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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Appreciating Jim Thome's Home Run of a Career

I apologize for the recent lack of updates. I’ve been very busy as of late. I am still working on the Retired Numbers Series, with two pieces started, but I’m not sure when I’ll get time to finish them. However, I hope to make up for it with a more current events-related post: an appreciation for Jim Thome and his career.

After making headlines with his recent 600th career home run, Jim Thome managed to stay in the headlines with a trade back to the Cleveland Indians, where he started his career. This adds symmetry to his career that leads me to realize that Thome’s career perfectly matches what he’s known for, that it’s analogous to his at-bats.

Thome started his career with twelve seasons in Cleveland. He was called up in 1991 at the age of 20; he was a third baseman back then. It took him until 1995 to play in more than 100 games in a season (although he played in 98 games in the strike-shortened 1994). He was done as a third baseman by 1996, but the one thing that never changed was that he kept hitting. After that 1995 season, Thome’s OPS wouldn’t drop below .900 until an injury-marred 2005, when he was 34 (and even then, he’s had three more .900+ seasons since then). Ten of his twenty-one seasons have seen him post an OPS+ of 150 or higher.

Thome is a three true outcomes hitter, in the purest sense. He is the active leader in both strikeouts and walks, and his 602 home runs make him the eighth member of the 600 Home Run Club (not to mention the fact that he’s fifth all-time in at-bats per home run). Naturally, that would lead to extended plate appearances, many of which would end with going yard. And this is where I see the connection of his career and his at bats.

Cleveland is, in a way, home plate. Thome is from the Mid-West, and so it is physically close to his home; but even more, it’s easy to see the Indians as Thome’s home. He was drafted by the team, and spent all of his first twelve seasons with the team. Thinking of Cleveland as Thome’s home plate, it’s easy to associate his long time as an Indian with his long plate appearances, working the count to reach base. And his long time with the team was undoubtably a success; he’s the franchise leader in home runs, and his OPS+ with the team is 152 (including the 2002 season, where he led the league with an OPS+ of 197).

Thinking of his career as a home run, moving on from Cleveland can be seen as the start of one of his 602 (and counting) home run trots. He would spend three seasons in Philadelphia and three-and-a-half in Chicago, which makes it easy to see them as first base and second base, respectively. He would pass through the Dodgers (17 games) in the end of 2009, which I would guess makes it sort of like the shortstop (a quick pass on the hitter’s trot). His season-and-a-half in Minnesota would be third base, with his current stop in Cleveland being touching home to complete the trot.

Even if Thome doesn’t retire after this season, the analogy could still, in theory, work, with any other teams being the dugout, and any returns to Cleveland being curtain calls, or the start of another plate appearance. Whatever decision he makes, he’s been one of the game’s greatest hitters, and he deserves a spot in Cooperstown. It is quite fitting, though, that one of the game’s most prolific home run hitters has a career that is a perfect metaphor for his career.

(As a side note, I'll have to start looking at other player's careers as metaphors for their career from now on. Any suggestions will be welcome.)

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