My Life with Frank Thomas

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.

17 thoughts on “My Life with Frank Thomas

  1. 1.  Yet Ozzie Guillen is Chicago’s hero. And Frank Thomas is considered a whiner.

    How many of the White Sox fans who came out of the woodwork last year have the same fondness for Thomas?

  2. 2.  Thomas might get in Oakland what Mark McGwire got in St. Louis: the kind of love he never really got in his first home.

    A’s fans never really took to McGwire. He was always kinda “the other guy”. There was Canseco, and Stewart, and Eck, and then, oh yeah, McGwire, too, we kinda like him. But McGwire never really had a fan club that put up signs and stuff like most of the other players got.

    On the other hand, A’s fans are really liking Frank Thomas. When is name is announced, he gets a bigger ovation than any other player, except maybe Zito. If he re-signs, he’ll be even more popular.

  3. 3.  “Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Frank Thomas….maybe the three best hitters God ever made.”

    That has to be the most insane thing I believe I’ve ever read. (And these days, that’s saying something.) I hope for James’ sake he didn’t really write that, and that you just misquoted him.

    egads

  4. 4.  Frank is the man Scott. I’ve been amazed the last five years how much of the Pujols hype has totally ignored that he is still a couple seasons away from matching the start of The Big Hurt’s career. His first seven full seasons all saw top-8 finishes in the MVP voting, only once dropping as low as 4th in the league in OBP, and yet when we look back on the ’90s (wow that makes me feel old), who thought of Frank Thomas as a Hall of Famer in the making?

    It’s amazing to look back at just how good he was for so long, and how many different cycles of teammates he was able to go to the playoffs with. That ’93 ChiSox team had some incredible talent aboard (even Fisk and an end-of-the-road Dave Steib made appearances), the 2000 team was a totally different cast and by 2005 the pieces had changed yet again, yet the franchise leader in damn near everything made the best of, as you say, what must have been a painful situation.

    I hope his mini-renaissance continues, either in Oak-town or elsewhere, and the next few years see an elder statesman version of Frank, much like his counterpart Ken Griffey, finally gain some much deserved recognition as one of the best players of his era.

  5. 5.  TFD,

    Andre Dawson 1987 MVP is 78 times more insane than that Thomas quote>

    Frank Thomas is/was an awesome hitter.

  6. 6.  I grew up a Dave Winfield fan as a kid and Frank Thomas reminds me a bit of Winfield as a hitter – a huge man who hit the ball ferociously but a man with an athletic football body and so imposing as to be unappreciated by baseball fans for his talents.

    At age 12 in CT I remember watching Winfield hit screaming line drive home runs that looked like a low 2-iron over into the LF corner of Yankee Stadium. At age 22 living in Chicago at the start of Frank Thomas’s great run Thomas would hit similar shots only his drives almost defied physics. The best Frank Thomas drives looked more like Tiger Woods hitting a low drive on a windy day – cranked almost flat with such enormous force the spin of the ball would generate it’s own lift as the ball started low and rose ever so slowly – only to strike a bleacher or sign 450 feet away. If Frank Thomas swung like Vlad Guerrero I’m sure he would have broken Ruth’s records before McGuire. But Thomas had a clinical eye and would only swing at strikes. FT’s workmanlike .350/.450/.600 40 HR was never the match for .300/.400/.600 60 HR across town – even if it generated more runs for his team. I like the Big Hurt and it makes me happy as a fan to see him still putting a hurt on the ball in Oakland.

    I like Ozzie but he played 16 years and never once had a season as good as Craig Grebeck had in 1992. Ozzie can bitch about Frank Thomas’s attitude all he likes but for the better part of a decade Guillen’s lack of production sucked up a good chunk of Thomas’s superhuman production and left the White Sox an average team. The Big Hurt deserves more credit – he’s got numbers like Gehrig. If Ozzie didn’t hit like somebody named Ruth (first name) they might both have rings as players.

  7. 7.  Re.6: I get your point about Ozzie; small nitpick though: I don’t remember him ever bad-mouthing Frank, I think it was Ken Williams.

    Yeah, Thomas seems to be vibing well in Oakland. I wonder how important a role Swisher plays in this aspect – the camera always shows him doing all these elaborate celebration rituals with the “new guys” – maybe it actually helps. Or maybe he’s just hamming it up for the cam.

    Is it possible that other GMs thought that such a miniscule-base incentive-rich deal would offend Frank (before this season) or be out-bid by others? Otherwise, yeah, I’ve often wondered why other teams wouldn’t want to try this Zero-risk shot.

  8. 8.  7 Ozzie has definitely called out Frank Thomas for having a bad attitude (see link) at times but I think the two respect each other as former teammates.

    http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/news/story?id=2040251

    Attitude is less important than performance in my opinion. Frank Thomas’s attitude shouldn’t effect other players so much as his hitting effects them by driving their ass across home plate. In my view if you are Frank Thomas’s teammate MYOB, get on base, and let him drive you in. It worked for the 70s Yankees with Reggie Jackson, it could have worked with Frank Thomas in Chicago.

  9. 9.  3 I don’t see what’s wrong with that quote. At the time it certainly looked like it either (a) would become true or (b) was already true.

    And still, even at this remove, Thomas is one of the 10 best hitters god ever made. So saying top three isn’t far off enough to judge one crazy.

  10. 10.  9 TFD’s complete hatred of all things White Sox makes him a little bit, um, unobjective in this case. We should forgive him.

  11. 11.  I have it on very good source that TFD attended a game at US Cellular, recently and had a great time. Actually admitted that the park is a really good place to catch a game. Since he was with his 5 year old son, I’m guessing that he didn’t heckle the Sox too much.

    If I hear much more of his knocking White Sox, though, I’m going to invite him to come with me to a game with my close personal friend, William Ligue.

  12. 12.  10 of course is correct, and Scott has read the tea leaves well, but back to the argument at hand; objectively or subjectively, Frank Thomas is nowhere near the best three hitters to ever play the game. Bill James has done some fine work in his day, but said and written a ton of stupid things as well.

    And yo, Chris, my man. He certainly is/was an awesome hitter. But top 3 or 10…no way.

    I know, I know I need to get off the sabermetric sites.

    Can we talk Radiohead now? Middle East peace? Or the artistic merits of ‘House’? I’m still sick ‘Deadwood’ is gone….

  13. 13.  FWIW, Thomas is 11th in career OPS. So he’s just barely outside the top 10, in that respect.

    And if you consider Bonds’ success to be man-made and not God-given, then maybe the statement that ‘Thomas is one of the 10 best hitters god ever made’ is correct. Ha!

    So, from my POV: top 3–no; top 10–arguable; top 20–good case for it.

  14. 14.  While I didn’t Mike C. on the research, I did do a decent amount before I went with Thomas being Top 20. Considering that he has hit in a hitter’s era and mainly in a hitter’s park, I think it’s hard to put him any higher than 17 or 18. That’s still pretty amazing for a guy who doesn’t get much acclaim anymore.

    His first 7 seasons were the the best that anyone had ever managed outside of the Ted. James wasn’t being hyperbolic, as Thomas was Pujols-like in the way it started.

    At the end of their careers, lesser players like Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken received universal love, which Frank has rarely gotten. A large part of it is his surly image. His image kind of reminds me of another slugging first baseman, Eddie Murray. Great player, but never cultivated an image that was embraceable.

  15. 15.  TFD, fair enough.

    Ok, Ok top three…no. Top ten, he has a case. Of course I believe that players today are soooo much better than the players of 50 years ago. Shove Michael Tucker in a time machine, set it to 1955 (NL please) and watch him be Stan Musial (keep in mind, I’m no fan of ol’ bulgy eyes).

    Maybe I’m crazy, but I think that if Frank got to have 30-40 AB’s against the same pitcher in a year like often happened pre-1961, he’d have put up some scarier numbers than he did.

    I wonder what Ruth and Williams would have done in a 16 team league that faced four other teams from the other league where they faced 100+ pitchers in a year. We’ll never know, but it was an advantage to them as hitters.

  16. 17.  There has been alot of talk as to where Frank Thomas sits as far as top ? hitters. I believe he is a shoe in top 10 hitter and heres why:
    Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Mel Ott, Hank Aaron, Lou Gehrig, Willie Mays, Stan Musial,
    Jimmie Foxx, Manny Ramirez (the only other active player)and Frank Thomas.

    You may ask what these hitters have in common.

    400+ Homeruns, 1000+ RBI, 1000+ Walks, 1000+ Runs Scored with a batting average of at least .300.

    These 10 players are the ONLY players in HISTORY to have put up these career numbers.

    We might be able to argue one or two (maybe) players on this list as great hitters but the fact remains there are only 10. This is not a made up stat, this is fact. If that doesn’t make Thomas a top 10 all time hitter then there is no such category, period.

    Frank is my favorite player and I may be a little biased because of that, but, facts are facts.

    I am glad he came to Oakland even though I am a huge White Sox fan, because now I can watch this top 10 all time greatest hitter do his thing in person.

Comments are closed.