Prospect Retrospective: Jim Thome
The topic of Jim Thome and his Hall of Fame chances came up a couple of days ago during the discussion about the career of Ken Griffey Jr..
Thome has been one of the best sluggers of his era, but he wasn't a high-caliber early-round draft pick back when he was drafted in 1989. Let's take a look at how his career developed and where he stands in historical context.
Jim Thome was drafted in the 13th round by the Cleveland Indians in 1989, out of Illinois Central Junior College, where he played shortstop. He began his career in the Gulf Coast League, hitting a mere .237/.314/.296 in 55 games, 186 at-bats. He showed decent strike zone judgment and his swing was supposed to look good, but he had very little power. He split time defensively between shortstop and third base, though scouts felt he would end up at third in the long run due to lack of range. It was an open question if he would have the bat for the hot corner.
There was little to distinguish him at his point from the great mass of anonymous rookie ball players. Thome was a junior college guy from a cold-weather state, drafted in the 13th round, who couldn't hit in rookie ball Players like that usually don't wind up on many prospect lists.
That changed dramatically in 1990.
Thome hit .373/.503/.754 in 34 games in the Appalachian League, earning Top Prospect in the league honors from Baseball America. The Indians jumped him up to the Carolina League in late July and he continued to hit well at .308/.427/.462, showing excellent strike zone judgment. He was more physically mature, and some adjustments to his swing enabled him to unleash his power.
He moved over to third base full-time and struggled defensively with too many errors, though he showed off a good arm and was considered to have enough range for the position. I was in graduate school in 1990 and not doing prospect analysis for a living, but a similar player now would get a Grade B at a minimum and very likely a B+.
Thome began 1991 with Canton-Akron in the Double-A Eastern League, hitting .337/.426/.469 in 84 games, with a sharp 44/58 BB/K ratio in 294 at-bats. He drew raves from managers and scouts and was named the Top Prospect in the league once again. Moved up to Triple-A at mid-summer, he hit .285/.331/.411 in 41 games for Colorado Springs, not terrific considering the context, but he was just 20 years old.
He made his major league debut for the Indians on September 4th, 1991, then hit .255/.298/.367 the rest of the way, doing enough to convince the front office that he was the third baseman of the future. He would have been a Grade A- prospect at worst.
1992 was a disappointment. Injuries limited him to 30 games in Double-A (.336/.462/.486) and 12 games in Triple-A (.313/.400/.563), but he struggled in 40 games for Cleveland with a .205/.275/.299 mark, looking quite over-matched. He exceeded rookie qualifications at this point and wouldn't be in a prospect book. Grade-wise I would probably have reduced him a notch to a Grade B+, but it is hard to say in retrospect given that we know how his career turned out.
Thome spent most of 1993 in Triple-A, hitting .332/.441/.585 with 25 homers, 76 walks, and 94 strikeouts in 410 at-bats for Charlotte, winning the league batting title and once again carrying away Top Prospect honors. He got into 47 more games for the Indians and this time hit well, with a .266/.385/.474 mark and establishing himself in the lineup, clearly one of the most exciting young hitters in the game.
You know the rest of the story with Thome: many years as an excellent slugger, with declining defensive value but enough power and patience to remain valuable. He became a first baseman in 1997, and eventually a DH in his 30s, but his bat was always strong. Even last year, at age 41, he hit .252/.344/.442 in 58 games for an OPS+ of 112 for the Phillies and Orioles.
Thome now has 612 homers to his credit, with a career mark of .276/.402/.554, 147 OPS+. A five-time All Star, he led his league in home runs just once (47 with the Phillies in 2003) and OPS just once (197 OPS+ with the Indians in 2002), but he topped his circuit in walks three times. Aside from the age 20/21 window, Thome had just one season (2005 at age 34) with an OPS+ below league average.
His peak WAR value was in 1996 at 7.5, but he was a steady source of value production for over 20 years, giving him a career mark of 68.1 WAR.
Among career first baseman, Thome's WAR ranks him in the neighborhood with Rafael Palmeiro (69.8), Johnny Mize (68.2), Willie McCovey (67.4), Harmon Killebrew (66.2), and Willie Stargell (63.0). Sim Score brings up Sammy Sosa, Frank Thomas, Reggie Jackson, Ken Griffey Jr, Mickey Mantle, Mike Schmidt, Fred McGriff, McCovey, Manny Ramirez, and Gary Sheffield as comps.
There's no question that Thome played like a Hall of Famer; almost everyone remotely comparable is in the Hall of Fame, will be, or would be if not for PEDs. The main exception is McGriff, who wasn't a PED user, has a case as a borderline candidate, and was better than some guys who have been honored.
All told, Thome has had a remarkable career. Sometimes those 13th rounders turn out pretty well, even if they can't hit in rookie ball.