Cooperstown is perfect spot for Thome

Slugger's power, presence in clubhouse made him all-time great

January 13th, 2018

Here's a fun exercise to try when you plan on writing a report or story or whatever. Start by writing down 10 facts you know about your subject without looking up anything.

Here are 10 facts I know about Jim Thome in no particular order.

But before we get to that, a reminder that live coverage of the 2018 Hall of Fame announcement begins Wednesday at 3 p.m. ET on MLB Network, simulcast live on, with the electees named at 6.

Hall of Fame coverage

Now, back to the facts:

1. Thome is from Peoria, Ill. He comes from a very athletic family.

2. Thome homered in 48 different ballparks. Absurdly, he never homered at Coors Field.

3. Thome idolized Dave Kingman as a kid.

4. Thome learned to do that point-at-the-pitcher thing before every at-bat from Roy Hobbs of "The Natural."

5. At the end of his career, Thome did not keep a glove in his locker.

6. Everybody loved the guy.

7. Thome was one of the few players who would always come to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum awards banquet.

8. Thome's wife, Andrea, is a former television reporter in Cleveland and an absolute delight.

9. Thome is a member of the exclusive 600-home run club, which admittedly used to be a lot more exclusive. It used to be just Willie Mays, Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron. Now, it includes -- let's see if I can get them all off the top of my head -- Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., Sammy Sosa, and Thome. I think that's all of them.

10. I'm almost certain Thome's the only player to be top 10 all-time in home runs, strikeouts and walks, making him the all-time Three True Outcomes player.

And a bonus 11th fact: Thome is the all-time regular-season leader in walk-off home runs with 13.

That's actually a lot -- I'm not sure that, without Googling, I could give 10 fairly substantial facts on too many of the other players on this year's ballot. But following Thome's career -- as well as getting to know him -- has been one of the most joyous parts of my baseball writing life.

I first saw Thome when he was a kid in Cleveland just called up. He was a third baseman then and an unsure one. There was a lot of talk about how he was going to hit big, but he really didn't show that much home run power in the lower Minors.

Then came the Roy Hobbs moment -- Thome was in Triple-A Charlotte and began working with a hitting guru named Charlie Manuel. The thing Manuel wanted to do was get Thome thinking about hitting the ball up the middle rather than trying to pull everything. He came upon an idea: He showed Thome a clip of Hobbs pointing his bat toward the pitcher before the pitch.

"See how he does that?" Manuel said.

"Yup," Thome said.

"Let's do that, too," Manuel said.

That somehow unleashed Thome's power. It probably wasn't the move itself -- otherwise you would see everybody pointing their bat at pitchers -- but for Thome, it proved a constant reminder to hit the ball to center. And it turned out, Thome's power was to center. I would argue no one in baseball history had more power to center field than Thome. After hitting just five professional home runs in 1992 and eight in '91, Thome mashed 25 homers for Triple-A Charlotte and added seven more in the big leagues.

Thome averaged 38 homers for the next 11 seasons. I did look that up.

Here is the thing about Thome's era: Just hitting a lot of home runs isn't enough to ensure a legacy of greatness. We'll talk about this later with Sosa and others, but here's a fun little Hall of Fame fact: Until the mid-1980s, every player who hit 400 home runs got elected to the Hall of Fame. Every one -- there were 20 of those guys, from Duke Snider at 407 to Henry Aaron at 755 -- and they all were elected to the Hall.

In fact, it was a little bit of a thing when Thome's childhood hero Kingman hit his 400th home run in 1985. There was some, "What are we going to do with Kingman?" hand-wringing. On the one hand, he had 400 home runs. On the other, Kingman was certainly not a Hall of Famer. What to do? What to do?

In the end, the solution was something like the Indiana Jones solution when he ran into the guy doing the fancy sword moves. Indy just pulled out a gun and shot the guy. The voters pulled out their pens and didn't vote for Kingman. It was pretty easy.

But this is the point: 400-plus home runs used to be a Hall of Fame line until that seemed silly. Then 500 home runs became a Hall of Fame line until Rafael Palmeiro, who failed a drug test in 2005 and fell off the ballot. Six-hundred seems a ridiculously high Hall of Fame bar, but two of the 600-home run club members -- Bonds and Sosa -- will have a very hard time ever making it in, and A-Rod will face his own demons.

The point is that home runs just aren't enough. The thing that separated Thome is that he was also among the most disciplined hitters in the game's history. He struck out a crazy amount -- second all-time only to Reggie Jackson -- and yet he walked so much that he finished his career with a .402 on-base percentage. That's an almost impossible combination.

Most strikeouts with a .400 on-base percentage:

  1. Thome, 2,548

  2. Manny Ramirez, 1,813

  3. Mickey Mantle, 1,710

  4. Rickey Henderson, 1,694

  5. Jeff Bagwell, 1,558

    Thome and Bagwell have a particularly fun statistical relationship. They had similar on-base percentages (Thome .402, Bagwell .408) and slugging percentages (Thome .554, Bagwell .540). But Thome struck out almost 1,000 more times than Bagwell. So how did he maintain a .400 on-base percentage?

    Thome did it by hitting the ball absurdly hard. When Bagwell didn't walk or strike out, he hit a superb .371 and hit a home run once every 13.8 chances.

When Thome didn't walk or strike out, he hit a supernatural .396 and hit a home run once every 9.5 chances. That's historic stuff.

Best batting average when not walking or striking out:

  1. Babe Ruth, .406

  2. Manny Ramirez, .400

  3. Joey Votto, .399

  4. Jim Thome, .496

  5. , .394

    They are followed by Rogers Hornsby, Ty Cobb and Jimmie Foxx.

    Most home runs per chance when not walking or striking out:

  6. Mark McGwire, one per 7.8 balls hit

  7. Jim Thome, one in 9.6

  8. Adam Dunn, one in 9.7

  9. Babe Ruth, one in 9.9

  10. Sammy Sosa, one in 10.7

    Thome and Ruth are the only ones on both lists. Thome missed a whole lot, but when he hit a baseball, it stayed hit. That was the only way he could be such a great player when he struck out as much as he did. His .276 career batting average seems on the low side. But with so many strikeouts, that's a near-miracle.

    Then on top of hitting the ball that hard, Thome was a genius at drawing the walk. He led the league in walks three times and ended his career seventh on the all-time list.

    In other words, Thome was an extraordinary offensive threat even beyond the home runs. He ranks 24th on the all-time list in runs created, squeezed right between Griffey and the guy he will almost certainly join in Cooperstown this July, Chipper Jones.

    In addition to all of that, Thome is one of the all-time great guys in baseball. As former Twins All-Star once said, "He's my favorite teammate ever, I think. But he's everybody's favorite teammate."