Earlier that spring, 18-year-old James Howard Thome, all of six-foot-four and fungo thin, was manning shortstop at Illinois Central College. The Limestone High School graduate from just outside of Peoria, was getting little interest from within the professional baseball ranks. The summer after high school Thome attended a St. Louis Cardinals camp and was dismissed. Dozens of scouts would be at the junior college games, mostly looking at players on the opposing team.
One scout, Ellsworth Brown, had noticed him. He saw him in high school and followed him around the state’s junior college circuit. Brown was working for the Minnesota Twins. Several years prior, he had scouted Kirby Puckett and eventually signed the center fielder. Brown could recognize hitters no matter the shape. He believed, in spite of the obvious positional limitations, that Jimmy Thome would indeed hit.
He tried to convince everyone above him that this kid would hit. For their part, the Twins’ higher ups told him that they didn’t believe Thome could play shortstop. There are eight other positions, Brown informed them.
According to Terry Ryan, then the team’s scouting director, power was a high priority in the draft. It was the reason the team spent the second round pick on a little remembered outfielder out of Riverside, California by the name of John Gumpf. Other picks were spent in search of power.
As Brown was trying to convince his superiors that Thome would be worth the investment, the Cleveland Indians had a scout named Tom Couston who was also enamored of Thome’s hit tool. After spending a game with the intention of tracking an opposing player, Thome caught his attention by hitting rockets all over the field. According to Couston, Thome was seen running a 5.2 down the line to first, which is a full-second slower than the average left-handed major leaguer. Couston also had timed Thome running a 6.8 60-yard dash time so he was confident there was enough athleticism to find him a position. Watch this kid hit, was the mantra Couston repeated to his bosses.
With Couston’s endorsement, the Indians opted to draft Thome in the thirteenth round of the 1989 draft, with 332 players drafted ahead of him. They offered $10,000 to sign him. He asked for $15,000. They agreed.
Two rounds prior, the Twins drafted Dan Masteller, a first baseman out of Michigan State, who saw a spattering of starts in 1995. A round later, they drafted a catcher, Alvin Brown, who eventually converted to being a pitcher in the Tigers organization. They drafted outfielders and middle infielders, leaning more towards athleticism than power. Eventually they tabbed two hulking first baseman in the later rounds hoping for some slug. None, of course, would compare to Jim Thome.
Needless to say, the draft is filled with stories of scouts saying they begged their bosses to draft so-and-so, whether it was Mike Trout or Albert Pujols or Jim Thome. With every great player comes the tale of a scout who believed in him when others doubted.
It is hard to say what his career trajectory would be had the Twins listened to Brown and drafted Jim Thome. The Twins obviously had Kent Hrbek at first but you could easily see them shifting Hrbek to the DH spot in 1993 or 1994 and allowing a young Thome to learn first. Had the Twins drafted him, the mid-to-late 1990s could have been radically different. Instead of shoehorning Dave McCarty at first or experimenting with Scott Stahoviak for several seasons, they would have had 40 home run potential locked in. It’s possible they never trade for David Ortiz or try to draft Travis Lee (which means they don’t get Matthew Lecroy either). Thome’s presence with the Twins would not have fixed the dreadful pitching problems but it could have been improved considering he wouldn’t be in a Cleveland uniform blasting white missiles into the blue seats at the Metrodome.
At the same time, it’s possible Thome never fulfills his destiny if he were drafted by Minnesota. After all, Thome credits a lot of his success to working with Charlie Manuel while in AAA Charlotte. It was Manuel who gave Thome is iconic pre-pitch bat point, a move he borrowed after watching The Natural. It was after that season that Thome’s home run power arrived. Then again, hitters hit. It would likely be a matter of time before he sandblasted baseballs all across the universe no matter what uniform he was in.
Fortunately, MInnesotans did get to witness Thome’s Hall of Fame power up close and firsthand. While he was in the twilight of his career and moving at the speed of a glacier, Jim Thome could still melt baseballs like no other. The 600th home run milestone was achieved in a Twins uniform and that moment will forever be associated with the organization. Still, what if Terry Ryan and others listened to Ellsworth Brown when he described Thome’s hitting abilities all those years ago? How different would the Twins’ franchise look today?
While we can all dream of an alternate history, in the end, Jim Thome reaches the Hall of Fame, he will don a Cleveland Indians hat, just the way the baseball gods intended.
- Jan 25 2018 10:16 AM
- by Parker Hageman
Cochrane was a Massachusetts native and a left-handed hitter who debuted with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1925, at age 22. He hit .331/.397/.448 as a rookie, and finished 10th in the MVP race (though it’s worth pointing out that offense was so ridiculous in the twenties that that line, which would be the stuff of MVP talk now or even a few years ago, was good for a 108 OPS+). After a slight dip the following year, Cochrane took over as probably the best catcher in the game, year in and year out, from 1927 through 1935, his age-32 season. For those nine seasons, Cochrane started an average of 122 games a year, all at catcher, batting .322/.423/.490, good even in those heady days for a 134 OPS+, in 4,980 plate appearances. He won two MVP awards--one in 1928 with the Athletics, one in 1934 with the Tigers (who he also managed)--and was known as an excellent defensive catcher. The All-Star Game didn’t exist until 1933, and Cochrane lost out to fellow Hall of Famers Rick Ferrell and Bill Dickey that first year, but was selected in ‘34 and ‘35.
While he played only 71 games over the next two seasons and suffered a head injury from a hit-by-pitch in May 1937 that ended his career at just 34, Cochrane was elected to the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA in 1947, with 79.5% of the vote. At the end of the last millennium, he was (perhaps kindly) listed 65th on The Sporting News’ list of the 100 greatest baseball players.
Mauer, it turns out, has had similar success, for similar reasons. From 2006-2013, Mauer put together an eight-year stretch that looks a lot like Cocrhane’s 9-year run: .327/.410/.473 (139 OPS+), catching an average of just 93 games a year thanks to the availability of the DH and his ability to play first, but playing an average of 126 of them, winning an MVP award and making six All-Star teams. In all, adjusting for eras and such, Cochrane probably had (even) more patience than Mauer and (even) less home run power, but the parallels between the two are astounding. Some selected career numbers (with Mauer’s through Monday the 18th), with the most fun parts highlighted:
They’re lefty-hitting catchers with good defensive reputations who hit for high averages, drew walks and had gap power. Both had one season where they uncharacteristically hit home runs (Cochrane had 23 in 1932, while Mauer, of course, hit those 28 in 2009), and altogether have matched each other in that category almost exactly. Maybe most interestingly, and certainly most importantly: Cochrane played in an era when it was a lot easier to get on base and score runs, but adjusting for that, Mauer has been exactly as effective with the bat as Cochrane was, in about a hundred more plate appearances than Cochrane got for his whole career. Cochrane remains a bit ahead on both common measures of WAR--largely driven by the fact that Mauer gets a significant negative position adjustment from spending time at first and left, whereas 5 innings in left in 1932 represented the whole of Cochrane’s career non-catching experience--but Mauer could well catch him this season, or next.
Cochrane has those two MVP awards to Mauer’s one, of course, though with only eight teams in the American League, he faced almost literally half the competition Mauer has, and it’s worth noting that in both of Cochrane’s MVP years, he accumulated just 4.0 WAR, so Mauer was nearly as valuable in his one MVP year (7.8 WAR) as Cochrane was in both of his. Mauer also had solid cases to win the award in 2006 and/or 2008.
Then, there’s the thing I haven’t mentioned yet: Cochrane played in five World Series (three with the Athletics, two with the Tigers), and his teams won three of them. He didn’t play particularly well in the postseason, overall, and it was a lot easier to make the Series back then for essentially the same reason it was easier to win an MVP, but anyway, there’s no denying that five Series appearances in just 11 full seasons was a major part of Cochrane’s resume, and one that Mauer can’t compete with.
Anyway, there’s no real doubt that Cochrane is a better Hall candidate, and overall player, right now, than Mauer, whether on the numbers alone or with the superlatives. The thing is that it’s close--very, kind of eerily close, right at the moment--and Cochrane’s career was essentially over at Mauer’s age, so whatever Joe contributes from here on out is gravy. Mauer has already essentially had a full career as a Hall of Fame catcher, plus whatever he adds from here on out.
Even with Piazza, there are only thirteen Major League catchers in the Hall of Fame--and frankly, at least three of them were mistakes (Ferrell, Roger Bresnahan, and Ray Schalk, all with significantly less career WAR than Mauer already has). I think that this is a wrong that needs correcting, and along with Ivan Rodriguez, I would put in Ted Simmons, Bill Freehan and maybe Jorge Posada. I’d also put Mauer in, even if he retired tomorrow. He wouldn’t get in, of course--but I think the comparison to Cochrane shows that he’s a lot closer, based on historical standards, than people typically think. Who knows what the BBWAA will do anymore, but a couple more solid years really should be enough to seal his induction, eventually.
- Apr 19 2016 11:36 PM
- by Bill Parker
For the Twins, the ballot was void of any Minnesota presence. In upcoming years, the most closely tied name will be that of Jim Thome. While he won't go in as a member of the Twins, he provided plenty a bright spot in Twins Territory as he rounded out his career. It's not Thome though who is the next most likely Twins player to gain consideration for enshrinement.
For Minnesota, an opportunity may be presented when Torii Hunter is first eligible. It's almost guaranteed he will be inducted into the Twins Hall of Fame, but despite the potential to reach Cooperstown, he should fall short. Hunter has a better resume than that of Jim Edmonds, but it's not 70% better, which is what will be needed to reach enshrinement. Edmonds fell off the ballot after missing out on the needed 5% this year, Hunter will likely do better. Regardless, don't expect him to break the Twins drought.
No, instead that honor could most likely go to a player twho is still a member of the Twins. 32 year-old Joe Mauer is the Minnesota Twins next most likely candidate for Hall of Fame consideration. Had he not been given the injury hand he has been dealt, and still was behind the plate, I'd feel good about forecasting him as a first-ballot type player. As things stand currently, he presents a very strong case with a few more years left to push the needle one way or another.
At this point in time, Hall of Fame voting principles don't seem to rely heavily on the golden numbers. While 3,000 hits, 500 home runs, and other milestones seemingly should guarantee induction, other factors such as character and performance enhancers have muddied the waters. For Mauer though, those numbers will be left out of consideration entirely.
Sitting currently at just under 1,700 hits for his career with just over 115 home runs, Mauer's case for the Hall will be built on some different principles. As a catcher, Mauer garnered four All-Star appearances, an MVP award, three Gold Gloves, and four Silver Slugger titles. He was arguably the best in the game, at one of its most demanding positions for the first seven years of his big league career.
Following concussion issues, Mauer's game has been transformed. He's become a relative shell of the hitter he once was, and has had to adapt to playing an entirely new position. Despite the downturn in production, Mauer still owns a career .313/.394/.451 slash line and can claim three batting titles to his credit.
Most importantly for Mauer's prospects regarding the Hall of Fame, is how the story ends up being written. As the 2016 season kicks off, Mauer will be 33 years old. Under contract for the Twins until 2018, there are probably at least another 400 plus hits in his bat, and production that could be boosted by some lineup changes.
Should Mauer trend back towards what he once was, or at least to an high average and contact hitter, he should be seen favorably in the eyes of voters. If the trend of a dipping average combined with mediocre peripheral numbers continues, Mauer's longevity could actually hurt him down the stretch. Hanging on and compiling stats while diluting and distancing from the catching days likely won't do him any favors.
At the end of his career, Joe Mauer is not going to be Mike Piazza. He could (and likely should) surpass the 2,127 hits of the Mets backstop. Mauer probably will lay claim to a better average and on-base percentage. He's going to have the MVP and batting titles to his credit, and his Gold Gloves should make a difference. He isn't the power hitter his current position is expected to be though, and the injuries that have changed the course of his career will be held against him
Sometime within the next ten to twelve years, Joe Mauer is going to get his turn on the Hall of Fame ballot. He's not a lock the first time around, but expecting him to come up with 75% of the vote through the first half of his voting eligibility is far from a fool's proposition.
- Jan 14 2016 06:26 AM
- by Ted Schwerzler