Jim Thome and the 600 Home Run Club

All stats in this column are through Monday, August 9, 2010.

Alex Rodriguez finally hit his 600th home run on Wednesday. Next in the line for the no-longer-prestigious 600-home run club is Jim Thome, who will likely cross the mark with far less fanfare than A-Rod. Thome has always flown a bit under the radar. Sure, casual fans know his name and serious ones recognize him as one of the most consistent players of the last 15 years, but he's only played in five all-star games, never finished higher than fourth in MVP voting, and never been a true superstar from a PR standpoint.

But Thome has now established himself as one of the greatest players in history, flirting with the all-time top 10 among first basemen and the top 100 at any position. He has over 1,500 runs and over 1,500 RBI, one of only 33 players in history to meet that standard. He's 10th all-time in HR and has over 1,000 extra-base hits. He leads all active players in bases on balls. Thome has scored 100 runs in a season eight times and driven in over 100 nine times. He has six 40-HR seasons, nine 100-BB seasons, five with an OPS over 1.000 and six more over .950.

I believe that Thome is, historically speaking, a borderline top-10 first baseman, but before we compare him to Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx, let's see how Thome, who was born in 1970, compares to the best first basemen of his own generation (born between 1964-76): Jeff Bagwell, Carlos Delgado, Jason Giambi, Todd Helton, Rafael Palmeiro, and Frank Thomas.


The table above is organized by OPS+ (Delgado actually has the same score [138] as Helton, because Helton's numbers are so skewed by Coors Field). Among those seven players, Thome ranks third in runs, third in RBI, fifth in hits, third in total bases, fifth in OBP, and tied for first in slugging. He may be second in runs by the time you read this. He's also third in runs created, behind only Palmeiro and Thomas. I think Thome is still behind Thomas and Bagwell, but easily ahead of Delgado, Giambi, and Helton. Palmeiro is tough to evaluate, both because of the steroid thing and because he played so much longer. I believe, however, that another comparison sheds some light on Thome's place in history: Mark McGwire, who was born in 1963 and just missed the cutoff above.

Absent any consideration of performance-enhancing drugs, McGwire would have been a slam-dunk first-ballot Hall of Famer, probably a nearly unanimous choice. It's not clear, though, that McGwire had a better career than Thome has to this point. Here are a few basic numbers to illustrate this:


Thome, with a much longer career (2359 G to Big Mac's 1874), is well ahead in the counting stats, while McGwire leads in OPS+. Mac was a better slugger, but Thome was better at everything else, and he's a great slugger, as well. Below, find their walks, singles, doubles, triples, home runs, and total bases per 162 games:


Those home runs are no joke, but with Thome's substantially longer career, it's hard to rank McGwire ahead. Thome will probably pass McGwire's home run total before the end of the year, and he's already well ahead in all the other categories. McGwire's argument to rank ahead, then, must rest either on a superior prime or on defense. Let's start with fielding. Neither Thome nor McGwire was a particularly good defensive player. Thome began his career as a third baseman who probably should have been playing first. By the time he switched to first, it was tempting to use him as a DH, and he has been an exclusively offensive player for much of his career. McGwire was no better. He won a Gold Glove in 1990, but Thome had a couple seasons just as good (not including his years at third, when he was a much more valuable defensive player than McGwire).

This runs counter to popular opinion, which basically goes along the lines of, "McGwire won a Gold Glove and Thome was always a borderline DH, so McGwire was better defensively." This is not apparent, though, from the available statistics. For their respective careers, Thome has more fielding wins above replacement (2.8) than McGwire (1.2) and more fielding win shares (28.9) than Big Mac (20.7). He's also ahead in traditional defensive stats:


Remember, this doesn't even include Thome's 4,000 innings at third base, which is a more challenging defensive position than first. Thome's defensive advantage over McGwire is minimal, and I'm not interested in arguing that Thome should be rated ahead because of his defense, but I think it's abundantly clear that fielding is not an advantage for McGwire in this comparison. It's generous to call him even.

That means the only real argument for ranking McGwire ahead of Thome rests on the contention that McGwire was better at his peak, that he had more big years than Thome. I don't think anyone would deny that McGwire had the better prime, but how far ahead is he? Below are some key stats from each player's best offensive season:


It's not news to anybody that Thome never had a season as great as McGwire's 1998. But Thome's 2002 campaign has got to be one of the most under-appreciated seasons in recent memory. Look at those numbers: .304 batting average from a guy who hits 50 homers and leads the league in walks, with a 1.122 OPS. Those are MVP numbers. Thome placed seventh in the AL MVP vote that year. He probably should have won. Well, him or Alex Rodriguez. But they both played for sub-.500 teams, so Miguel Tejada won instead. Tejada made 485 outs that season, compared to 336 for Thome. That's a difference of 149 outs, basically 50 innings. I realize Tejada was a superior defensive player, but did he put out 150 more opponents on defense than Thome did? Of course not.

Anyway, 1998 was a historic year for McGwire, and Thome never had a year like that. Really, only a handful of players in the last 50 years have ever had a season like that — slugging .750, leading the majors in four major offensive categories, and breaking a hallowed 37-year-old record is pretty hard to match. But Thome has had MVP-caliber seasons, and despite McGwire's substantial lead in all-star selections (12-5), Thome is the one who had more great seasons. Consider how many times each player reached some traditional single-season milestones:

McGwire: 100 R (3 times), 100 RBI (7 times), 150 H (2 times), 100 BB (5 times), 40 HR (6 times), 50 HR (4 times), 300 TB (5 times), .300 BA (1 time), .400 OBP (4 times), .500 SLG (6 times), .600 SLG (5 times)

Thome: 100 R (8 times), 100 RBI (9 times), 150 H (4 times), 100 BB (9 times), 40 HR (6 times), 50 HR (1 time), 300 TB (4 times), .300 BA (3 times), .400 OBP (9 times), .500 SLG (13 times), .600 SLG (3 times)

That's not even close, is it? Hitting home runs was literally the only thing McGwire did better than Thome. Big Mac has fewer seasons with 100 runs, fewer with 100 RBI, with 150 hits, with 100 walks, with 30 doubles. Part of that is due to injuries, but Thome was the more consistent and more well-rounded player — and that's not necessarily a knock on McGwire. Since 1960, only 17 players have at least eight seasons with 100 runs, and only 14 have at least nine seasons with 100 RBI. Only seven (including Thome) have at least eight seasons doing both: Jeff Bagwell, Barry Bonds, Chipper Jones, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Frank Thomas, and Thome. That's quite a group.

Thome is one of only eight players in the last half-century with at least six seasons with 40 home runs. Only 12 have as many seasons as Thome with a .400 OBP; only nine have as many slugging .500. Only three (Thome, Frank Thomas, and Barry Bonds) have at least nine seasons with 100 bases on balls. In half a dozen categories, Thome ranks among the most accomplished offensive players of the last 50 years. It's not like this is a guy who was above-average for 20 years; Thome has been a great player with a dozen high-impact seasons.

I don't see how we could rank McGwire ahead. Thome played longer and has better career numbers, he was at least as valuable defensively, and his slightly lower peak is offset by having far more great seasons, and a more diverse skill set. This doesn't even cover McGwire's admission that he used PEDs, whereas Thome has never been seriously implicated. If you've got one player with clear Hall of Fame credentials, and another who is clearly better than him, it follows logically that the latter player should be a slam-dunk Hall of Famer. Thome has flown under the radar to an extent, but he's put together a résumé that compares favorably with those of many HOFers.

Thome will probably need another season as a regular, or two as a part-time player, to make it to 600 home runs. Whether he gets there or not, his legacy is secure.

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