Every baseball era has its historical blind spots. People didn’t appreciate Bert Blyleven during his own era — the result of an overemphasis on win-loss record — nearly as much as we have in recent years. Tim Raines Sr. was similarly underappreciated, because he spent the first half of his career overshadowed by Rickey Henderson, and the second half buried under a pile of outrageous home run totals, which obscured the value of a leadoff man.
For a long time, Jim Thome looked like he might be that guy in this era.
Thome, 40, has been one of the most consistent, productive sluggers of the past 15 years, but his name rarely makes it into the discussion of the greatest players of this era. He has won only one home run title, has never finished in the top three of an MVP vote and has been named to only five all-star teams. He also has played for five teams in the past 10 years, including his current team, the Minnesota Twins.
But Thome’s legacy appears secure now, in the aftermath of his 600th career home run Monday night. At the very least, he seems a lock for Cooperstown – an honor for which Blyleven had to wait 14 years, and for which Raines is still waiting.
It says something about our times that Thome’s 600th home run received only a fraction of the attention Derek Jeter’s 3,000th hit received last month – even though the 600-home-run club, of which Thome was only the eighth member, is far more exclusive than the 3,000-hit club, which has 28. Part of that, obviously, has to do with Jeter’s superstardom and the popularity of the New York Yankees brand.
But there is also an inherent distrust of home run numbers from the so-called Steroids Era. And even when the numbers seem trustworthy, as in the case of Thome (who has never been linked to performance-enhancing drugs), they are cheapened by the circumstances of the era in which they were achieved.
Thome’s career has gained some new appreciation with his milestone moment — but he might be an even better player than you think. If we use OPS+ — a statistic that makes it easier to compare players across eras, by neutralizing the effect of different stadiums and different hitting atmospheres, with 100 representing a league-average player during his own era — Thome’s career mark of 147 is equal to that of Hall-of-Famers Mike Schmidt, Willie Stargell and Willie McCovey, and better than that of Harmon Killebrew, Duke Snider, Reggie Jackson and Al Kaline, among others. In essence, Thome was a better hitter compared to his own contemporaries than those players were in comparison to theirs.
As for Thome’s lack of love from MVP voters, let’s take a closer look at that. His best season was undoubtedly 2002, when he hit a career-high 52 homers and led the AL in walks (122), slugging percentage (.677) and OPS (1.122) — yet finished only seventh in MVP balloting. But three of the hitters who finished ahead of him in the voting — winner Miguel Tejada, runner-up Alex Rodriguez and fifth-place finisher Jason Giambi — have been linked to PEDs.
As for the other two — third-place finisher Alfonso Soriano and fourth-place Garret Anderson — a more modern, comprehensive statistic such as Wins Above Replacement (WAR) might have been useful back then, because Thome’s WAR that season (8.1) dwarfs that of Soriano (4.7) or Anderson (5.3). Had we had as much information in 2002 as we do now, Thome might have been your AL MVP that year.
Now that Thome has joined the 600-homer club, such complicated arguments have become unnecessary. He has the credentials to satisfy both the old-school and the new-school adherents, and his next stop will undoubtedly be Cooperstown.