Friday, August 5, 2011

Who is Jim Thome?

Against the White Sox, Thome hits the first walk-off home run at Target Field

Jim Thome was already 39 years old when he joined the Twins.  When he left Minnesota, he was two days shy of his 41st birthday..  He had been drafted and had already signed with the Indians two months before I was born.  He was easily the oldest player on the Twins roster.  Not coincidentally, he's also one of the most accomplished player the Twins have ever employed.  Since he debuted with Cleveland in 1991, Thome simply hit everywhere.  He finally grabbed hold of full-time at bats in 1995, posted an OPS just shy of 1.000, and never looked back.  In each of the next nine seasons, he had an OPS of at least .925 and hit no fewer than 30 home runs, while also driving in over 100 runs in eight of those seasons.  For close to two decades, Thome was of the best power hitters around.

After spending his first 12 years with Cleveland and the next 3 with Philadelphia, Thome joined the Chicago White Sox.  Though his overall stat line drooped a little, it was still very good.  He also, more memorably, made a name for himself with Chicago as a Twin-killer.  As is often the case, perception differs from the statistics, as his overall line against the Twins in his 4 seasons with Chicago was only a tad better than his numbers as a whole.  A ridiculous 6-game stretch against Minnesota in 2007, however, in which he hit a homer in each game, had 14 RBIs, and hit .541, combined with his iconic homer in the play-in game in 2008, made that reputation stick.

Therefore, following the 2009 season, the Twins employed a new strategy: if you can't beat 'em, sign 'em!  By inking Thome to a one-year contract for $1.5 million, the Twins made a low-risk deal to bring in one of the most likable players in the Majors.  They never imagined the kind of season they would get from Thome.  Despite a balky back that often kept him from playing consecutive days, even at designated hitter, Thome had his best season in years.  He hit 25 homers in just 279 at bats and put up his highest slugging percent (.627) and OPS (1.039) since 2002.

Thome instantly became a fan favorite in Minnesota.  He could seemingly do no wrong, and even swatted his first triple since 2004, a span of 3,049 plate appearances.  Never known as a speedster, as evidenced by his three stolen bases this millenium and just one since 2002, even Thome's quickest days were gone many years ago.  His home run trot at that point was actually his top speed, and the old baseball joke that it takes two hits to score a man from second was actually true.  But on June 28, Thome got some luck when a ball he smoked off the outfield fence caromed off the side of the scoreboard, bouncing in a completely unexpected direction and allowing him to make it all the way to third base.

The rejuvenated season had a personal reward for Thome: it left him just 11 home runs short of 600 for his career, something only 7 other players have ever done.  That number would, fair or not, probably seal his candidacy to be included in the Hall of Fame.  What had seemed an unrealistic goal prior to the 2010 season, as he struggled to find a home, now appeared well within reach.  He was, predictably, not as good in 2011, but had another fine season in Minnesota.  That including his milestone 600th home run off of Daniel Schlereth on August 15,  his second of the game, against Detroit.  Just ten days later, Thome's career with Minnesota came to an when the Twins shipped him to the Indians, largely in the interest of giving Jim a chance to play in the postseason.

Updated August 26, 2011

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