The Big Hurt

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Frank Thomas, post-playing uniform

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

Bill James, The Bill James Player Ratings Book, 1995, page 244 (ellipses in the original)

Well, it’s official. Frank Thomas recently announced his retirement. This is hardly surprising news. If anything it’s surprising it didn’t happen earlier. After all, the man didn’t play baseball at all in 2009.

Still, it’s news that makes me feel a bit sad. He was always one of my personal favorite players. In fact, he even inspired the first column I ever wrote here at THT. (It was a guest piece; I didn’t become a regular writer for about a half-year after that.) In a way it’s strange I’d like Thomas so much as he was a great White Sox and I’ve always been a Cub fan.

This goes beyond rooting allegiance, though. His appeal was pure appreciation of the sport and raw athletic talent. He is unquestionably the greatest pure hitter I’ve ever had the chance to appreciate up close for an extended period of time. Awesome is a badly overused word in the English language, but Frank Thomas at the plate was awesome in the most literal sense of the word: He inspired a feeling of reverence and dread mixed with wonder. There ain’t many people you can say that about.

He could do it all. Hit for power? Check. He’s a member of the 500-homer club. Hit for average. No problem. The Big Hurt’s a career .301 hitter. Draw walks? He’s ninth on the all-time list, 77-inch frame be damned.

I’m aware that lauding the greatness of Frank Thomas is hardly the most original column topic of all-time. Heck, Joe Posnanski recently dedicated a nice piece to him at his blog. (Of course, indicating it was a nice piece is redundant of the fact that Joe Posnanski wrote it.)

That said, I do think it’s all too easy to forget in this day and age what a revelation Frank Thomas was when he first arrive in the majors. Growing up in the 1980s, I knew there were two kinds of offensive threats: guys that got hits and guys who got homers. The former posted batting averages north of .300 and the latter racked up gaudy power numbers, more than 30 homers a year. You could safely classify all your main offensive threats into one of those two categories and never think twice about any overlaps.

As a kid, the two great veteran power hitters were Mike Schmidt and Reggie Jackson. Not only did each hit south of .300 for their careers, but they were both under .270. Each topped .300 only once in a season (and in Schmidt’s case it was the strike-shortened 1981 campaign).

The greatest hitters of my youth were Wade Boggs and Tony Gwynn, who were good bets to hit a half-dozen homers a year but a bad bet to do anything more than that. I’m old enough to remember Rod Carew, who wasn’t even a good bet to belt a half-dozen longballs per season.

These guys were the tip of the iceberg. Of the 181 men with at least 3,000 plate appearances in the 1980s, none blasted 200 homers while hitting .300. George Brett came closest, hitting .311 with 193 homers.

Brett had some power, but he topped 25 homers in a season only once in his life, and ranked 19th in homers during the 1980s. Only five of the 18 guys ahead of him on that list topped .280 that decade. The decade’s top five batting average playes averaged about 75 homers. Hitters were over there and sluggers out yonder. The only guys who belonged in both categories were old-fashioned museum pieces like Ted Williams or Lou Gehrig.

Then came Frank Thomas. In 1990, he batted .318 (a higher mark than either Schmidt or Jackson ever managed). Meanwhile, Thomas also blasted 32 homers, which might not sound like a lot now, but it was good enough for fifth in the AL. Oh, and he also drew 138 walks, the most by any MLB hitter in a single season since the 1960s. Not bad, eh? Yeah, well, that was merely his first full season in the majors. That was also the first of eight straight 100-RBI campaigns. Rarely has a player burst on the scene with such a wide array of highly developed gifts at the plate.

During the 1990s, Thomas went on to blast 301 homers while hitting at a .320 clip. No one had done that over such an extended stretch since Hank Aaron. Up to that point, only Thomas, Aaron, Williams and Joe DiMaggio had ever begun their careers batting .320 or better with more than 300 homers in their first 10 seasons. Nice company to keep. Truly, Frank Thomas had talent to inspire reverence and dread mixed with wonder.

I’m well aware that batting average is flawed and it’s passé to use it – especially on a sabermetrically inclined site like THT. Fine. I’m more interested in remembering the impression Frank Thomas left on me when he first came up. As a kid, batting average mattered. After all, it’s how the paper ranked all the hitters on Sunday, which was your only chance to see how well people were doing across MLB.

When Frank Thomas burst on the scene, he struck me as a one-man refutation of the previous 70 years of baseball history. Huh? Let me explain. As a lifelong history nerd and baseball fan, I knew my baseball history pretty well, and it looked like – going purely by the unadjusted numbers – that each generation’s heroes were a little less impressive than the ones before.

You had Ruth, and well, there’s no topping Ruth. Shortly after he left, you had Teddy F. Williams, and he was also something: a man capable of hitting 500-plus homers while still batting over .340. (Not to mention he and Ruth were the only men to ever draw over 2,000 walks.) After Williams came Mays and Mantle. Both were awesome players in their own rights, but neither hit for average or drew walks like Williams. (Adjusting for the 1960s’ run-depleting rules aren’t enough to explain the difference in lifetime batting average.) Then came guys like Reggie and Schmidt who were sluggers but not even .300 hitters.

Frank Thomas was the first guy I ever saw who looked like he could win the Triple Crown. Obviously, he never did, but just the fact you could seriously ask that question about him set him apart.

Back in the early 1990s, Thomas was even miles ahead of his peers, Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr.. Thomas topped the 30-homer barrier at age 23, and the 40-homer plateau at age 25. Bonds didn’t crank 30 in a year until he was 25 and finally clubbed 40 at age 28. Thomas hit .330 throughout his 20s, but Bonds was almost 50 points lower at those ages. Bonds was also out-RBI’d by Chicago’s finest. Finally, whereas Thomas led the league in walks in four of his first five seasons and drew more in every full season until he was in his 30s, Bonds began his career drawing 50-75 walks per year. He didn’t top 100 until he was 26. There’s a reason why Bill James said Thomas was one of the greatest hitters ever in 1995, and not Bonds.

As for Griffey, his Triple Crown numbers in his 20s were better than those of Bonds, but still not up to Thomas’ standards. He never hit .330 in a season (which again was what Thomas averaged for his first 1,000-plus games), and only topped .310 twice. Griffey didn’t have as much power out of the gate as Thomas – then again he started much younger. At any rate, he never walked as often as Thomas. In general, Thomas had the best start of that trio.

Yet when he finished his career, his awesome talent seemed to have been at least partially forgotten. In part it’s because others, most notably Bonds, eclipsed his achievements. The slugger-hitter combination isn’t a relic of the past anymore, as batters from Alex Rodriquez to Albert Pujols have combined impressive performances.

The super-charged homer totals of the last 15 years also hurt Thomas. When he started, 40 homers was an achievement. From 1993-96, he became the first major leaguer since Willie Mays to crank out 38 or more homers in four straight seasons. Heck, in the 1980s all of MLB featured only 18 different 38-homer performances. Nowadays, those numbers don’t seem so impressive.

And Thomas never had one of those power campaigns that really shine out even now. His career high in homers was “only” 43. That’s been done several dozen times since then. Not-exactly-Hall-of-Famers Vinny Castilla, Richard Hidalgo, Richie Sexson, Greg Vaughn, Tino Martinez, Jay Buhner, and Jermaine Dye have topped that. In part the 1994 strike hurts Thomas, as he hit 38 homers in 113 games. That puts him on pace for 54 over a full season. If he had tapered off at all, he still wouldn’t have eclipsed the Hidalgos of the world.

What I think really hurts Thomas, though, was his physical presence itself. I think it hurt him two ways. First, I think the strain of carrying around that immense frame took its toll on his body, causing his performance to suffer. After turning 30, he only hit .270 for his career and topped 30 homers in a season exactly three times. Meanwhile, he suffered from chronic nagging injuries that sapped him of his ability to produce like he once had.

Second, he looked so damn imposing out there that it was hard to think something as small as a foot or ankle problem could slow him down. A tank shouldn’t stop rolling because of a few rocks in its treads. Yet that’s what happened, and Thomas’ critics unfairly nicknamed him “The Big Skirt” because he couldn’t keep going.

In particular, I still remember the 2001 season. While playing defense, Thomas injured his arm trying to stop a line drive at first base and had to miss some time. After missing a few games, newly acquired teammate David Wells decided to attack Thomas: “If you don’t have the guts to be out there, you know what, you don’t need to be here. . . . Playing hurt will get you a lot more respect from your fellow players.”

Someone like Thomas shouldn’t be kept out over something seemingly insignificant. What is interesting about that quote isn’t that Wells shot his mouth off. What I remember is the Chicago media reporting some of the other White Sox privately congratulated Wells for saying that. Something as big as Thomas wasn’t supposed to be fragile.

However, a week after Wells made his announcement, team doctors announced that Thomas couldn’t play. In their opinion, he had to be shut down for the year.

(Actually, it was a great moment in schadenfreude as the news broke in the middle of Wells talking to the press again. He had a weekly radio gig for 15-20 minutes or so a week. In the appearance one week after he trash-talked Thomas, the station had to break away for the news that team doctors shut down Thomas for the year. Then they had to go back to the show where Wells looked like the world’s biggest horse’s butt. In a few months, not only was his radio gig over, but the show that hosted it had been cancelled. Gotta love it.)

Still, when I think of Frank Thomas, it’s not the later years I remember, but those earlier campaigns where he appeared to be the greatest hitter as his generation. Or, to bookend the article with Bill James quotes, let’s use this one:

He’s the closest thing to Ted Williams that we’re ever likely to see. He’s right-handed, and nobody is ever going to compare him to a splinter, but as a hitter . . . well, he’s pretty much Ted Williams.

The Bill James Player Ratings Book, 1993 page 137

Fun fact: Thomas ended his career with 521 homers, exactly the same as Williams. His career value wasn’t nearly as high as that of the Splendid Splinter, but it sure was a pleasure to watch Thomas hit.

Oh, and please note I went through the whole column focusing exclusively on baseball and never discussing steroids. You’re welcome.

References & Resources
Obviously the Bill James early 1990s books were quoted.

I did a Google search for “David Wells Frank Thomas” to find the quote.

Baseball-Reference’s Play Index enabled me to do a lot of the number mumbo-jumbo.

Lastly, I still remember the entire 2001 injury stuff. David Wells appeared on AM-1000 (ESPN radio Chicago) on something called the Huge Show. It got cancelled, Wells got injured, and somewhere along there his weekly gig came to an end.

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Comments

  1. MikeS said...

    The best little piece of Karma for Wells was what you mentioned in the bibliography – he didn’t play injured either and only made 16 starts that year.

    Thomas’ 1994 was just incredible.  One of the greatest full seasons ever up to that point in history. In 113 games.

  2. Peter Jensen said...

    For a baseball historian to write an article whose tag line is “arguably the greatest pure hitter in the history of the Central Time Zone” and not mention Stan Musial is ignoring the other half of the argument.

  3. Joe R said...

    And this is why no one should ever listen to David Wells.

    Thomas got a bad rap, imo, because toolsy guys always do when they aren’t perfect.

    Why did Thomas get hurt a lot? Because he was a 240 lb man playing 150+ games a season of baseball. And it’s not like he was crap after age 30.

    Pre-age 30 season, he OPS+‘d 182. Post-age 30, 133.

    Now let me stump for Edgar Martinez. Thomas at his peak (1990-97, counting that 1/2 year in 1990 because he still hit), he went .330/.452/.600 for a 182 OPS+. Martinez in his peak (1995-2001) went .329/.446/.574, 163 OPS+. Thomas, once again, clearly better, but imagine if Edgar peaked earlier and was the revelation Thomas was?

    Oh well, he did surprisingly okay on the first ballot, I think he’ll get in eventually.

  4. Chris J. said...

    Peter,

    I said arguable.  That by itself indicates there are other possible candidates for that honor – for example, most notably Stan Musial and also Albert Pujols.

  5. Gilbert said...

    If you want to compare Thomas to St. Louis players that’s fine but don’t forget a certain player at the top of the alphabet who had some good years in Milwaukee, as well as an inaugural HOF’er who was the Ruth’s only rival for the old time title of greatest hitter.

  6. Ted said...

    I also thought it was funny that the Cub fan would not even mention Musial in his article.

    He has to be the most underrated player of all time, he doesn’t even get mentioned in the conversation for best hitter from the Central Time zone!

  7. Joe R said...

    1936 Ty Cobb BBWAA Player 222.0 98.2%%
    1936 Walter Johnson BBWAA Player 189.0 83.6%%
    1936 Christy Mathewson BBWAA Player 205.0 90.7%%
    1936 Babe Ruth BBWAA Player 215.0 95.1%%
    1936 Honus Wagner BBWAA Player 215.0 95.1%%

    I’m confused as to which one of those other 4 were great hitters in Milwaukee. Was Honus Wagner leading a double life outside of Pittsburgh?

  8. nk1960 said...

    Gotta read that again, Joe R.  He’s referring to Hank Aaron, of course ; )

    Thomas was AWESOME those first years, and then all the noise of the less gaudy hitter that followed distracted from that remarkable career start. 

    Unfortunately for me, I rarely got to see him bat, so the greatest batting magic I’ve ever witnessed was Bonds during the 2002 post season.

  9. Joe R said...

    Okay nk1960, I think I get what he meant now. The wording was just horribly confusing.

    But the “top of the alphabet” thing should’ve tipped me off, even though he lost that title to David Aardsma.

  10. Northern Rebel said...

    Keep in mind that Thomas was a right handed hitter, an obvious disadvantage compared to most players with his stats.

    Manny Ramirez struck out way more, so I rate Thomas and Hornsby as the best righties ever.

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