If the thought of Jim Thome's 600th career home run triggers milestone fatigue, you're not alone. Before 2002, when Barry Bonds joined the club, just three men had hit 600 regular-season home runs in the major leagues. Now, on Monday, Thome became the fourth to reach that mark in the last five seasons, following Sammy Sosa in 2007, Ken Griffey Jr. in 2008, and Alex Rodriguez last year. There is no question that the onslaught on the alltime home run list by the sluggers of Thome's generation has undermined the impact of those gaudy career totals, but to dismiss Thome's accomplishment because of the four men that preceded him to 600 home runs, three of whom have been connected to performance-enhancing drugs, is to unfairly diminish the legacy of one of the game's greatest sluggers.
There's no denying that Thome, who has never been connected with doping of any kind, benefitted from playing when he did. The game over the past 15 to 20 years has clearly favored hitters like Thome who specialize in the three true outcomes: home runs, strikeouts, and walks (named such because they occur independent of the vagaries of fielding). All have been more common during Thome's career than they had ever been before. Thome's peak coincided with the post-strike home-run outburst. He was 27 in the record-breaking 1998 season. He hit 101 home runs in the 2001 and 2002 seasons combined without leading his league in either season. Meanwhile, strikeouts have become more acceptable. Mark Reynolds, Adam Dunn, and Ryan Howard, Thome's successor at first base in Philadelphia, have rewritten the single-season strikeout column in the record book. Second baseman Rickie Weeks struck out 184 times last year, one shy of Thome's career-high, and no one blinked, in part because that total was merely 20th on that single-season list. In that atmosphere, Thome's wallops, whiffs, and walks have seemed almost common place. They have been anything but.
To begin with, no matter how frequently the milestone has been reached in recent years, Thome is still just the eighth man to reach it, and there's no one nipping at his heals. The hitter most likely to become the ninth man to reach 600 home runs, Albert Pujols, is still 165 home runs away, and none of the other active players who are as far as half way there seem likely to become the 10th.
Secondly, the inflated run-scoring and home-run hitting atmosphere of the last couple of decades may have goosed Thome's career home run total, but correcting for it doesn't change the company he keeps on the alltime leader list. The indispensable statistical reference site Baseball-Reference.com has a feature by which it "neutralizes" players' statistics, adjusting for park and run-scoring environments, effectively putting every player on an even footing in terms of environment. Using those adjusted career home run totals, Thome drops just four spots to 12th alltime, shedding just 11 home runs from his current total, while Frank Robinson and Reggie Jackson swell the ranks of the 600 home run club in his place (see table). Even if you were to dock Thome five times as many home runs as Baseball-Reference does, he'd still be comfortably ensconced in the 500 home run club, ahead of such legends as Mickey Mantle, Jimmie Foxx (who, it should be noted, also played during an era of increased run scoring), and Ted Williams.
Third, Thome hasn't just hit a lot of home runs, drawn a lot of walks, and struck out a bunch (he's second on the career strikeout list, 144 behind Jackson), he's done those three things at an almost unprecedented rate. Only 17 men in history with 3,000 or more plate appearances have produced one of those three true outcomes in 40 percent or more of their trips. Thome is fourth on that list at 47.5 percent. Three of the four men ahead of him on the list arrived in the major leagues well after Thome (the exception being notorious all-or-nothing slugger Rob Deer, who debuted in 1984, seven years before Thome). Increase the plate appearance cut-off to 5,000 PA, less than half of Thome's career total, and Thome climbs to second behind only Adam Dunn, a player who debuted a decade after Thome.
Of those 17 hitters with at least 3,000 plate appearances who produced one of the three true outcomes at least 40 percent of the time, only Mark McGwire homered more often than Thome, only McGwire and Mickey Mantle walked more often, and only those two saw their home runs and walks comprise a larger percentage of their three true outcomes than Thome, who falls just shy of having homered or walked as often as he has struck out. Given McGwire's confessed steroid use and Mantle's all-around ability, one could argue that Jim Thome, a failed third baseman who never offered his teams much outside of the batters box, is the greatest three-true-outcome player in the game's history.
Whether or not that's a badge of honor or a dubious distinction is a matter of personal taste. There's certainly an argument to be made that Thome has thus been perhaps the least interesting great hitter in the game's history, but Thome's Bunyonesque strength and affable personality, both reminiscent of the late Harmon Killebrew, have endeared him to many fans who might otherwise frown on such a skill set. And make no mistake, he is one of the game's greatest sluggers. Among players with 400 or more career home runs, only McGwire, Ruth, Sosa, Bonds, and Pujols have homered more often on a per-plate appearance basis, and, again, three of those four have been connected to performance enhancing drugs.
As for his strikeouts, thanks to all of those walks, Thome boasts a career .403 on-base percentage. Only eight other members of the 500 home run club have a career on-base percentage over .400, and of the first seven men to 600 home runs, only Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds boast career on-base percentages over .400. In other words, despite all those strikeouts, Thome has actually made outs rather infrequently relative to his peers. He just happens to have made nearly 40 percent of them without making contact. On a per-out basis, Thome is again the sixth most prolific home run hitter of all time, this time ranking behind Ruth, McGwire, Bonds, career on-base percentage leader Ted Williams, and Pujols, in that order, from among hitters with 400 or more career home runs. That, to me, is the key to appreciating Jim Thome's 600 home runs: only five men in major league history have hit 400 or more home runs while costing their teams fewer outs per home run than Thome, and among those five are the three greatest hitters who ever lived and a fourth in the top ten.