I remember a few years ago when Craig Biggio got his 3,000th hit. Colin Cowherd of ESPN Radio had a segment where he debated Biggio’s Hall of Fame status. Of course, the talking heads told him, since Biggio had crossed the 3,000 hit threshold, he was pretty much a slam dunk. Cowherd’s retort was that Biggio “doesn’t feel like a Hall of Famer”. When pressed, Cowherd said he knew Biggio’s numbers were there and that he warranted a plaque in Cooperstown…but he kept coming back to how Biggio didn’t feel like a Hall of Famer.
This week, Jim Thome hit his 600th home run. And now I understand what Cowherd was talking about. I know Jim Thome’s numbers warrant serious HoF candidacy. He’s one of only 8 players to reach 600 long balls. He’s universally praised as one of baseball’s “nice guys”, and that’s sure to garner him a few more votes, although baseball writers will never admit it. And the general feeling is that his 600 HRs are legit, that Thome was “clean” despite playing the bulk of his career in baseball’s Steroid Era.
I know all of that, but Thome just doesn’t feel like a Hall of Famer.
This kind of language is uncommon to baseball purists. Baseball, more than our other sports, lends itself to statistical analysis. A player’s raw skill is somehow distilled from the primeval ether into discernible and era-and-ballpark-adjustable data. You can compare Ty Cobb’s win shares with Mickey Mantle; you can weigh Rod Carew’s batting titles against Wade Boggs’. When we discuss greatness in baseball, we use numerical terminology:
If you have to ask, you’re not a baseball fan.
So, yeah, when assessing a player’s contributions to the game, the numbers speak for themselves. This stuff about whether or not the guy feels like an all-time great just sounds like a bunch of hooey to a traditionalist like myself. But I find myself saying it nonetheless. Jim Thome just doesn’t feel like a Hall of Famer to me.
It could be that Thome’s one truly great skill (hitting home runs) is as cheap and common now as it’s ever been. Prior to a few years ago, the rarefied air of 600 was occupied by only the immortals: Aaron, Ruth, Mays. In the past several seasons, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Alex Rodriguez, and Ken Griffey, Jr. have all entered the club. And now, Thome. What was once an exclusive fraternity has now become just a bit less hallowed.
It could be Thome’s propensity for strikeouts (second only to another Hall resident, Reggie Jackson). It could be that Thome has spent the better part of the past seven seasons as a designated hitter, a man-made position foreign to the game’s founding principles. It could be Thome’s lackluster .277 lifetime batting average, his subpar defense, or the fact that he’s played most of his career outside of the major markets. There are plenty of reasons, but I still feel this way: Thome just seems like a more successful version of Dave Kingman.
Make no mistake: Thome will be elected, and probably on the first ballot. But the whole thing got me to thinking about other players that I’d put in that same category, guys who might or might not warrant serious Hall consideration, but they just don’t feel like Cooperstown material. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:
1B – Don Mattingly. I know Mattingly had a brilliant run in the mid-to-late 80s before his back flamed out. But let’s be honest: it’s not like he was Koufax great. He was just great. And without sustaining that greatness into the next decade, we have the poster child for the Hall of Really Good. But not a Hall of Famer. Honorable mention: Will Clark.
2B – Lou Whitaker. According to Bill James, Whitaker is one of the 25 greatest 2B ever. But he’s not quite at that Hall-worthy level.
SS – Alan Trammell. Now, I’m not trying to pick on the Tigers here. I’d love it if Trammell was elected to the Hall, mainly because I own a copy of his rookie card. But aside from a stellar 1987 campaign, Trammell’s career falls into the pretty good camp. But not great.
3B – Ron Santo. OK, I’ll admit. I’m totally picking on the Cubs here. But who cares?
C – Gary Carter. I know Carter is already in the Hall. But to me, he always seemed to belong to that grouping of “really good” rather than “all-time great”.
OF – Dale Murphy. Murph is another guy who elicits quite a discussion when you bring his name up. Of course, Braves fans think he should be in. And you couldn’t ask for a better guy to root for or to have as a teammate. But other than the stolen bases, he’s Thome lite: lots of pop, mediocre average, great guy, but not HoF worthy.
OF – Tim Raines. Personally, I think Raines deserves to be in the Hall if you look at his numbers. But he doesn’t feel like a HoFer because he basically spent the last 7 seasons of his career as a platoon player. But his first 7 full seasons were nothing short of magnificent. The National League’s best leadoff hitter from the 1980s.
OF – Larry Walker. Walker is an interesting case. Always a good player, he had a few brilliant, ballpark-aided seasons in Colorado. Suspicion that he might’ve been aided by more than his home park will always hurt his candidacy.
DH – Harold Baines. Baines was a feared hitter for part of his career, and a “professional hitter” from start to finish. Honorable mention: Edgar Martinez.
SP – Bert Blyleven. Another guy who’s already in. But the numbers seem to put him in that class of good, but not stellar. I think his entry makes the argument that much more plausible for guys like Jack Morris and Curt Schilling.
RP – Lee Smith. Doesn’t look like he’s getting in any time soon, if ever. You could throw a lot of guys in this spot: John Franco, Rob Nen, Jeff Reardon. But Smith takes the cake for the most nondescript career leader of a major statistical category…that is, until Hoffman and Rivera passed him.