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600 homers or not, Thome was already Hall-worthy

Aug 15, 2011, 11:18 PM EDT

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Jim Thome joined an elite club on Monday night when he became the eighth player in MLB history to hit 600 home runs. Now that the Minnesota Twins designated hitter has reached such a special milestone, be prepared to hear the question: “Does this make Jim Thome a Hall of Famer?”

I’ve got news for you: Thome didn’t need the milestone. He was already worthy of Cooperstown.

This has nothing to do with Thome being a good guy both with the media and in general (he’s one of the best), and it has nothing to do with his charitable contributions to society (he’s paying for all 10 of his nieces and nephews to go through college). Plenty of players give good interviews and do nice things for people.

No, this has to do with the sheer numbers and impact on the game. It has to do with quietly putting up strong statistics year after year for 21 seasons, compiling one of the most impressive power hitting resumes in baseball history.

Knock Thome, if you will, for spending the bulk of his career as a DH. After all, it’s only fair to give more credence to players who can hit and play defense. Give him demerits for striking out more than 2,400 times, for only being an All-Star five times, for never winning an MVP award or a World Series.

But then remember the 1,700 walks (eighth all time), the .403 on-base percentage (better than Rickey Henderson), and the respectable .277 batting average (better than Joe Morgan). Thome’s hulking presence might remind one of Paul Bunyan, but he was never an all-or-nothing axe-wielding hacker a la Dave Kingman or Rob Deer.

In examining the numbers, Baseball-reference says Thome’s career compares most closely to those of Frank Thomas, Sammy Sosa, Mike Schmidt, Harmon Killebrew, Mickey Mantle, Willie McCovey, and Willie Stargell. All of those players are in Cooperstown except for Thomas, who will be once he gains eligibility, and Sosa, a fellow member of the 600-homer club whose career has been tainted by a connection to steroids.

Thomas is an interesting comparison because like Thome, his career was spent mostly at DH. He was rightly feared as one of the best hitters of his era, notching three seasons with an OPS over 1.000, including the monster 1994 campaign of 1.217. Thomas’ career OPS is an impressive .974, but Thome’s is just a notch behind at .960. Thomas’ OPS+ is a whopping 156, but Thome’s is 147. The gulf between the players is not as wide as you might imagine.

As far as the steroids era, there is no way Thome can escape it. Type “steroids Thome” into Google and the search engine spits out more than 700,000 entries, some of which cite the steroids era as dampening excitement for the slugger’s march to 600 home runs. While Thome has never been connected to performance-enhancing drugs, it’s impossible for any player, particularly a power hitter, to avoid being tarnished by the era. It’s not fair, it’s just the way it is.

But until there is some evidence of cheating – remember, Thome’s name did not come up in the Mitchell Report, the BALCO scandal, or in any other PED investigation – we’ve got to take the man and his legacy at face value.

Prepare a place in Cooperstown, because Jim Thome has earned his place in the Hall.

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