Yesterday I got a little wistful talking about the Indians of my youth. My favorite player was always Manny Ramirez, but Jim Thome wasn’t far behind. And after he crushed his 23rd homer Saturday night to beat the Indians, which gave him 587 in his career and now places him 8th all-time, I started thinking: Jim Thome is really, really good.
I’m going to just list some of his accomplishments, then I’ll try to put them in perspective.
- As I said, Thome now is 8th all-time with 587 home runs. The names in front of him: Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr., Sammy Sosa, and Alex Rodriguez. That’s good.
- Thome is 30th on the all-time RBI list, with 1,618. I know the stat is meaningless, but that doesn’t happen without being a good hitter for a long time.
- Thome has the 9th-most walks in baseball history, with 1,672. Again, in front of him are Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Joe Morgan, Carl Yastrzemski, Mickey Mantle, and Mel Ott.
- His career OPS is 0.963, placing him 17th. His career OPS+ is 147, tying him for 39th with Edgar Martinez, Willie McCovey, Mike Schmidt, and Willie Stargell.
- According to Baseball-Reference.com, he’s accumulated 70 Wins Above Replacement, which is 54th all-time among position players. FanGraphs has Thome at 73.3 WAR.
Now, to be fair, Thome has played in 2,381 games, which is 82nd all-time, meaning that the great counting stats he’s accumulated are partly because of how many games he’s played. But that’s part of the deal with counting stats; to have all-time great numbers, you have to play a lot (usually at a very high level), which Thome has done. The OPS numbers show that it’s not just time that’s aided Thome; however, he is also 2nd on the all-time strikeout list, just 207 behind Reggie Jackson.
So here’s what we know: Thome has played a lot, and he’s been pretty good. But how good? To get more of a career retrospective, I looked at each season of Thome’s to see what the notion of him was at the time. Was he an All-Star? Where’d he finish in the MVP voting? I’m not worried about “was he feared?” as much as “what did we think of Thome’s seasons as they were happening?”
Thome was drafted by the Indians in the 13th round of 1989 draft at age 18 and spent about two years in the minor leagues before debuting with the big league team.
1991: Thome made his major league début just after his 21st birthday. In just over 100 plate appearance, he hit 0.255 with a home run, four doubles, and two triples. He looked something like this:
1992: Again, Thome spent most of the season in the minors, but did play 40 games in the majors. He hit just 0.205 this time with only 2 home runs in 117 at-bats.
1993: Thome’s last cup of coffee. He played 47 games with the Indians, hitting 0.266 with 7 home runs and 11 doubles in 154 at-bats. More importantly, Thome began to show his patient approach at the plate, drawing 29 walks in 192 plate appearances (15.1% walk rate).
1994: Thome made the big league team out of spring training and was the Opening Day starter at third base. In 98 games before the strike, Thome went for 0.268/0.359/0.523 for an OPS+ of 126. He was still just 23 for most of the season and still fairly scant. Important philosophy change though: he has, at this point, begun grabbing his crotch a lot as an “F U” to pitchers (completely untrue).
1995: Thome broke out. 137 games. 25 home runs. 29 doubles. 97 walks. 0.314/0.438/0.558. 157 OPS+. Of course on that team, those numbers were good enough to hit 6th. Better than Manny Ramirez, who was hitting 7th. At this point though it became apparent that Jimmy wasn’t a third baseman long-term.
1996: Thome took another step forward. 0.311/0.450/0.612 with 38 home runs. He finished 15th in the MVP voting and won the Silver Slugger at third base, his only one.
1997: The Indians traded for Matt Williams in the offseason, so Thome shifted to first base. For his age 26 season, Thome did what he did, with an OPS+ of 156, 40 home runs, and a league-leading 120 walks. It was his first All-Star appearance and he finished 6th in the MVP voting. Thome played in his second World Series (both losses) and third postseason; in 35 career postseason games, he has25 hits in 114 at-bats (0.219) and 6 home runs, including 3 in the World Series.
1998: Thome made his second All-Star team with a 0.293/0.413/0.584 season. He finished 21st in the MVP voting, hitting 30 home runs but walking just 86 times, something he wouldn’t do again until an injury-plagued 2005 season with the Phillies (where Ryan Howard promptly took his job and never gave it back).
1999: Thome made his third All-Star team, but the strikeouts really began to take off. He whiffed 171 times, leading the league for the first time (his previous high was 146). He also ledthe league in walks with 127 and puts up a 0.277/0.426/0.540 line, good for an OPS+ of 141, his lowest since his first full season in 1994.
2000: 1999 a second time. Almost exactly the same season, and his OPS+ dips to 132.
2001: THOME REBORN! Thome struck out 185 times (leading the league for the second time in three years), but hit 0.291/0.416/0.624(!) with 49 home runs. It’s also the 5th time in 6 seasons that he finished with 110+ walks. He’s not an All-Star but finished 7th in the MVP voting, behind two of own teammates (Roberto Alomar, 4th, and Juan Gonzalez, 5th).
2002: Jimmy’s last in Cleveland, and a good one. At age 31, he hit 52 home runs and led the league in walks (122), slugging percentage (0.677), and OPS (1.112). Again he did not make the All-Star team but finished 7th in the MVP voting; this time though, no other Indian garnered a single MVP vote and the team traded ace Bartolo Colon in late June. In the off-season, the Tribe offered Thome a 5-year/60-million dollar contract, and Thome asked for a sixth year. Unable to get the contract he desired and not seeing the talent around him he saw through his peak, he signed a 6-year/85-million dollar deal with the Phillies. Thome’s time in Cleveland ends with 334 home runs, an OPS+ of 152, almost 1,000 walks, and six playoff appearances. On the other side, he only stole 18 bases in his time as an Indian, being caught 14 times, so there were obvious reasons not re-sign him.
2003: Thome hits 47 bombs in his début season in Philadelphia (leading the league), but he also leads the league in strikeouts and his walk rate falls to its lowest point since his rookie season. His OPS+ is 154, the sixth highest of his career to this point, but he finishes 4th in the MVP voting anyway (again not making the All-Star team). The Phillies go 86-76, finishing 3rd in the NL East. (Sidebar: In that 2003 NL MVP vote, Juan Pierre finished 10th. Nothing else, that’s the joke.)
2004: Thome made the All-Star team but finished 19th in the MVP voting. He hit 42 home runs and had an OPS+ of 144. The Phillies again go 86-76, finishing 2nd in the NL East.
2005: Uh oh. Thome had issues with his right elbow and his back, and just by looking at the numbers, even the time he spent playing was obviously hampered by the injuries. He played in just 58 games, hitting 0.207 with only 7 home runs. He had more walks than hits, and his OBP (0.360) was higher than his slugging percentage (0.352).
2006: Thome was traded in the offseason to the White Sox, which is about the worst thing that could have happened as an Indians’ fan (hey, at least…they’re not from Canada). Thome is 35 at this point, and responds with a 42 home run, 155 OPS+ season. He made the All-Star team (his fifth and final) and finished 12th in the MVP voting. Also, Jimmy filled out a little more of his uniform.
2007: Same season as 2006, no accolades to go with it.
2008: He hit 34 home runs at age 37 and had an OPS+ of 123.
2009: Playing the first five months for the White Sox, he hit 23 home runs in 107 games. He’s traded to the Dodgers through waivers at the end of August and hits only 17 times in the season’s final month. He plays 17 games and has 17 plate appearances, used only as a pinch hitter.
2010: The Twins sign him near the end of January to a 1-year, 1.5 million dollar contract. Good decision. Thome has hit 23 home runs in 98 games as the Twins’ DH. Doing it at age 39 is very rare.
So we finish with 5 All-Star games, 2 Top-5 MVP finishes, 4 Top-10 MVP finishes, 1 Silver Slugger, and 587 home runs and counting. His 2,207 hits aren’t going to help him make a Hall of Fame case, but I don’t think he’s going to need it. Jim Thome has been one of the premier power hitters of the last 15 years. and has been immensely valuable to the teams he’s played for. The walks and home runs are insanely valuable, as seen in his WAR numbers (notice that I didn’t have to talk about Jimmy and the Gold Glove too much). He never, at least from my perspective, was considered one of the great players of the generation, but the numbers he’s put up say that he’s a no-doubt Hall of Famer. I agree, and I look forward to the day he’s enshrined as a Cleveland Indian.