It must be fun when your favorite player is Cal Ripken or Tony Gwynn. You know a beloved figure that everyone in the game loves. Frank Thomas has been my guy. While not a dick on the level of Barry Bonds, loving Frank has never been easy.
Despite being one of the greatest hitters in baseball history, Thomas always seemed like a man out of place. At 6′ 5″ and at least 260 pounds, he has always looked like the tight end he was at Auburn more than the baseball superstar that he is. What made him look even more out of place was that he was the biggest man in the game, but felt more comfortable swinging in the Charlie Lau/Walt Hriniak-style of hitting it to all fields. In a time when the long ball ruled supreme, Thomas has never hit more than 42 homers, despite playing most of his career in a good home park for them.
His first 7 seasons are as good as anyone has ever come out of the gate, with 6 of those years having an OPS of over 1000 and the other year being 975. Four of these years he led the league in this category, with his lowest rank being 3rd. Only Babe Ruth and Ted Williams have put together such an impressive streak to begin their careers. Typical of the way his career has gone, Frank’s greatest season was in 1994, when he had 38 homers, .353 BA, .487 OBP, .729 SLG. What was shaping up to be one of the great years of all-time was cut down because of the strike-shortened season.
Being a sabermetrical devotee, Thomas quickly becane my favorite. Sure he was a liability in the field, but when you hit like Thomas, you don’t expect him to throw the leather like Wes Parker. No player had more entertaining at-bats than Thomas, as he saw more pitches than seemingly any hitter. He has as great of an eye as any player I’ve seen, with a John McEnroe ability to know if it’s in or out. He also has a remarkable ability to take horrible looking swings and still manage, with his immense strength to guide the ball in for an amazing amount of ducksnorts.
In his 1995 Players Ratings Book, this is what Bill James wrote about him.
Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Frank Thomas…maybe the three best hitters God ever made. Gets on base half the time, has tremendous power, hits .350…what more could you want? He works hard, stays healthy, never slumps. Only weakness are his glove and speed. When the White Sox picked him seventh overall in the 1989 draft, they were widely ridiculed by the scouting community.
Thomas’ hitting ability has given him the respect that his personal actions never could. Thomas is an articulate guy, but never meshed well with the media or fans because of his very thin skin. While being the greatest player in Chicago White Sox history, he was never the leader of the team because he just never seemed to relate well to his teammates. Frank always seemed to have a chip on his shoulder about not being more of a media celebrity, but during his best years the city was owned by the Bulls…especially Michael Jordan. When MJ retired in 1998, it happened to be the the year of the home run, with Maris’ breaker Sammy Sosa filling the void left by Jordan’s absence. Sammy was great with the fans and seemed to love the game, a game that Thomas has always seemed to just tolerate. Sosa took over the town with his chicks digging the longball style. Frank Thomas was always more than just a slugger, but his best stats were never sexy to anyone but stat geeks.
Thomas’ bad timing continued in 2005, as he was on the disabled list most of the year that the White Sox finally won a World Series title. Sure he celebrated with the team in the locker room and tried to say all the right things, but the proud man that is Frank Thomas seemed to be masking an emptiness in not having a chance to produce on the largest stage. The ultimate Big Hurt happened when the White Sox declined his option and didn’t offer him a contract he could live with for 2006. Instead they traded for another DH with injury problems by the name of Jim Thome. It was hard to argue with the move, as Thomas had only played a total of 108 games over the past 2 seasons.
What was more amazing was that there were a lot of American League teams without a quality DH, but none of them were willing to take the risk on a 37 year-old all-time great. Much has been made of how the Oakland A’s made a great decision to sign him. While they look savvy in the way the picked Thomas up, I think it was more of a case of a lot of GM’s dropping the ball, as his past stats should have elicited more of a spirited market for his talents. Considering that when healthy Thomas had hit 30 homeruns in the 345 AB’s he had over the past 2 seasons, while slugging over .570, it seemed like a no-brainer to take a flyer on him. Once again, Thomas’ timing was unfortunate.
Hopefully after his resurgent 2006 season, the notion that Big Frank is anything but a first-ballot hall of famer has been vanquished. Sure he’s just been a DH for the past decade, but he’s one of the Top 20 hitters of all-time. Only Barry Bonds has had better hitting stats than Thomas over the past 2 decades. I’m happy for Frank, as his resurgence has given him back some of the acclaim he deserves. I hope he’s reached a point that he has a career first. Actually enjoying his success.