COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — To know what the moment meant to Jim Thome, all you had to do was look into his tear-filled eyes.
“It’s hard to explain the emotions that go through you,” Thome said Tuesday as he gazed around the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Plaque Gallery, the most hallowed corner of the shrine and where he’ll take his place in July. “How do you ever dream of this happening, walking through and having all those great players stare at you?”
Thome got the call in January when he was elected along with Chipper Jones, Vladimir Guerrero and Trevor Hoffman. Also to be inducted July 29 are Jack Morris and Alan Trammell, who were selected in December by a veterans committee.
At 6 feet 4 and 250 pounds, the left-handed-hitting Thome was a pure slugger with the sweetest of swings. Drafted by the Cleveland Indians in the 13th round in 1989 out of Illinois Central College, he hit 612 homers, eighth all time, and drove in 1,699 runs in a 22-year career with six teams. Thome, who hit 17 homers in the postseason, also had 13 walk-off home runs, still the major league standard.
There have been just more than 19,000 men to appear in a major league game, and the Hall of Fame has just 323 elected members, including 226 players. Of those, 128 have been voted in by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, and only 54, including Thome, were picked in their first year of eligibility.
“How do you ever envision that?” Thome said. “As you’re playing, you don’t play to make it to the Hall of Fame. You play to win. You play to do well, to be a guy that helps your club win. Then this career happens and you look back, and then to have somebody say that you’re one of 54. There’s something special about it. You hold your chest out a little more.”
In his long career, Thome reached the World Series twice, in 1995 and 1997. The Indians lost to the Atlanta Braves in six games in the first one and were two outs from a title in the second before the Florida Marlins rallied in the bottom of the ninth and won Game 7 in 11 innings.
“Looking back, I think the championship always motivated me to every year prepare, but this is such a special thing, too,” Thome said.
The tour, which helps inductees prepare for their big day, takes them through every corner of the Hall of Fame — to the basement where most get to swing a bat Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig once wielded, to the library upstairs with its vast collection of newspaper clippings and photos — culminating in the Plaque Gallery.
There were too many plaques to read on this day, but Thome took his time and stopped at several — Ruth, Ernie Banks, Hank Aaron and others — as his wife, Andrea, captured the moment.
The emotion was palpable after Erik Strohl of the Hall of Fame mentioned off the cuff that among American League sluggers, only Ruth had reached 500 homers faster than Thome.
“It’s a dream,” Thome said as he hugged his host, tears welling in his eyes. “To come through here and soon to be on the wall with them, it’s beyond special. You don’t ever envision an opportunity to walk down this hall and have all this staring at you. I just feel honored.”
Infielder Neil Walker retires after 12 MLB seasons
Veteran infielder Neil Walker announced his retirement Tuesday after 12 major league seasons.
Born in Pittsburgh, he played his first seven seasons for the Pittsburgh Pirates before playing for the New York Mets, Milwaukee Brewers, New York Yankees, Miami Marlins and Philadelphia Phillies over his final five seasons.
Walker, 35, made his announcement on Twitter, writing, “thank you to everyone that helped me in my journey to live out my childhood dream of being a Major Leaguer, I loved & cherished every day.”
Officially retired, thank you to everyone that helped me in my journey to live out my childhood dream of being a Major Leaguer, I loved & cherished every day. From Pittsburgh, NY Mets & Yankees, Milwaukee, Miami, and Philly, nothing but love to those Organizations, Cities & Fans! pic.twitter.com/mvl3cg9k80
— Neil Walker (@NeilWalker18) April 20, 2021
The Pirates selected Walker with the 11th-overall pick of the 2004 draft and he went on to hit 93 home runs with 418 RBIs while slashing .272/.338/.431 in 836 games. His best major league season came in 2014 when he hit .271 and set career bests with 23 home runs and 76 RBIs, earning a Silver Slugger award. His 23 home runs broke Bill Mazeroski’s franchise record for home runs in a season by a second baseman.
Walker played for the Phillies during the 2020 pandemic shortened season, appearing in 18 games.
Overall, Walker finishes his major league career with 149 home runs and 609 RBIs and a slash line of .267/.338/.426.
Mookie Betts out of Los Angeles Dodgers lineup after getting hit on forearm, but not expected to miss time
Roberts said X-rays on Betts’ arm were negative after the former MVP took a fastball from Seattle closer Rafael Montero off the inside of his right forearm in the ninth inning of Monday’s 4-3 Mariners victory. Betts remained in the game after getting hit.
Roberts said Betts was receiving treatment and that he was hoping to avoid using him in Tuesday’s game with the Dodgers having a day off on Wednesday before opening a four-game series with division rival San Diego on Thursday at Dodger Stadium.
“I was hoping that it would be something soft tissue, as opposed to you know the wrist or the elbow or something like that,” Roberts said. “I guess best case scenario. There was an exhale once he wanted to stay in there. So that’s part of it, the soreness, but I think that we dodged a bullet there.”
Betts is hitting .292 early in the season and already had one of the signature defensive moments of the season with his game-ending catch in the ninth inning last Saturday in a win over San Diego.
Chris Taylor started in center field for the Dodgers.
Scouts, opposing pitchers on why the Cubs can’t hit
“Mind-boggling.” “A mystery.” “It’s hard to figure.”
Those are some of the words scouts and opposing pitchers used when asked about a Chicago Cubs offense that sits dead last in the majors in many categories, including a .192 team batting average that’s among the all-time worst through 15 games.
What’s most confusing is that the most foundational part of being a major league hitter has the Cubs turned upside down: simply handling a fastball.
“It’s almost mind-boggling,” one AL Central scout said. “There’s too much talent on that whole damn Cubs team. No one can figure it out. I’ve talked to a bunch of guys [other scouts].”
There was a time when throwing the Cubs a fastball was a bad idea. From 2016 to 2018, the combination of Javy Baez, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant hit .307 with a .559 slugging percentage against fastballs. But the numbers have steadily dropped since then, culminating in a .235 batting average and just a .419 slugging percentage over their past 75 games (the shortened 2020 season and first 15 games of this year).
As a team the Cubs have an MLB-worst .230 batting average and are slugging just .414 off fastballs in that time frame. Against fastballs of 95 mph or more, they’re hitting a paltry .178 since the start of 2020 and just .105 this season.
“It’s not the lack of bat speed,” one NL East scout said. “These guys all have awesome bat speed. It’s mental.”
While theories differed among scouts, the consensus explanation is Cubs hitters have been caught “in between.” Perhaps they’re worried about chasing pitches with a lot of spin — a recent problem as well — so they aren’t reacting to fastballs like they used to.
“They should be able to catch up to fastballs, and for some reason they are not,” an NL East scout who saw them recently said. “Are they using analytic tendencies too much? So, in a game they expect one thing but the opposition is doing something else?”
Normally 15 games isn’t enough to glean much of anything in baseball, but the Cubs are no longer getting the benefit of the doubt — not from opposing pitchers, scouts or even many fans. Not after years of disappointment since former team executive Theo Epstein famously declared their offense “broken” back in 2018. For all of the movement elsewhere in the franchise, five of the eight primary position players still remain from the Cubs’ World Series victory now a half-decade ago.
“They’re trying to change their philosophy, but with this core group, they had one philosophy and all these guys bought into it,” one scout opined. “It’s turned into a one-dimensional offense. There’s something to be said about contact and putting the ball in play.”
Due to that one dangerous dimension — the ability to hit the ball out of the park — the opposition has consistently pitched the Cubs out of the strike zone. Since 2016, they’ve seen the lowest proportion of strikes, just 47.9%, of any team in the National League. For a while, they took advantage of it, ranking fourth best in chase percentage in 2016 while leading the majors in walks.
Perhaps those hitters became a little overconfident or the league simply figured them out, but they began to chase.
The Cubs went from fourth to 19th to 25th and then 23rd in chase percentage over the span of four seasons.
“The perfect example is Javy Baez,” one scout said. “I remember when he got to the big leagues and he had no clue what the strike zone was. Then he got better. Then I saw him last year and it was like the old Baez is back.”
Baez is an extreme example, but the sentiment held true for the offense as a group.
“Throw them up and in and then down and away,” one opposing pitcher said. “That’s what you do with any hitter, but especially the Cubs.”
And that’s where the Cubs are unique compared to other teams: The majority of their hitters can be pitched to in the same manner because their strengths and weaknesses are very much alike, according to those in the game.
“They’re down-ball hitters,” an opposing pitcher said. “All of them. Just don’t throw a mistake down there. Even David Bote who’s relatively new likes it there.”
This year alone Bote, Baez and Bryant have golfed balls into the stands for home runs. In last year’s postseason, the Miami Marlins shut the Cubs down by straying away from that hot zone.
“Don’t let them extend their arms,” another opposing pitcher said. “Everyone but Rizzo is the same. You can jam them. All the righties and even Jason Heyward from the left side.”
Perhaps the up-and-in approach is the reason the Cubs have been hit by more pitches than any other team. Most hit-by-pitches with the lowest team batting average is a tough way to go about an offense.
“Teams are throwing more up in the zone, from the games I saw,” said a scout who saw their first six games this season. “Guys are overswinging. Trying to do too much. Everyone is trying to get the whole team out of slump so they look like they’re pressing.”
With Jacob deGrom and Brandon Woodruff on the docket later this week, things aren’t going to get easier anytime soon. And that’s before the trade rumors that will come with Baez, Bryant, Rizzo, Joc Pederson and others all set to enter free agency at the end of the season have really started heating up.
“It’s got to be in the back of their minds, they’re going to break up the team,” one scout said. “Everyone knows it’s totally going to be different next year.”
Those in the game do agree on one thing about this season’s lineup: The parts are better than the sum. One opposing pitcher summed it up with a comparison of the Cubs of 2016, and the Cubs of now:
“They don’t grind you out the way they used to. It’s just an easier lineup to pitch to.”
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