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Performing March 4th, 2015
Jim Thome joined an elite class of baseball in a sport that lives for numerical milestones. He became just the eighth player to hit 600 home runs in a Major League career. There was a time when 500 home runs meant instant enshrinement into the Hall of Fame, and Thome now has 100 more than that plateau. Yet, there were plenty of people questioning whether or not Jim Thome was Hall of Fame-worthy after he hit that 600th home run, like Rob Neyer at Baseball Nation and Baseball-Reference.com. Others, like Jonah Keri at Grantland and Joe Posnanski of SI.com were decidedly pro-Thome.
I side with Keri and Posnanski on this subject, and I am surprised that this question is even being asked. The court of public opinion seems to be making Thome a victim of the Steroid Era which there is no indication he has been a part of. The opposite can be said of a player like Derek Jeter, who is glorified for his apparent innocence during this same period. How can Jeter benefit from this while Thome gets hurt? It's hypocritical thinking, but it's normal logic in the Steroid Era for a position player like Jeter to get the benefit of the doubt over a slugger like Thome.
Consider this about Jim Thome. He has batted better than .275 11 times in his 21 seasons, three times hitting over .300 (his lifetime batting average is a very respectable .277). He has posted OBPs over .400 10 times, including .445 in 2002 and .450 in 1996 (he currently boasts a career OBP of .403). He recorded over 100 walks nine times and led the league in three of those seasons. His 1,710 walks are good for 8th all-time and he has a shot at passing Mickey Mantle for 7th. If not for an injury-shortened season in 2005, Thome would have hit 20+ home runs in 17 straight seasons starting in 1994. The guy was a great hitter. He wasn't a one-dimensional power hitter. He hit for average, hit for great power, and got on base at a very high rate.
There are certainly negatives to Jim Thome's career. He has the second-most strikeouts in Major League history (only Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson has more). He hasn't won an MVP or even finished in the top three of voting (the closest he game was 4th in 2003, which was just terrible timing). His defense was never great. He hasn't had great success in the post season. These are true statements, but they are true for several other great players as well. Holes can be poked in any argument, but one can't deny what Thome did offensively during the era he did it in wasn't great.
Thome's 600 home runs should have been the icing on the Hall of Fame cake that he had been baking his entire career, but now the Steroid Era is apparently skewing what kind of numbers it takes to make it to the Hall. Considering the fact that only eight other players have ever hit 600 home runs (even steroid-linked players like Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro didn't get to 600), this is a pretty remarkable accomplishment. And it isn't as if Thome stuck around this long just to reach 600 home runs. A case can be made against a “very good” player like Johnny Damon being kept out of the Hall of Fame even if he reaches 3,000 hits at some point later in his career. But Thome is a great player, has had great production, and is now producing like a 40-year-old player would produce. As a platooned DH, Thome doesn't have the opportunity to hit home runs like he used to, but still takes advantage of his opportunities.
To top it all off, Thome is one of the classiest guys in baseball. While this should have no bearing on his Hall of Fame chances, it makes Thome into a sympathetic character. Writers have been showering us with stories of Thome's grace, his character, and the respect he gets from the rest of baseball. That's good, but at some point that kind of discourse overshadows what Thome has done on the field.
The bottom line: Jim Thome is a Hall of Famer. He was before he hit his 600th home run on Monday night, and he still is after that fact. I think it's hard to penalize Thome for being great in an era of superficial greatness, but it looks like that might be the case. Thome deserves better, and hopefully he gets it.