Sunday, July 4, 2010

Thome and the Killer

Saturday's multi-pitcher bullpen meltdown obscured the exploits of the Gentleman Masher, Jim Thome, who bopped two dingers and a double — 10 total bases and three runs scored — and passed Harmon Killebrew on the all-time home run list.

That list is a lot less exclusive than it was when the Killer retired. He stood fifth — behind Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Frank Robinson — for a long time, with Aaron, Ruth and Mays the only men with 600-plus homers. Now Killebrew is out of the top 10, and Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr. and Sammy Sosa are in the 600-homer club, with Alex Rodriguez just five short.

And no, this isn't going to be a steroids rant. Records are made to be broken, and those hitters of the 1990s and 2000s who were 'roided up were hitting off pitchers who were 'roided up, and had the stuff been available in the 1960s, you can bet players would have been using them then too. Human nature hasn't worsened in 40 years, and the competitive mindset hasn't changed either.

Killebrew played his final game in 1975, when I was still in high school. Jim Thome was five years old then. The two men played in much different eras — Killebrew's peak corresponded to the power-pitcher friendly 1960s, when the mounds were unrestricted, the strike zone was defined as the top of the shoulder and runs were exceedingly scarce — but their defining numbers are strikingly similar:

  • Killebrew hit 573 homers, drove in 1,584 runs and drew 1,559 walks.
  • Thome now has 574 homers, 1,590 RBIs and 1,646 walks.

Thome has scored more than 200 runs more than Killebrew ( 1,506 to 1,283) and has better slash stats, but context is important in all of these numbers. A run was a lot more valuable in 1968 than it was in 1998, because there were so many fewer runs in the '60s.

I wasn't all that impressed with the Thome signing when it came to pass; I figured there was a reason the White Sox made no effort to retain him. But the man has a .597 slugging percentage this season, and he has certainly earned his money and his at-bats.

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