Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Why Jim Thome Should Be a First-Ballot Hall of Famer

By Jeff Kallman

Among the Hall of Fame ballot rookies not named Chipper Jones, there's another man who shakes out as belonging on next July's podium with Jones as a first ballot Hall of Famer.

And one thing you notice about Jim Thome's statistics is that, sure, he struck out a lot, averaging 162 strikeouts per 162 games lifetime. That's a punch-out per game, ladies and gentlemen. But he also a) walked a bunch (he led his league three times) and b) he only averaged hitting into 11 double plays per 162 games lifetime. He also averaged 111 walks per 162, 11 of which were intentional.

If you ponder that that many walks comes close to evening out the strikeouts, you're talking about a guy who knew what he was doing at the plate and did it for deadly production. Thome averaged only 10 less doubles per 162 games than he did home runs, and his career average per 162 games was 39 bombs.

Except for one injury-shortened season in Philadelphia, Thome pretty much wrapped up his Hall of Fame case by the time he was 37 and in his final of three full seasons with the White Sox. He had a couple more respectable seasons left in him, but was pretty much done by the time he had a couple of return engagements in Cleveland and Philadelphia and a cameo appearance with the Orioles.

If you think of Thome as the DH type, think of this, too: yes, he spent about a third of his total career as a DH, but he also shook out as the tenth best first baseman of all time, above the career wins above a replacement standard for first basemen — just like Frank Thomas did, and Thomas spent more of his career as a DH. Thome is actually eighth all-time in WAR for first basemen, right behind Thomas and right ahead of the actually unfairly-tainted Rafael Palmeiro.

Thome's career 147 OPS+ happens to be tied for number 30 all time — with Martinez and Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt, Willie McCovey, and Willie Stargell — among hitters who had seven thousand or more plate appearances.

Some might take issue with Thome's paucity of black and gray ink; he has only a little black ink (he led his league in OPS, OPS+, home runs, and slugging once each, in addition to those three walks championships) and a bit more gray ink (top ten finishes, including ten seasons as one of his league's top ten sluggers). But Thome meets 57 of the Bill James Hall of Fame batting standards (the average Hall of Famer: 50) and scores 156 on the James Hall of Fame batting monitor. (The average Hall of Famer: 100.)

He wasn't a great defensive player, either at third where he played early in his career or at first. But Thome was also considered not just an overwhelming plate talent but one of the nicest men in the business. He was accommodating, kind, and patient with autograph seekers; he and his wife often dressed as Santa and the Mrs. for children around Christmas; a 2007 poll showed Thome tied with Sean Casey as the game's second nicest man.

That doesn't get you into the Hall of Fame by itself, of course; if it did, Dale Murphy (whose Hall case was wrecked by injuries when he should have had about two or three more solid seasons) would have been there long ago. But it sure doesn't hurt a man's chances if he has it.

About the only time Thome angered any fans was when he left Cleveland for free agency after once having said they'd have to rip the uniform off his back to get him to leave, such fans having forgotten for the moment that the Indians were about to hit the rebuild button and were going to look a horror for awhile with or without Thome in the lineup.

Thome got to play in two World Series with the great mid-to-late '90s Indians teams and has a respectable jacket for them: 3 bombs, 6 steaks, and a .352 on-base percentage. His overall postseason record doesn't have that impressive a slash line but hitting 17 bombs with 37 steaks is a career season for lesser players. By far his best postseason set was the 1999 division series in which he hit 4 out, drove in 10, and piled up a 1.535 OPS.

And to think it took me this long before I mentioned Thome hit 612 home runs without once being suspected of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances. Did I also mention he's number 26 on the all-time steak list? Or that he produced 209 runs per 162 games lifetime?

Basically, it would be a shock if Thome doesn't make it first ballot and join Chipper Jones at the podium next July. But if we've learned nothing else, we've learned that Hall of Fame voting isn't bereft of shock value.

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