Tuesday, September 18, 2007

"We're just tryin' to accomplish what we're tryin' to do."*

"Gonna vote for me now?"

Jim Thome for the Hall of Fame? Buster Olney says, as of right now, probably not and, given that the atmosphere surrounding the game continues to be choked with the slimy residue of the hulking cheaters of yesteryear, it's not surprising. Thome has always struck me as a guy who derived his power from being "country strong." He's just a naturally big dude, like a Frank Thomas.

Someone passes a numerical milestone and water cooler talk ensues, and these days it's been happening with some regularity. To Olney's credit, he points out the things that might hold some back from a "yes" vote, so let's take a look at them one by one:

He currently ranks 67th in RBI, despite playing in an offense-rich era. There are 10 players with more RBI than Thome whose names have already appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot who haven't gotten in - guys like Jim Rice and Harold Baines and Andre Dawson. For Thome, a power guy whose credentials are built on run production, that's a problem.
Our renaissance on the diamond started to flower in 1994, the same year that Thome started receiving serious playing time. And flower it did, mainly by bashing the hell out of our opponents' pitching staffs. Let's take a look at yearly, individual RBI totals for the Indians, Thome in bold:

1994 (1st in AL runs scored): 101, 80, 76, 62, 60, 57, 52
1995 (1st): 126, 107, 90, 82, 79, 73
1996 (2nd): 148, 116, 112, 76, 67
1997 (3rd): 105, 102, 101, 88, 83
1998 (6th): 145, 96, 88, 85, 66
1999 (1st): 165, 120, 116, 108, 88
2000 (3rd): 122, 106, 106, 89, 73
2001 (2nd): 140, 124, 100, 74, 69

It's evident that he couldn't compare with Albert Belle at his peak, nor Manny Ramirez over the long haul (truly one of the finest hitting spacemen of all time) but the Indians were never a one-man show. When you're surrounded by that much slugging talent, especially when batting fifth a good part of the time, someone's going to steal a few of your RBI opportunites on occasion.
He's never finished in the top three in MVP voting in any season, which is unusual for a Hall of Fame candidate whose credentials are built on power. The only current member of the 500-homer club about whom that is true is Rafael Palmeiro. Everybody else was either an MVP or finished second at one time or another.
I can't argue with this reasoning. What I can argue is that many baseball writers are fucking morons. Juan Gonzalez has two MVPs. Alex Rodriguez won one of his on a last-place team (that finished 25 games out of first), as did Andre Dawson in 1987. Justin Morneau was the AL MVP last year, and he wasn't even the most valuable player on the Twins. And let us never forget the travesty that was the 1999 Gold Glove award of the aforementioned Palmeiro who started only twenty-eight games at first base. Writers probably get it right more often than not when it comes to these things, but man, when they're wrong...
His defense may not hurt him, but it doesn't help him, either.
Thome was an absolute butcher at third, but at first, he has a career .994 fielding percentage. Yes, certainly not the be-all, end-all of fielding statistics, but good enough for a guy that, compared to the other eight players, stands around the vast majority of the time.
He is one of the all-time leaders in OPS, but some of the OPS argument is diluted by the fact that nine of the 19 greatest OPS hitters are currently playing.
Four of the other ten benefited from the juiced-up ball of the 1930s against a field of all white players, Rogers Hornsby a bit earlier against a field of all white players and Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial would be all-timers in any era. As for Mark McGwire, we know he's a cheating bastard. But let's toss OPS in the garbage and open up adjusted OPS, which is a more accurate barometer. Thome moves into a tie for 34th all-time, behind the active players Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, Frank Thomas and Manny Ramirez. And ahead of Willie McCovey, Mike Schmidt, Harmon Killebrew, Eddie Mathews, Reggie Jackson and Eddie Murray, Hall of Famers all.
He ranks 105th all-time in runs scored, behind Steve Finley, Luis Gonzalez and others.
This is where raw totals can get an argument into trouble with the uninformed voter. Olney is correct, but Thome has played over 400 games less than Gonzalez and over 500 less than Finley. Prorated over 162 games, Gonzalez has scored 91.4 runs, Finley 90.5 and Thome 107.2. In addition, Finley was at the top of the lineup a wee bit more than Thome. Not to mention once more the fact that Thome played on exceptional teams. There were runs aplenty scoring before Big Jim even reached the plate.
In summation, Thome has hit a ton of homers and drawn a ton of walks, but he hasn't been extraordinary at scoring runs or driving them in, and to get into the Hall of Fame, you either have to be exceptional at one or the other.
Which is certainly a shame. Olney is right in that he thinks Thome's raw totals will eventually be enough to land him in Cooperstown, but it's sad that the discussion even needs to be had. But then again, this is the same august body that still hasn't figured out that the best all-around third baseman on the planet during the 1960s belongs in the Hall.

*Yes, Thome really did say this to a local television sports reporter back during the Indians' halcyon days of the mid-to-late 90s. I wish I had it on tape.

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