Not so fast
Milestone home run isn't enough to put Thome in Hall
Posted: Tuesday September 18, 2007 11:35AM; Updated: Tuesday September 18, 2007 11:54AM
Is Jim Thome a Hall of Famer? That the question even needs to be asked about a guy with 500 career home runs is in itself a commentary on the strange nature of Thome's career. His candidacy comes down to his ability to punish right-handed pitchers with the longball and, to a less meaningful extent, to draw walks. Is that enough?
Will you tell your grandkids that you saw Thome play? Wax poetic about his OBP? Well, no. He's not that kind of player and never was -- and yet the Hall of Fame is filled with such "merely great" players because not everyone in the Hall has to be of the Mays-Williams-Aaron quality. Still, there is a noticeable lack of dominance to Thome's career.
Consider MVP voting. The specifics of the balloting are imperfect and you can quibble with many winners. But it's hard to argue against general results of the elections, about players at least being on the radar when baseball writers annually take stock of the men who made the most meaningful contributions of each season.
Thome has never been a factor in MVP voting. He finished in the top five only once (a fourth-place showing in 2003), but even then he finished 223 points out of first place. Only three times in his career did he even receive the most votes on his own team.
You would think, given his 500-home run power, that maybe once in 17 years Thome would be in the MVP discussion. Indeed, his career total of 1.21 MVP shares ranks an unimpressive 185th all time.
Of course, you could explain away the MVP voting by blaming it on the writers. You could claim the writers just didn't appreciate Thome enough, didn't get the importance, for instance, of how often he got on base. There is some truth there. Writers too often have overrated RBIs and intangibles in the balloting. But truly great seasons, the ones at the top of MVP discussions, are not subtle ones. There is no "hidden" greatness on that level.
Besides, because he is a slow baserunner and doesn't hit many doubles and triples, Thome's ability to get on base may be less impressive than meets the eye. He has finished in the top 10 in runs only three times and never higher than fifth. (Thome has hit more than 30 doubles in a season only twice.) Here's a guy with six 40-homer seasons, and yet his career best for total bases (331) ranks a surprisingly low 387th all time.
So we're talking about a player without many baserunning or defensive components to his candidacy, who never factored in the MVP race and who often wasn't the premier hitter on his team. (Thome took 45 percent of his career plate appearances outside the third and fourth holes in the lineup.) But there's more to his limitations. Thome essentially has been a platoon hitter, with his greatest asset, power, neutralized by left-handed pitchers.
Thome has hit .240 against lefties with one strikeout every 2.98 at-bats and a .413 slugging percentage. Put a lefty in the game and suddenly Mr. 500 Home Runs becomes Corey Patterson (career slugging: .414) without speed. That's a huge problem in this era of specialized bullpens, when managers play matchup against good hitters from the seventh inning on in close games.
That got me thinking: Just how has Thome fared against lefties from the seventh inning on? You won't see it on his Hall of Fame plaque: Thome has hit .222 in those spots with a strikeout every 2.68 at-bats. He has helped make good money for the Guardados, Stantons and Rhodeses of the world.
But he must have hit some big home runs in those spots, right? Fewer than you might think. Thome has hit nine home runs off lefties that tied the game or gave his team the lead after the sixth inning, fewer than lefty hitters such as Carlos Delgado (11), Mo Vaughn (13), Graig Nettles (19) and Rafael Palmeiro (24).
If all those limitations work against his worthiness for the Hall, what does he have in his favor? The good fortune to have batted left-handed. Thome has crushed right-handed pitching, which accounts for a preponderance of his plate appearances (71 percent). He has hit 82 percent of his home runs (412) and slugged .616 off right-handers. He has done that one big thing well enough and long enough that it probably will get him into the Hall of Fame.
I don't hold Thome in any higher regard with 500 home runs than I did at 499. It's just a round number. Thome remains to me a borderline Hall of Fame candidate. I'm still not sure that I will vote for him. But here's what is important to remember: He is a long way from being put to a vote.
Thome, 37, may play three more seasons and finish his career with about 575 home runs and 1,600 RBIs. He's the kind of player, like the pre-steroid tested Palmeiro, whose greatness is an accumulated one, rather than one that is defined by a fabulous peak. Thome's power, even with the other limitations, ultimately may be too prolific to ignore.