Think of great left-handed hitters in recent baseball history. Who comes to mind?
Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds come to mind, no doubt. One player that doesn't come to mind, but probably should, is Jim Thome.
On August 15, Thome hit career home runs No. 599 and 600 against the Detroit Tigers, becoming just the eighth man in baseball history to reach that plateau.
Due to the so-called "Steroid Era" and its effect on our baseball psyche, we tend to discount players who dominated during that time. However, players like Thome and Griffey Jr., who never faced any accusations of wrongdoing, should get the benefit of the doubt.
As baseball comes out of this era and a new emphasis is placed on defense and speed, true sluggers like Thome are becoming a relic of a bygone era. As of publication, Thome was eighth all time in home runs, No. 27 in RBIs and No. 17 in OPS.
Those numbers mean less in the sabermetric era of advanced statistics. However, for his career, Thome earned 731 runs more than Replacement Level and 71.2 Wins Above Replacement (WAR). That means he gave his teams 731 more runs than an average player and was responsible for 71.2 wins, according to Baseball Reference.
That puts him between Johnny Bench and Derek Jeter in approximate value. That’s pretty impressive company to be in.
Even more impressive is his temperament. Few guys get through their professional careers without at least having a few stories about them being awful people, whether they are or not. However, Thome might be one that no one really has anything bad to say about.
“He’s the world’s nicest man,” Twins closer and current teammate Joe Nathan said in an interview with ESPN The Magazine. “He's one of those guys that the hype is so great before you meet him, then he lives up to the hype, and more. When you see him from across the field, you think,'He can't be that nice,' but he is.”
That could be one of the reasons we don’t associate Thome with greatness.
Although he hit mammoth home runs, they lacked the flash of tainted sluggers such as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. He wasn’t known as a great all-around player like Griffey Jr. and Bonds (before the steroids at least). He lacked the great quotes and charm that set a lot of other historically great players into memory.
A lack of flash shouldn’t mean a lack of greatness. Thome deserves to be in the Hall of Fame without a doubt.
As far as being a prominent player in a tainted time, every single era of baseball had distinct advantages.
As Jonah Kari points out in a piece on ESPN offshoot Grantland.com, Babe Ruth never had to play against black players and there was no real scouting system to find nationwide talent, and pitchers during Sandy Koufax’s time pitched off extremely tall mounds.
Both those players are undisputedly great, but it’s hard to argue they didn’t get benefits from that particular era.
Jim Thome is not an all-time great player and not even the best player from his generation. However, he has put up outstanding numbers during his 20-year career.
When he decides to finally hang up his spikes, he’ll probably quietly retire, go back to his hometown of Peoria, Ill., and wait for Cooperstown to call.