It’s about time Jim Thome finally got the recognition he deserved. Though his chase toward history wasn’t as publicized as Derek Jeter‘s, Thome’s relatively quiet run to 600 career home runs seems fitting, in retrospect. Thome — regarded as one of the nicest guys in the game — never seemed to care whether the baseball world was paying attention; he just continued to destroy baseballs. Now that Thome has reached the elite 600 club, thousands of words will be spilled about whether he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. While this milestone generally guaranteed ticket to Cooperstown, the specter of performance enhancing drugs has altered the way a generation of power hitters have been perceived. Based on the stats, Thome deserves to get the call. Unfortunately for him, it might not be on the first ballot.
A quick look at Thome’s counting stats reveals one of the most dangerous hitters of the 1990s. Thome might have been a powerful hitter, but he was patient as well, compiling a career .407 on-base percentage. As Joe Posnanski already noted, Thome never met a fastball he couldn’t handle. Since 1994, Thome ranks ninth among all players in wRC+, eighth in wOBA and ninth in WAR. During his peak — from 1995 to 1997 — Thome compiled 19.5 WAR, which is better than Mark McGwire, Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez over the same period. When he was in his prime, Thome could really hit a baseball.
So, what’s the problem? Every voter should look at those career numbers and say “yup, looks like a Hall-of-Famer to me.” But there are aspects of Thome’s game that are going to be picked apart by skeptics.
The biggest complaint could come down to how he accumulated his stats. Some voters might view Thome as a “compiler” — or a player who accumulated numbers over a long period of time (see Mike Mussina). While it’s unfair to criticize Thome for being so good for so long, voters will harp on the fact that Thome only had one season where he finished in the top five in MVP voting. Voters will probably bring up the “consistently great, but never elite” argument as well.
Thome will also be hurt by the fact that he spent the final chunk of his career as a DH. We don’t know exactly how voters will view this yet, though voters denied Edgar Martinez on his first shot. Certainly Frank Thomas will have a much better argument for election when his vote comes, which could have major implications on whether Thome makes it in on the first ballot.
While they likely won’t play a huge role in Thome’s candidacy, PEDs will come up in the debate. Due to his personality — and the general praise he’s received from everyone around baseball — it would truly be a shock if Thome took steroids. People just seem to assume that Thome is clean, so this issue might not affect him as much as some of the other power hitters from his era. Still, some writer/voter will bring them up.
Add all that together, and you still have a lot of uncertainty. Thome deserves to be elected to the Hall based on his hitting statistics — a fact few would argue. Yet voters will likely deny Thome from being a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer because of the issues outlined above. Unless things radically change in the next couple seasons, Thome’s “nice guys finish last” act might extend a few years longer. Then again, he never needed — or wanted — the publicity anyway.