The fact that Indians third baseman Jim Thome has matured into a terrific hitter comes as no surprise to the rest of his family: he takes after his father, Chuck, a great fast-pitch softball player who got a couple of knocks off legendary pitcher Eddie Feigner, the leader of The King and His Court. And it comes as no surprise to Thome's teammates, who have seen him improve at the plate in each of his six major league seasons. "Next year," says Cleveland shortstop Omar Vizquel, "he will hit 50 home runs."
At week's end Thome was hitting .318 with 28 homers and 90 RBIs. In the last 50 years the only American League third basemen to hit .300 with 30 homers and 100 RBIs in a season were Cleveland's Al Rosen (1953) and Kansas City's George Brett (1985). It has been quite a turnaround season for a player who some thought might be headed for a platoon at third after he went 0 for 11 with five strikeouts against lefthanders in the postseason last year.
Thome's introduction to the big leagues was an embarrassing one. The summer he turned 10, Thome traveled with his father from his hometown of Peoria, Ill., to Chicago's Wrigley Field, where he sneaked into the dugout shortly before a game in an attempt to get an autograph from his hero, Dave Kingman. Cubs catcher Barry Foote spotted Thome and carried him out before he could accomplish his mission.
Thome went on to play junior college ball at Illinois Central and was selected by Cleveland in the 13th round of the 1989 draft. Until last season his defense was so bad that he was considered a liability at third. But through long, hard work he made himself into a decent gloveman and a disciplined, dangerous hitter.
One scout says that as the result of a weightlifting regimen, the 225-pound Thome is stronger than teammate Albert Belle. "He's like a tractor," says Rangers general manager Doug Melvin. "It's a different sound when he hits the ball," one scout says. "It's like nobody else. You can be turned around and you'll hear it and say, 'That's Thome.' "
It all starts with Thome's swing, which is a vicious rip on almost every pitch. But he's also very selective. Through Sunday he had 102 walks, the second-highest total in the American League, and an on-base percentage of .459, fourth best in the league. In 1994 he walked 46 times, last year 97 and this year he's on pace for 127. "His pitch selection is so much better than it was a few years ago," says Texas first baseman Will Clark. "He's getting himself in much better counts."
Thome used to get a lot of walks because he was often batting near the bottom of the lineup, but after second baseman Carlos Baerga was traded to the Mets four weeks ago, Thome moved into the number 3 spot. Having some protection in the order has made him an even better hitter, and he still walks a lot despite having Belle, a great slugger, hitting behind him. "I'm seeing more pitches to hit," Thome says. "Who would you rather face, Jim Thome or Albert Belle? I'd rather face me."
Maybe, but no pitcher wants to face Thome these days, either.
More strikes are being called in the National League than in the American League, there's no doubt. Consider: Through Sunday the NL had 1,103 more strikeouts than the AL. The AL had 1,091 more walks than the NL. Granted, the use of the designated hitter has something to do with it, but it doesn't explain that wide a difference. This could cause some problems next year if there is interleague play, especially for American League hitters who are used to a more generous interpretation of the strike zone....