Baseball exists in a world tinged in sepia. Whether because of Ken Burns, stories our parents tell or the league itself always making a point to hearken back to the old days. That was the time of legends, of the most mighty players in any franchise's history founded before the Reagan administration, when the game was played in black and white. Players like Ted Williams or Stan Musial or Duke Snyder. There's a cognitive dissonance that shakes the mind when trying to call players from the 90's legends. The 90's just happened. 20 some odd years ago, sure. But the presidents from then are still alive, lady killing and skydiving. But in a very real sense, two men made a case for being the best hitter in Cleveland Indians history. Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome were incredible in Cleveland. They forged a place for themselves in Tribe lore. Was one any better than the other?
This would all be very easy to do, if that was how I liked to write things. Just line the stats up, see whose is higher and call it a day. The first issue with that is, their numbers are so close together. In his 13 years with the Indians Thome slashed .286/.414/.566, good for a 152 OPS+. Manny was right there with him, hitting .313/.407/.592, good for a 152 OPS+, though in only eight years. Basically, as Indians, they were neck and neck. So we need to consider other aspects. I decided on their performance in High Leverage situations, basically situations where the outcome of a game hinges. I also figure there's some cultural aspect to being a "greatest ever", something harder to quantify. Both these men brought more than just a bat to the park with them, and that matters. For something, at least.
Thome, the gentle giant
It's easy to just point at the Indians franchise record for home runs that Thome holds. That alone can place a player very high in a club's pantheon. Everyone loves home runs, and he hit a metric ton of them. He also played for the Indians for longer than Manny did, thirteen years to Manny's eight. His second stint with the Tribe felt like a longer time than the 22 games he appeared in, and it was a fun homecoming. It seemed to tip the scales in favor of building the guy a statue to go with Bob Feller (and eventually Larry Doby). So aside from the excellent career rates and stats, he also had incredible numbers in high leverage over a very long period of time. He had 1174 plate appearances with the game on the line, or roughly two seasons, and he put up a strong .287/.406/.537 with 58 home runs. Basically his career averages. It's funny, you'll see the same from Manny. I feel this is a sign of their excellence, that they didn't wilt in the big moment like some supposed stars do. That's how you make a name on a team.
Thome also showed up in the postseason. Particularly in 1998 and '99, hitting 10 home runs in the three series the Indians achieved with 20 runs batted in. As I've said before, RBIs are a hard stat to use to judge anyone, but in the playoffs it's got a bit more weight. Still not the end all, be all, but a touch stone. Thome also happens to be the nicest man in history, which certainly helps to be considered a greatest of all time type of player. Michael Jordan did a great job of avoiding that but still getting the title, but Michael is as much an exception to the rule as anyone can be, in any situation.
Manny, a genius with a child’s heart
There is bias here in your writer. Manny may be my favorite Indian from my youth, and even when he was in Boston he was very much appointment viewing if given the chance. Even his short jaunt to the west coast with the Dodgers was awesome and made for some choice MLB.tv viewing late at night. Manny and Vin Scully -- perfection.
The big knock against Manny compared to Thome is that playing time. That said, in high-leverage situations he was better than Thome by a considerable margin -- he hit .310/.414/.574 with 47 home runs in 848 appearances. That's just eleven fewer homers than Thome in those situations, in more than 300 fewer plate appearances. He also drove in 301 runs in high leverage situations as an Indian, just 25 fewer than Thome.
He was a spectacular player, joining an already stacked team and went from batting sixth or seventh to the heart of the order quickly despite the presence of other future Hall of Famers and All Stars. Plus he was a delight of a player to watch, very against the grain of what baseball expects and demands. That's refreshing. For all Thome being Roy Hobbs made real, a very classic baseballer template, Manny was the opposite of all that. A savant, Mozart-like in his hitting in that he could be so incredible yet seem like he was barely trying. That sort of brilliance has been unmatched in Cleveland.
Among men who played for the Indians more than 950 times (I'd have used 1,000 but Manny only had 967, still more than enough for my judgments) no player has a higher OPS than Manny or Thome. Manny is at the very top at .998. Nobody was better for nearly as long for the Indians as these two. Even Albert Belle and Tris Speaker fall short. These two are the best we’ve ever seen. The Indians are never going to have a player give them ten or fifteen years like richer teams can, their legends of today and tomorrow are going to have comparatively brief careers. Players aren’t exactly indentured servants anymore. Even Francisco Lindor, who is on the type of arc one hopes for with a franchise player and whatnot, he’ll likely leave at some point because a desperate and dumb team will throw too much money at him. So an eight year stretch of true, amazing excellence with a good dose of playfulness and fun is enough for me to call Manny Ramirez, in his time with the team, the best hitter in Indians history.
Not to say this is definitive, I just like him a bit more more is all. Thome was just as incredible, and he gave several more years’ worth of work. But that’s why I didn’t include WAR (47.9 to 29.9 in favor of Thome), he extra time due to contract flukes and Manny simply being valued in the hundreds of millions at the right time. But this isn’t really about who is best. This is simply to state that as great as the 90’s were for fans in Cleveland, it was more than that. That was a chance to see simply the best players the franchise has ever had. In twenty or thirty years maybe the yellowing of the photograph in our minds will allow for some embellishment into these two men's’ careers and they can become something more than mere humans. Not that they need it.