With his walk-off home run Saturday against Tampa Bay, Jim Thome tied Sammy Sosa on the all-time home run list at 609. One more, and Thome will stand alone with the seventh-greatest amount of career home runs hit in baseball history.
The men who will be in front of him read like a Who's Who of the greatest hitters to ever play the game — Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds. Aaron, Ruth and Mays are inner-circle Hall of Famers, and Griffey is a stone-cold lock to join them when he becomes eligible in 2016. Bonds' (eligible next year) and Rodriguez's statuses remain at the whims of voters and how they feel about steroid use.
Despite the lofty company, however — Bonds and Rodriguez would surely be elected in their respective first years if their reputations were not tarnished — Thome will probably not be voted in on the first ballot as they were, will be or could have been.
Does he deserve to be? Going solely by the numbers, he absolutely does. In addition to the aforementioned spot on the all-time home run list, Thome also ranks fairly high on a few other notable leaderboards.
His 1,689 RBIs place him 25th on the all-time list, just behind Cal Ripken Jr. and ahead of Hall of Famers such as George Brett, Mike Schmidt and Harmon Killebrew. His career .959 OPS, meanwhile, is good for 18th.
His career batting average is a fairly decent .277, but his career on-base percentage is an excellent .403, helped by his eighth-best 1,732 career walks.
Unfortunately for the brawny slugger, it is not numbers alone that determine enshrinement in Cooperstown.
Let us operate under the assumption that Thome will retire after this season, as he is 41 years old. This would make him eligible for the Hall in 2018. Unfortunately for Thome, Chipper Jones will also be making his debut on the ballot that year. If Mariano Rivera fails in his comeback from knee surgery and retires — which seems likely because of his age, despite his claims to the contrary — he will also be eligible for the first time.
Given the choice to pick from one of the three greatest switch-hitters of all time, the greatest reliever of all time and the eighth man to hit 600 home runs, it's likely that enough of the voters would take only Jones and Rivera to deny Thome the necessary 75 percent of the vote. Despite it still being a staggering amount, 600 home runs simply is not considered the milestone it used to be.
Only once have three first-timers been elected in the same year, as 1999 saw George Brett, Nolan Ryan and Robin Yount get the call. If this scenario is set up again in 2018, it likely will not re-occur, as the talent coming down the voting pipeline in future years is immense and voters are still trying to sort out what to do with the players of the Steroid Era.
Even if the Yankees closer is able to return next year, or Thome waits another year to retire, the slugger will still likely face Jones or Rivera on his first ballot. And history is against him in this case as well, because in the last 20 years, the Hall has only inducted two or more first-timers four times.
The other obstacle that will prevent Thome from getting a plaque on his first try, even if the names on the ballot somehow align in his favor, is where he played on the diamond. Or rather, didn't play — out of Thome's 10,202 career plate appearances, nearly one-third were as a designated hitter.
Hall of Fame voters have not shown much love to designated hitters over the years. The archetypal designated hitter and arguable gold standard for the position, Edgar Martinez, has never received more than 36.5 percent of the vote in the three years he's been eligible.
Paul Molitor is the only Hall of Famer that could conceivably be considered a designated hitter, even though he was inducted as a third baseman. Although he made 43.8 percent of his plate appearances without a spot in the field, he is an entirely different case than Thome. That is to say, Thome looks like the stereotypical plodding, can't-field designated hitter, while Molitor does not.
The best barometer for Thome, then, is the player he's most comparable to through his age-40 season, according to Baseball Reference — Frank Thomas.
Although Thome started out as a third baseman, he and Thomas are both best remembered as hulking first basemen who eventually became designated hitters. The Big Hurt made 56.5 percent of his career plate appearances as a designated hitter and retired with 521 career home runs and a .974 OPS.
He'll be eligible for the Hall in 2014, but unfortunately for him, he'll run into the same problem of a crowded ballot that Thome likely will. Other first-timers that year are Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, who will likely both receive the necessary amount of votes without difficulty. But the amount of votes Thomas gets will be an indicator of what can be expected for Thome's own entrance onto the ballot a few years later.
However many votes Thome receives in his first year on the ballot, his career accomplishments make it inevitable that he will eventually wind up enshrined in Cooperstown. There are just too many forces working against him to make it on the first try.
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