Top 100 Cleveland Indians: #7 Jim Thome

Tim Umphrey

Next in our countdown is the greatest home run hitter in franchise history.

James Howard Thome

First Baseman, Third Baseman, Designated Hitter, 1991-2002, 2011

Height: 6'4" Weight: 250 lbs

Throws: Right Bats: Left

Acquired (1): 13 Round Pick, 1989 (333rd overall)

Left (1): Free Agency, October, 2002

Acquired (2): Purchased from Minnesota Twins (August 25, 2011)

Left (2): Free Agency, October, 2011

- - - - - -
Good... but his Aunt was Better

Jim Thome was born and raised in Peoria, Illinois, the youngest of five children in family filled with athletes. Three members of his extended family are in the Peoria Sport Hall of Fame, including an aunt who was hired at the age of 15 by the local Caterpillar machinery plant in order to get her on the company's softball team. Jim's father worked at the plant too, but also barnstormed as a softball player for in some of the most competitive circuits in the country.

Jim grew up a Cubs fan, and for his 8th birthday his parents took him to a game at Wrigley Field. Jim wanted the autograph of Dave Kingman, his favorite player. He managed to sneak into the clubhouse in an attempt to track Kingman down, but he was rebuffed. That stands in sharp contrast to the way Thome carried himself during his playing career, when he was among the most generous players in baseball, in terms of making time for fans.

Thome was a shortstop in high school, and a strong hitter, among the state leaders in home runs. He was a fine basketball player as well, the star player on a conference-winning team. He was names All-State in both sports, but despite his prep success, he went un-drafted. Thome enrolled at nearby Illinois Central College, and after one year there, the Indians took him in the 13th round of the 1989 draft. He quickly signed and was sent to Florida to spend the rest of the season playing rookie ball in Gulf Coast League. He hit just .237 in 55 games, without a single home run, but his professional career had begun.

A 'Natural,' Just Not Right Away

That winter Thome stayed in Florida to focus on baseball. He also met a coach named Charlie Manuel, who told Thome that he needed to open his hips in order to generate more power. The two of them developed a close relationship, which Thome has credited with allowing him to become the hitter Cleveland would one day fall in love with.

Thome began 1990 in rookie ball, but after hitting 12 home runs in just 34 games, he was promoted to High-A. After the season, he was named one of the top 100 prospects in the country by Baseball America. He was also moved from shortstop to third base that year. In 1991 he started off in the Double-A Eastern League, where he posted the third-best OPS before being promoted again to Triple-A. When Major League rosters expanded in September, Thome was called up to the Indians, one week after his 21st birthday.

On October 4, Thome came to the plate in Yankee Stadium with two outs in the 9th inning, and a man on base, and clobbered his first MLB home run into the upper deck. Thome was once again named one of the top 100 prospects in baseball. Thome would have had a shot at making the team in 1992, but a strained wrist in spring training got in the way, and a shoulder injury after he returned to the field limited him as well. He played 42 games between Double-A and Triple-A, and another 40 with the Indians, but with little success.

The next spring, Thome and Manuel (who was the manager for Triple-A Charlotte at that point) were in the clubhouse, watching 'The Natural.' Robert Redford used a distinctive batting stance in the movie, pointing his bat towards the mound while waiting for the pitcher to begin his delivery. Manuel suggested Thome try it to help with his timing. That proved to be a good tip. Thome was named International League Player of the Month for June and July. He hit 25 home runs and put up the third-best OPS in the league before getting called back to Cleveland in August. He homered in his first game with the Indians that month and had an .859 OPS in 47 games. This time, he was up for good.

A Key Cog in an Offensive Machine

Through early June of 1994, Thome was sort of floundering. He wasn't hitting poorly, but his .746 OPS and 6 home runs weren't especially impressive. On June 11th though, Thome hit a long two-run home run in a 5-2 Indians win that kickstarted a 10-game winning streak, during which the Indians moved into 1st place. For the next two months, posted a .297/.395/.627 line, with 14 home runs in 45 games. Alas, a labor dispute halted the season early.

In 1995, Thome picked up where he left off. By the All-Star break, Thome had a .330/.445/.618 line, but word hadn't spread far enough yet for him to be named an All-Star. Thome finished with a .438 OBP, third in the American League, and was also among the top ten in batting average and slugging, as the Indians coasted to 30-game victory in the AL Central, ending the team's 41-year wait for a playoff appearance. Thome homered in Game 3 of the ALDS against Boston, and again in Game 4 of the ALCS against Seattle. In Game 5 Thome came to the plate with the Tribe down a run in the 6th inning:


Thome hit another home run in Game 5 of the World Series. Before 1995, no Indian had ever hit more than one postseason home run. Thome hit 4 that October.

In 1996 Thome hit 38 home runs and again finished in the top ten of the American League in both OBP and slugging percentage. His 1.062 OPS was third in the league and he was the best player on an Indians team that won an MLB-best 99 games. Thome won the AL's Silver Slugger for third base and was mentioned on a number of MVP ballots (though the best player on the best team finishing only 15th in the voting shows he was still being overshadowed by higher-profile teammates).

The Indians underwent some massive changes before the 1997 season. Albert Belle departed for Chicago as a free agent and on just before Opening Day Kenny Lofton was traded to Atlanta. The two most-recognizable players on the team were gone. Among the new names brought on board was Matt Williams, who also played first base. Thome was asked to move to first base. "It wouldn't be my first choice, but if it's for the good of the team, then fine." His offense didn't skip a beat and he hit 40 home runs, a new career high. Once again he was the team's best player, and he led the Tribe to another division crown. Along the way he was named to his first All-Star team, and in that October's World Series, he hit another two home runs. He finished 6th in the MVP vote.

Thome made the All-Star team again in 1998, this time as a starter. In August he was hit in the hand by a pitch, which fractured a bone and put him on the DL for 35 games. He placed among the league leaders in OBP and slugging again. He hit 2 home runs against Boston in the ALDS, then set an ALCS record by hitting 4 home runs against New York. Thome had put up an OPS better than .990 in four straight seasons, something no player in franchise history had ever done (or has done since).

The Highest-Paid Player in Team History

A contract extension Thome and the team had agreed to in May of 1997 kicked in for 1999, one which paid him $8 million a year for the next four seasons. That had been a shrewd move by the Indians, because of Thome had hit the open market at the end of 1998, he'd likely have cost something like $12 million a year, maybe more. Even at $8 million, it briefly made him the highest-paid player in team history. He proved to be well worth it.

A two-month slump from late April to late June in 1999 left Thome with "only" an .877 OPS, but he was still voted a starter for the All-Star Game again. At the end of June he began to come out of the slump, and on July 3 he hit what remains the longest home run in Jacobs/Progressive Field, a 511-foot rocket to deep center field:


By the end of the year, Thome's numbers were only a touch below his established norms, and he'd led the American League and set a franchise record by drawing 127 walks.  He also led the league and set a franchise record by striking out 171 times. Thome had collected a lot of home runs, walks, and strikeouts for a while, but things had reached another level in 1999. Those three statistics are known as the "three true outcomes," because they are the outcomes that don't involve anyone but the hitter and the pitcher. By the end of his career, Thome would become the Three-True-Outcomes King, with nearly 5,000 combined HR, BB, and K. Thome hit 4 home runs in that year's ALDS against Boston, giving him 16 career postseason home runs, a total bested by only Mickey Mantle and Reggie Jackson to that point.

Thome had a slightly down year in 2000, as his OBP fell below .400 for the first time since 1994. His line for the year was still an impressive .269/.398/.531, but the Tribe's streak of five-straight AL Central titles came to an end as the team finished 5 games behind Chicago.

Jim bounced back in 2001, putting up probably the best offensive season of his career to date. He started slowly, and was batting just .198 with only 3 home runs five weeks into the season, but from May 6 until the Indians clinched the division title a week before the end of the season, Thome hit 46 home runs in 123 games, with an OPS of 1.137. He'd been overlooked for the All-Star Game, but finished 7th in AL MVP voting. He hit his 17th career postseason home run in the ALDS, a franchise record that is likely to stand for quite some time.

Thome topped himself in 2002, posting arguably the greatest season by a hitter in Indians history. In the team's first 75 games, Thome hit 19 home runs. The 18th of those home runs was the 300th of his career, making him the first (and still only) player to hit that many for the Indians. Then, beginning on June 25, Thome homered in 7-consecutive games (one shy of the MLB record). He ended the year with 52 home runs, yet another franchise record for the slugger.

End of an Era

Thome's extension was up at the end of the year and the Indians seemed headed towards a rebuild. There was interest in retaining him, and the team reportedly offered him a 6-year, $70-million deal. Philadelphia was willing to pay him quite a bit more money, and Thome took their offer. During the 2002 season, Jim said "They will have to rip this jersey off of me," a statement many fans held against him when he left town. To this day even, some fans hold a grudge.

Thome put up two-and-a-half big years in Philly, then suffered an injury and wound up being traded to the White Sox after Ryan Howard made himself the Phillies first baseman of the future. Thome spent three-and-a-half years in Chicago, and later played for the Dodgers and Twins. In August of 2011, Cleveland bought Thome from Minnesota, and he appeared in another 22 games with the Indians, hitting 3 more home runs. By that time he'd also become just the 8th player in MLB history to hit 600 home runs. He played for the Phillies and Orioles in 2012, then took a front office job with the White Sox in 2013.

Jim, his wife Andrea, and their children live in the Chicago area, only a short drive from the rest of the Thome family in Peoria. The Thomes are very active in local charitable activities, which gave me the opportunity to meet Jim at an event last fall, at which he lived up to every bit of his reputation for kindness. We spoke for 10 minutes or so, but instead of talking about baseball, we talked about teaching and about children, because Jim was interested in asking about my life.

This August the Indians will unveil a statue of Thome at Progressive Field, honoring the greatest player the team has had in more than 50 years. With any luck, a few years from now Thome will be inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame, an Indians cap on his plaque.

Indians Stats
Year Age G PA R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
1991 20 27 104 7 25 4 2 1 9 5 16 .255 .298 .367 .665 83
1992 21 40 131 8 24 3 1 2 12 10 34 .205 .275 .299 .574 63
1993 22 47 192 28 41 11 0 7 22 29 36 .266 .385 .474 .859 131
1994 23 98 369 58 86 20 1 20 52 46 84 .268 .359 .523 .882 127
1995 24 137 557 92 142 29 3 25 73 97 113 .314 .438 .558 .996 157
1996 25 151 636 122 157 28 5 38 116 123 141 .311 .450 .612 1.062 167
1997 26 147 627 104 142 25 0 40 102 120 146 .286 .423 .579 1.001 156
1998 27 123 537 89 129 34 2 30 85 89 141 .293 .413 .584 .997 153
1999 28 146 629 101 137 27 2 33 108 127 171 .277 .426 .540 .967 142
2000 29 158 684 106 150 33 1 37 106 118 171 .269 .398 .531 .929 132
2001 30 156 644 101 153 26 1 49 124 111 185 .291 .416 .624 1.040 170
2002 31 147 613 101 146 19 2 52 118 122 139 .304 .445 .677 1.122 197
2011 40 22 82 11 21 4 0 3 10 11 23 .296 .390 .479 .869 144
CLE (13 yrs) 1399 5805 928 1353 263 20 337 937 1008 1400 .287 .414 .566 .980 152

Provided by Baseball-Reference.com

Selected AL Honors/Leaders

  • All-Star: 1997, 1998, 1999
  • MLB Roberto Clemente Award: 2002
  • MVP: 6th, 1997; 7th, 2001; 7th, 2002; 15th, 1996; 21st, 1998
  • Silver Slugger: 1996 (3B)
  • WAR (position players): 2nd, 2002 (7.4); 4th, 1996 (7.5); 7th, 1995 (5.9); 9th,1997 (5.5); 10th, 2001 (5.3)
  • oWAR: 2nd 2002 (8.2); 3rd, 1996 (7.4); 6th, 1995 (5.9); 6th, 1997 (6.0); 6th, 2001 (6.4)
  • Batting Average: 10th, 1995 (.314)
  • On-Base Percentage: 2nd, 2002 (.445); 3rd, 1995 (.438); 3rd, 1997 (.423); 3rd,1998 (.413); 3rd, 2001 (.416); 4th, 1996 (.450); 6th, 1999 (.426)
  • Slugging: 1st, 2002 (.677); 2nd, 2001 (.624); 5th, 1997 (.579); 8th, 1996 (.612); 8th,1998 (.584); 10th, 1995 (.558)
  • OPS: 1st, 2002 (1.122); 2nd, 2001 (1.040); 2nd, 1998 (.997); 3rd, 1996 (1.062); 5th, 1997 (1.001); 6th, 1994 (.996)
  • Runs Scored: 7th, 1996 (122)
  • Home Runs: 2nd, 2001 (49); 2nd, 2002 (52); 4th, 1997 (40); 10th, 2000 (37)
  • RBI: 5th, 2001 (124); 7th, 2002 (118)
  • Bases on Balls: 1st, 1997 (120); 1st, 1999 (127); 1st, 2002 (122); 2nd, 1996 (123); 2nd, 2001 (111); 3rd, 2000 (118); 5th, 1995 (97); 5th, 1998 (89)
  • Strikeouts: 1st, 1999 (171); 1st, 2001 (185); 2nd, 2000 (171); 4th, 1997 (146); 4th, 1998 (141); 5th, 2002 (139); 7th, 1996 (141); 9th, 1995 (113)
  • OPS+: 1st, 2002 (197); 2nd, 2001 (170); 4th, 1996 (167); 4th, 1998 (153); 5th, 1995 (157); 5th, 1997 (156)
  • Extra Base Hits: 6th, 2001 (76); 9th, 2002 (73)
  • Intentional Bases on Ball: 2nd, 2002 (18); 5th, 1999 (13); 5th, 2001 (14)

Indians Career Leaderboards

  • 5th WAR Position Players (48.0)
  • 3rd oWAR (51.8)
  • t-41st Batting Average (.287)
  • 3rd On-Base Percentage (.414)
  • 3rd Slugging (.566)
  • 3rd OPS (.980)
  • 12th Games Played (1399)
  • 10th Plate Appearances (5805)
  • 5th Runs Scored (928)
  • 12th Hits (1353)
  • 4th Total Bases (2667)
  • 10th Doubles (263)
  • 1st Home Runs (337)
  • 2nd RBI (937)
  • 1st Bases On Balls (1008)
  • 1st Strikeouts (1400)
  • t-4th OPS+ (152)
  • 3rd Extra-Base Hits (620)
  • t-12th Hit By Pitch (42)
  • 1st Intentional Bases On Balls (87)
  • 1st Win Probability Added (32.1)

Indians Single-Season Leaderboards

  • t-21st WAR Position Players (7.5, 1996)
  • t-24th WAR Position Players (7.4, 2002)
  • t-9th oWAR (8.2, 2002)
  • 15th oWAR (7.4, 1996)
  • t-30th oWAR (6.4, 2001)
  • t-44th oWAR (5.9, 1995, 1997)
  • 13th On-Base Percentage (.450, 1996)
  • t-14th On-Base Percentage (.445, 2002)
  • t-20th On-Base Percentage (.438, 1995)
  • 29th On-Base Percentage (.426, 1999)
  • t-32nd On-Base Percentage (.423, 1997)
  • 42nd On-Base Percentage (.416, 2001)
  • t-49th On-Base Percentage (.413, 1998)
  • 4th Slugging (.677, 2002)
  • 9th Slugging (.624, 2001)
  • 13th Slugging (.612, 1996)
  • 26th Slugging (.584, 1998)
  • t-29th Slugging (.579, 1997)
  • t-39th Slugging (.558, 1995)
  • 3rd OPS (1.122, 2002)
  • 10th OPS (1.062, 1996)
  • 14th OPS (1.040, 2001)
  • 24th OPS (1.001, 1997)
  • 25th OPS (.997, 1998)
  • 26th OPS (.996, 1995)
  • 42nd OPS (.967, 1999)
  • t-16th Runs Scored (122, 1996)
  • t-47th Runs Scored (106, 2000)
  • t-21st Total Bases (328, 2001)
  • 23rd Total Bases (325, 2002)
  • 34th Total Bases (309, 1996)
  • 1st Home Runs (52, 2002)
  • 3rd Home Runs (49, 2001)
  • 12th Home Runs (40, 1997)
  • t-13th Home Runs (38, 1996)
  • t-16th Home Runs (37, 2000)
  • t-23rd Home Runs (33, 1999)
  • t-49th Home Runs (30, 1998)
  • t-16th RBI (124, 2001)
  • t-27th RBI (118, 2002)
  • t-31st RBI (116, 1996)
  • 1st Bases On Balls (127, 1999)
  • 2nd Bases On Balls (123, 1996)
  • 3rd Bases On Balls (122, 2002)
  • 4th Bases On Balls (120, 1997)
  • 5th Bases On Balls (118, 2000)
  • t-6th Bases On Balls (111, 2001)
  • t-26th Bases On Balls (97, 1995)
  • t-50th Bases On Balls (89, 1998)
  • 3rd OPS+ (197, 2002)
  • t-21st OPS+ (170, 2001)
  • 27th OPS+ (167, 1996)
  • t-39th OPS+ (157, 1995)
  • t-41st OPS+ (156, 1997)
  • t-49th OPS+ (153, 1998)

Sources

Sports Illustrated (1) and (2), JockBioBaseball-Reference
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