Former White Sox slugger Jim Thome clobbered home run number 600 this week. This is significant because he is only the 8th man to hit 600 career home runs. To put it into perspective, only 25 players have ever hit even 500 home runs. There was a period of time where 500 made you a lock for the Hall. In fact, the 15 players who reached 500 home runs prior to 2000 are all in the Hall of Fame. To take it even further, for all players retired by the year 2000, only Dave Kingman and Darrel Evans hit 400 home runs but didn’t make it into the Hall of Fame1.
The question will be whether or not 600 gets Thome in. There are four guys ahead of him (as of now) who aren’t in: Bonds, Griffey, A-Rod and Sammy Sosa. Bonds and Sosa are eligible, but likely left out due to their ties to the Steroid Era. Griffey and A-Rod aren’t yet eligible, but both would appear to be locks.
The perils that come along with “counting” numbers are the biggest problems Thome faces. He is currently playing in his 21st season and has logged over 10,000 plate appearances, which seems like a lot but leaves him 76th all time. Although one more full season would move him into the top 45, and if he had stayed healthier throughout he likely would be in the top 40 or so already.
Counting numbers never go away. Unlike on-base percentage and WAR, there is no negative home runs, so counting numbers tend to be inflated by players with long careers. Thome exemplifies this well, since, as I was surprised to find out, he is 8th all-time in walks and 2nd all-time in strikeouts. Now having watched him play for a few seasons in Chicago I knew that these are the three things he did very often (47.5% of the time to be exact), but I had no idea he ranked so highly in both categories.
What about non-counting stats? Unfortunately Baseball-Reference only has the career leaders for AB/HR (and not AB/SO and BB/SO ration), which Thome is 5th all-time. Doing it consistently and a long time is a nice combination, but Ryan Howard and Adam Dunn are in the top 10, and Russell Branyan is in the top 20, so this stat doesn’t tell the whole story.
Thome’s career AB/SO ratio is 3.3. I did some checking of other guys around him in total strikeouts, who also hit a lot of home runs, and it didn’t help Thome’s case. Reggie Jackson was at 3.8 AB/SO, Sammy Sosa was at 3.8, Willie Stargell at 4.1 and Mike Schmidt at 4.4. All of that means that Thome struck at a more frequent rate than other hitters with a lot of home runs and strikeouts. But the thing working in Thome’s favor is that none of these guys came close to walking as much as Thome did, except Schmidt. Still this doesn’t tell us much.
WAR (Wins Above Replacement)
Let’s look at WAR. Baseball Reference has their own formula and also tries to qualify seasons based on the numbers. They say 8+ WAR in a insole season, is a MVP-caliber. 5+ WAR is All-Star and 2+ is a starter. In Thome’s 21 seasons, he had 1 MVP-caliber, 4 more at All-Star caliber and 8 more above starter quality. This is where things start to hurt Thome a bit. He put together just 5 All-Star caliber or above WAR seasons. Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey Jr. and Jeff Bagwell all had 8. Even Gary Sheffield equalled Thome with 5. This indicates what was mentioned above, that Thome didn’t have a ton of great seasons, just a lot of solid ones.
Thome is 44th in career offensive bWAR (Baseball Reference WAR). There are 11 guys not in the Hall of Fame that are currently ahead of him: Bonds, A-Rod, Jeter, Chipper, Manny, Pujols, Rose, Frank Thomas, Griffey Jr., Sheffield and Bagwell. Also, 8 of the next 9 guys behind him are in the Hall of Fame. So from this perspective, Thome is in pretty good company. Rose and Bonds have off-field issues that have prevented their election. A-Rod and Jeter are locks when they retire. Chipper and Manny should be. Thomas and Griffey are looking very good, but neither is eligible yet. It’s too soon to tell with Pujols, but he’s on the right track. That leaves Sheffield and Bagwell.
Comparison to Jeff Bagwell
Jeff Bagwell is a great guy to compare to Thome. They both debuted in 1991, and although Bagwell was three years older, he became an immediate starter, where Thome didn’t until his fourth year. Bagwell played only 15 seasons, compared to Thome’s (still running) 21, but because Bagwell was an immediate starter and was far better at staying healthy (he played 162 games four times) he is only about 600 plate appearances behind Thome, which is really less than 1 full season of actual playing time.
Bagwell only hit 449 home runs, which is an easy way for people to judge him. That low number combined with the era he played in doesn’t bode well for Bagwell’s Hall of Fame chances. But let’s get compare Thome and Bagwell’s other stats.
Bagwell has about 75 more hits in, again, 600 or so less plate appearances. He also has a 20 point advantage in batting average and a 5 point advantage in on-base percentage, but Thome has an 18 point advantage in slugging percentage. This leaves Thome with a slight advantage in raw OPS, but when looking at OPS+, which takes into account the different ballparks, Bagwell has a 149 to 147 lead. It’s fair to assume that these non-counting numbers are affected by Thome’s current season (which he is down from his career numbers) but not by much.
Bagwell walked 14.9% of the time he came to the plate, which isn’t quite as high as Thome’s 17.1%, but when comparing SO/BB ratio, Bagwell has a 1.11 to 1.43 advantage. So while Bagwell didn’t walk as much overall, he didn’t “cancel out” as many walks with strikeouts as Thome did2
Based just on these offensive numbers, the argument is probably closer than most people think, and this hasn’t even taken into account defense and baserunning. Both of these guys played 1st base, but Bagwell added over 3 wins with his glove, while Thome took away 3. Bagwell also stole 200+ bases during his career, and added 29 runs with his baserunning overall. Thome cost his team 29 runs. So basically when you add these numbers up, Bagwell added about 13 more wins over his career than Thome has, and Bagwell actually has a slightly better offensive WAR already.
The “Eye” Test
There are plenty of people out there who love the “eye test.” They say that stats can’t show you the whole picture, so let’s not ignore this. Thome did have a keen eye, which is why he is 8th all-time in walks. But how could a guy that is 8th in walks also be 2nd in strikeouts? It would appear a big inability to make contact. Fangraph’shttp://fangraphs.com) play discipline stats only go back to 2002, but Thome’s contact rate since then is 69%. Compare that to Manny (80%), Bagwell (75%) and A-Rod (76%) during that same time and Thome definitely had a problem making contact. I do agree with the theory that a walk is as good as a hit, but striking out is a major way to hurt your team. Nothing good can happen with a strikeout, as we talked about above.
Add to it that he was an extreme pull hitter, to the point where extreme shifts were put on. This seems to be an emerging trend with lefties, but still Thome’s inability to go different directions certainly cost him hits. Really good hitters can hit the ball all over the field, but when you can’t do this and teams overcompensate, like putting their 2B in shallow LF, it takes away hits.
Bagwell had the unfortunate luck of playing 9 of his 15 seasons in the Astrodome, a park that was not easy to hit home runs in, and that was also incredibly hard on the body because of the playing surface. The rest of his career was in Minute Maid Park, which according to ESPN was bad in 2001 (and I assume 2000). Thome played 6+ seasons in Chicago and Philadelphia, two more prolific hitters’ parks during that time.
Jim Thome is one of those “good guys” who despite playing, and hitting massive amounts of home runs, during the Steroid Era, he has remained on the presumed innocent list. It’s very likely that those factors will be enough to get Thome in, but does that make sense? Bagwell recorded only 41.7% of the votes in his first year on the ballot, but all indications are that he was a superior player.
My theory is that Thome will get in and Bagwell won’t. I am not saying Thome shouldn’t be in, but he will be yet another example of home runs, and arbitrary numbers masking true superiority.
- There are about 25 guys who retired before 2000 and hit at least 400 homers [↩]
- Think about it like this, every time you strike out, you lose any chance to make an impact on guys on base. You can’t move a runner over, or hit a sacrifice fly if you strike out. For every 10 times Thome or Bagwell walked, Thome struck out about 3 times more. [↩]