 2014, when he signed a one-day contract with the Indians on the night that they unveiled a statue of him—with his bat pointing out at the pitcher, à la The Natural—at what was now known as Progressive Field.
From a Hall of Fame standpoint, it’s all about the taters for Thome. He never won an MVP award—never placed higher than fourth in the voting, even—or a Gold Glove. He made just five All-Star teams, and while his 17 postseason homers is tied with David Ortiz for seventh all-time, his .211/.312/.448 line in 267 PA is hardly the strongest point on his résumé.
None of that matters. Though he was passed by Albert Pujols in late 2017, Thome still ranks eighth on the all-time homer list, and even if Miguel Cabrera (who has 462 through his age-34 season) stays healthy enough to surpass him, he figures to remain in the top 10 for years to come, as no other player under 35 has more than 350. Though Thome only led his league once, he had eight top-five finishes, plus one more in the top 10. And while we can't say for certain that any player was clean, Thome was unique among the prodigious sluggers of his era because he never drew the faintest whiff of suspicion for wrongdoing.
Thome has prominent leaderboard positions in several other traditional stats besides home runs: He's second in strikeouts (2,548), seventh in walks (1,747), 23rd in extra-base hits (1,089), 26th in RBIs (1,699) and 41st in total bases (4,667). In terms of rate stats, his .554 slugging percentage ranks 19th among batters with at least 7,000 PA, his .402 on-base percentage ranks 28th, and his 147 OPS+ is tied for 30th with Hall of Famers Willie McCovery, Mike Schmidt, Willie Stargell and ballot-mate Edgar Martinez; he's got more plate appearances than any of those players, and in fact is 14th in OPS+ at the 10,000 PA level.
From an advanced stat perspective, Thome's 587 batting runs—the primary offensive component of WAR—ranks a similarly impressive 24th, with only four non-Hall of Famers above him (Bonds, Pujols, Ramirez and Rodriguez). Thome's WAR is held back by his subpar base running (-27 runs; he was 18-for-32 in steals for his career) and defense (-45 runs), not to mention his 819 games at DH, as the positional adjustment tamps his value somewhat. Nonetheless, his 72.9 WAR ranks ninth among first basemen, 6.5 wins above the Hall standard. His 41.5 peak WAR (best seven seasons) is 1.2 below the Hall standard—that’s a couple of runs a year, mind you—but still good for 18th at the position, ahead of Hall of Famers Bill Terry, Eddie Murray, Killebrew, Tony Perez, Frank Chance, Orlando Cepeda, and three others. His 57.2 JAWS is 10th at the position, second among those outside the Hall behind Pujols, though Cabrera (56.7) figures to surpass soon.
Whether you go by Thome's traditional stats or his advanced ones, that's a surefire Hall of Famer. Even on a crowded ballot, Thome’s accomplishments and reputation all but ensure that enough voters will find a spot among their 10 and send him to Cooperstown next July.