Monday, August 22, 2011

Damn Statistics: The Case Against Jim Thome

Part of the beauty of the game of baseball is how it has remained constant over time.  (Cue the Ken Burns' music.)  The rules are not much different from 100 years ago, the bases are still 90 feet apart, and the pitcher stands 60 feet, 6 inches from the hitter.  But each era has had its own unique issues and the game has changed in enough ways so that it is folly to hold out statistics as a meaningful way to compare players across generations.

Key differences include the quality of bats, gloves and balls, the advent of night baseball, expansion from 16 teams to 30 (diluting the caliber of play), going from 154 games to 162 per season, ballpark dimensions, medical advances, and the big one -- that no African Americans played in the majors until Jackie Robinson in 1947, and it took at least another decade until all teams were fully integrated.  And then there is the despicable designated hitter rule, which was added by the American League in 1972, allowing players to prolong their careers and pad their statistics when they would otherwise be forced to retire because they could no longer play effectively in the field.  (More about that in a moment.)  And finally, performance enhancers, which have helped to inflate offensive numbers in the last couple of decades.

Before the late 1980s, I used to be able to easily reel off the names of the top ten home run hitters of all time:  Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, Mickey Mantle, Jimmie Foxx, Willie McCovey, Ted Williams and Ernie Banks.  All ten were brilliant, legendary players.  No question that any of them were automatic Hall of Famers. (Mike Schmidt and Reggie Jackson bumped Williams and Banks off the top 10 by the time they retired and are also worthy of being in this esteemed group.)  I couldn't name the current top 10, so I had to look it up:  Bonds, Aaron, Ruth, Mays, Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Sammy Sosa, Jim Thome, Frank Robinson and Mark McGwire.

Griffey, Jr., was a wonderful player with a Hall of Fame career.  Bonds and A-Rod, although tainted by allegations of steroid use, are still bona fide Hall of Famers, whether the precious voters let them in or not.  McGwire is borderline, in my opinion, and Sosa doesn't come close to making the cut although he certainly created a stir in his prime.  And then there is Jim Thome, who quietly hit his 600th home run last week. 

When one thinks of the greatest sluggers of all time Jim Thome does not immediately come to mind.  He doesn't gradually come to mind either even with his 600 home runs.  And that is the point.  Although 600 home runs is undoubtedly a remarkable achievement, it does not automatically launch Thome into the pantheon of elite players worthy of the Hall of Fame.

It used to be that 500 career home runs was a guarantee for induction into the Hall.  Indeed, of all the players who retired before 2000, Dave Kingman, with 442 home runs, has the highest total without being in the Hall of Fame.  In other words, every player who hit at least as many home runs as Dave Kingman before 2000 is a Hall of Famer.  Except for Kingman, who was the definition of the one-dimensional ballplayer.  He hit  monstrous blasts, but struck out when he wasn't hitting home runs and couldn't field any position.  He was also a jerk.  (E.g., he infamously harassed and then sent a rat to a female reporter.)

Jim Thome, by all accounts, is no Dave Kingman, at least off the field.  A humble, sincere, generous man who would never send a live rat to anybody.  He had some excellent offensive years, particularly during a stretch with the Indians and Phillies from 1996-2004.  But over a 21-year career he was selected to the All Star team only five times.  He finished in the top-five in the MVP voting only once.  He led the league in home runs one time and slugging percentage once, but never led in any other major offensive category (unless you count striking out -- he came in first three times).

Thome is a prime beneficiary of not only playing during a time of inflated power numbers but also of the designated hitter rule.  For the past five years he has been used almost exclusively as a DH (and was a part-time DH early in his career as well).  His last solid year as a complete player was 2004, for the Phillies, when he hit 42 home runs with 105 RBIs.  After suffering injuries and being traded back to the American League, he doesn't (or can't) field.  He just has to get up 4 or 5 times a game, take his hacks and sit down.  Thome has hit about 170 home runs as a DH since 2006. 

I cherish baseball statistics, box scores and records, and would choose the latest incarnation of the Baseball Encyclopedia as my one desert island book (and probably be happy and engaged for quite awhile.)  But the numbers don't tell the whole story in assessing the career of a baseball player, particularly those who played during the last couple of decades when the explosion of offense resulted in gaudy statistics that dwarf prior eras.  You've got to go beyond the numbers to determine who were the truly dominant players of their time and to debate the respective merits of the best players from different generations. 

So, who really was better:  Willie Mays or Babe Ruth?  Tom Seaver or Christy Mathewson?  Roger Clemens or Walter Johnson?  Alex Rodriguez or Honus Wagner? Barry Bonds or Ted Williams?  Jim Thome or . . . 


Stephen said...

In a related matter: Who's your favorite Beatles these days, and should Ringo Starr be elected into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

lonbud said...

Stephen raises an interesting point, despite the infelicitous choice of Ringo Starr for an example. Ringo Starr is undoubtedly one of the great rock drummers of all time and deserves a spot of his own in the rock Hall along w the other individual Beatles (for the record, John is my favorite).

But you know who's not in the rock Hall? Roy Brown, who wrote and performed the song Good Rockin' Tonight in 1947, which, coincidentally or not has a Jackie Robinson echo. Race Music was the Negro Leagues of the entertainment industry, I guess.

Great piece, Andy. Jim Thome is no Hall of Famer, even if he is nicer than Dave Kingman.

Lovechilde said...

Is Ringo more like Phil Rizzuto, who was elected into the Hall b/c he played short on some great Yankee teams without really being great himself? Or Tony Perez, an excellent player for the Big Red Machine but probably not of Hall of Famer caliber? Maybe.
Anyway, George is still my favorite, followed by John, then Paul, then the aforementioned Ringo.

Post a Comment