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February 16, 2010

Prospectus Hit and Run

The Big Hurt

by Jay Jaffe

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Last week saw a pair of future Hall of Famers officially hang up their spikes. The decisions weren't surprising, in that neither Frank Thomas nor Tom Glavine actually played in 2009 after seeing only limited duty and success in 2008. Both are well over 40 years old, both have reached milestones that virtually guarantee entry into Cooperstown, and both deserve to be hailed for their outstanding careers. Today, I'll dig into Thomas' case, saving Glavine for later in the week.

Born on the same day as Jeff Bagwell (May 27, 1968), Thomas, a native of Columbus, Ga., was a three-sport star in high school. "Frank was a 6-foot-4 forward who could smoke the jump shot from the corner and evoke images of Auburn's Charles Barkley on the break," wrote Sports Illustrated's Steve Rushin in 1991. "He hit .440 for the baseball team and 1.000 for the football team, converting all 15 of his extra-point attempts as a placekicking tight end."

Thomas' size worked against him, however, because the assumption that he preferred a career on the gridiron led to being passed over in the 1986 amateur draft. He accepted a football scholarship to Auburn under legendary coach Pat Dye. On a team that wound up ranked sixth in the country after winning the Citrus Bowl, Thomas played sparingly as a freshman tight end, catching three passes. Dye, who had coached 1985 Heisman Trophy winner and two-sport star Bo Jackson, exempted Thomas from spring practice so that he could play baseball, and Thomas did so with resounding results. He set a single-season school record with 21 home runs in his freshman year, many of them monster shots; he would go on to hit a school-record 49 during his career. Auburn coach Hal Baird, who coached both Jackson and Thomas, cited the difference between the two: "Frank was really a baseball player who played football... He was a baseball fan. He followed the game and knew all the league leaders. When Bo was here, I don't think he knew who George Brett was."

After suffering a knee strain during football practice in his sophomore year, Thomas committed full-time to baseball. While he was cut from the 1988 Olympic team, his stock rose enough that the White Sox chose him seventh overall in the 1989 draft, though the pick drew criticism. Thomas climbed the ladder quickly, nonetheless, tearing up the Gulf Coast League for 17 games (.365/.470/.519) before being promoted to High-A Sarasota, where he hit a more modest .277/.386/.399. Promoted to Double-A Birmingham the following year, he hit .323/.487/.581 for the Barons and ultimately won both a promotion to the majors and, at season's end, Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year award. Thomas made his major-league debut on Aug. 2, taking over first base duties from an unproductive Carlos Martinez (.224/.252/.327) in a move that most Sox fans felt was long overdue. Thomas' searing .330/.454/.529 with seven homers in 240 plate appearances was a surprisingly representative taste of things to come.

It's no stretch to say that the physically imposing Thomas, who swung a three-foot, five-pound piece of rebar in the on-deck circle, struck fear into the hearts of American League pitchers. The 138 walks he drew in 1991, his first full season, were the highest total in the majors since 1969, and he led the league in both on base percentage (.453) and EqA (.358) while bopping 32 homers. He finished third in the league's MVP voting, and his 9.5 WARP3 ranked second only to award-winner Cal Ripken's 12.5.

That was the first full season of a dominant seven-plus-year stretch in which Thomas would hit a combined .330/.452/.600 with 1,261 hits, 257 homers, and an impressive 582/879 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He led the league in OBP and EqA four times during that span, won the batting title in 1997 (.347), and the slugging crown in 1994 (.729). His 38 homers in that strike-shortened year were good for a 54-homer pace, which would have far outdistanced his eventual career high of 43. He led the league in WARP3 in 1992 and 1994, and took home back-to-back MVP honors in 1993 (unanimously) and 1994, having helped the White Sox to a pair of first-place finishes (the latter, of course, mooted by the strike). Along the way, White Sox announcer Ken Harrelson nicknamed him "The Big Hurt" after shouting "Frank put a big hurt on that ball!" following a 1991 home run. The moniker became perhaps the era's most memorable one.

The 1997 season marked Thomas' age-29 campaign, which makes for a convenient point of comparison with a current slugger who just finished his own age-29 season:

Player           PA    AVG   OBP   SLG   EqA   HR  WARP
Frank Thomas    4789  .330  .452  .600  .356  301  61.2
Albert Pujols   6082  .334  .427  .628  .347  366  85.5

Thomas has clear edges in both OBP and EqA, albeit in about two years' less playing time. He also surrenders about 130 runs worth of defensive value and, thus, about 24 wins worth of WARP during that time span to the underrated Pujols. Still, the dude could hit. Even after a pair of down seasons in which he clashed with White Sox manager Jerry Manuel over his glove work and the severity of his foot woes, Thomas' numbers through a similar number of plate appearances still look quite solid next to those of Pujols:

Player    PA    AVG   OBP   SLG   EqA   HR  WARP
Thomas   6091  .320  .440  .573  .343  301  67.1
Pujols   6082  .334  .427  .628  .347  366  85.5

One can make a reasonable case that Thomas was the AL's best hitter of the '90s. His .440 OBP was the circuit's best, his .573 SLG was just eight points behind that of Albert Belle and Ken Griffey Jr., and his EqA for the decade trailed only that of Barry Bonds:

Player              PA    EqA
Barry Bonds        6146  .352
Frank Thomas       6092  .343
Mark McGwire       5054  .338
Jeff Bagwell       5800  .334
Mike Piazza        4075  .326
Edgar Martinez     5589  .325
Gary Sheffield     5054  .317
Ken Griffey        6182  .314
Rickey Henderson   5452  .313
Albert Belle       5820  .313

That is one kick-ass hitter.

Tendonitis, a bone spur on his right ankle, and a large corn on the same foot's little toe sapped Thomas' power, as his injuries affected his plant foot and his swing. Though he played in 161 games in 1998, he hit just .265/.381/.480, and while he rebounded somewhat the following year (.305/.414/.471), he hit just 15 homers in 590 plate appearances before undergoing surgery in September. Controversy surrounded his injury; having struck out via an atypically weak pinch-hitting appearance in the opener of a doubleheader-this amid a much greater second-half struggle (.271/.340/.394 with three homers in 212 plate appearances)-Thomas declared himself unavailable for the nightcap, enraging Manuel, who sent him home. Thomas felt that the team brass sold him out by minimizing the injury and feeding a rabid press; the perception was that he was a selfish stat-monger who left the team to preserve his .300 batting average. Nonetheless, his woes were legit. The bone spur "was the biggest I have ever taken out," said Dr. Lowell Scott Weil, who also performed reconstructive surgery on Thomas' toe. "It was truly the size of a golf ball."

Thomas returned from surgery and put up numbers (.328/.436/.625, and a career-high 43 homers) in line with his pre-surgical prowess in 2000, helping him win AL Comeback Player of the Year honors, but a triceps tear cost him all but 20 games in 2001, and the effects of the injury were compounded by the death of his father. After a relatively lackluster 2002 (.252/.361/.472 with 29 homers), the White Sox invoked a "diminished skills" clause in his seven-year, $64.4-million deal which allowed them to defer most of his $10.3-million per year salary because he didn't make the All-Star team, win a Silver Slugger award, or rank in the top 10 of the MVP vote for 2002. Thomas filed for free agency before agreeing to rework the terms of his deal, taking a significant pay cut. He stuck around the South Side for three more years, but after a 42-homer campaign in 2003, he was limited to just 108 games in the final two seasons before the Sox bought out his option and traded for Jim Thome. Even in the afterglow of Chicago's World Series win in 2005-a victory that ended the team's 88-year championship drought, but one that occurred while the slugger was sidelined-Thomas and general manager Kenny Williams traded harsh words.

Thomas signed with the A's for just $500,000 in guaranteed money (plus incentives, of course) in January 2006, and he went on to rip 39 homers and hit .270/.381/.545 for the A's that year, not too shabby for a 38-year-old. He found his way back to Oakland in 2008 after a strange detour to Toronto. Blue Jays' then-GM J.P. Ricciardi signed the Big Hurt to a two-year, $18.1-million deal on the heels of his first Oakland stint. Thomas hit a respectable .277/.377/.480 with 26 homers (enough to join the 500-homer club) as a 39-year-old, but a 10-for-60 start in 2008 led Ricciardi to fret over the possibility of being on the hook for another $10 million in 2009 via an attainable (if dubiously granted) vesting option. He punted Thomas, who returned to Oakland but spent much of the year on the DL, getting just 109 plate appearances after May due to a quadriceps injury. Though the slugger hoped to play in 2009, the combination of his age, injury history, and a poor economy left him without a suitable suitor. He finished his career with 521 homers, tying him with Ted Williams and Willie McCovey for 18th on the all-time leader board and making him one of 25 players to reach the 500-homer plateau.

Of those 25 players, nine of them (Bonds, Griffey, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Alex Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro, Thome, Manny Ramirez, and Gary Sheffield) had careers that largely overlapped with that of Thomas. Significantly, seven of those players (all but Griffey and Thome) have been implicated-whether via confession, positive test, or illegally-linked information-as having used performance-enhancing drugs. While PEDs are far from the only explanation for the era's rising home-run totals, the pervasive allegations of use among this group contributes heavily to the skepticism with which the statistics of the era are viewed.

Despite a physical bulk and power that brought to mind juiced-up football players, Thomas stands out among this group as a player with virtually unassailable credibility on the topic of steroids. An outspoken critic of baseball's belated response to its drug problem, he called for testing as far back as 1995. Via satellite, he participated in the 2005 Congressional hearings on the steroid problem, but while the House Committee on Government reform grilled McGwire, Sosa, Curt Schilling, Palmeiro, and Jose Canseco, they ignored him following an opening statement in which he declared, "Throughout my career, I have not used steroids. Ever." Unlike the finger-wagging Palmeiro's fervent denial, that statement has yet to be contradicted by the available evidence. Thomas continued to run against the grain on the topic; notably, he was the only active player who agreed to be interviewed for the Mitchell Report. While he cooperated with the investigation and offered his perspective on the era, there's nothing to suggest he implicated any other players as having used.

Thus, assessing Thomas' Hall of Fame case will be considerably more straightforward than doing so for his peers. On the traditional merits, his credentials are certainly strong, with two MVP awards, five All-Star appearances, 521 homers, 2,468 hits, an all-time ranking in the top 25 in OBP (.419) and SLG (.555), and the ninth-highest walk total (1,667). He's one of just six hitters to total 10,000 plate appearances with a batting average above .300, an OBP above .400, and a slugging percentage above .500-the triple-slash "Golden Ratio," as my friend Nick Stone likes to call it-the others being Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Stan Musial, Tris Speaker, and Mel Ott (stump your friends with that list, as I did on Twitter yesterday). Plus, he never laid down a successful sacrifice bunt despite spending a good portion of his career under the small ball-friendly Manuel and Ozzie Guillen, which has to count for something. Thomas' only real shortcoming is a .224/.441/.429 line in 68 postseason plate appearances.

Via BP's advanced metrics, Thomas's work should be held in similarly high esteem. His career EqA ranks in a virtual tie for 13th (i.e., not sweating the fourth decimal point) among players with at least 6,000 plate appearances, and eighth if one raises the bar to 10,000 PA:

Rk   Player             PA     EqA
 1   Babe Ruth        10617   .363
 2   Ted Williams      9789   .359
 3   Barry Bonds      12606   .354
 4   Albert Pujols     6082   .347
 5   Mickey Mantle     9909   .342
 6   Lou Gehrig        9660   .341
 7   Rogers Hornsby    9475   .337
 8   Stan Musial      12712   .332
 9T  Willie Mays      12493   .330
     Ty Cobb          13072   .330
11T  Hank Aaron       13940   .328
     Mel Ott          11337   .328
13T  Frank Thomas     10074   .327
     Johnny Mize       7371   .327
     Mark McGwire      7660   .327
     Dick Allen        7314   .327
17T  Dan Brouthers     7676   .326
     Joe DiMaggio      7671   .326
19   Frank Robinson   11743   .324
20T  Jeff Bagwell      9431   .322
     Jimmie Foxx       9670   .322

While Thomas played more games at designated hitter than first base, which limits his Fielding Runs Above Replacement total and thus his overall WARP, he is considered a first sacker for JAWS purposes. Among those players, he scores quite well:

Rk  Player           Career  Peak   JAWS
 1  Lou Gehrig*      104.3   63.0   83.7
 2  Albert Pujols     85.5   71.2   78.4
 3  Frank Thomas      90.2   58.1   74.2
 4  Jeff Bagwell      91.2   56.3   73.8
 5  Roger Connor**    87.0   48.2   67.6
 6  Jimmie Foxx*      81.9   51.6   66.8
 7  Dan Brouthers**   82.4   50.4   66.4
 8  Ernie Banks*      69.4   57.5   63.5
 9  Johnny Mize**     73.6   50.7   62.2
10  Cap Anson**       81.6   42.1   61.9
11  Mark McGwire      71.6   48.7   60.2
12  Willie McCovey*   71.8   47.5   59.7
13  Rod Carew*        71.3   44.9   58.1
14  Eddie Murray*     72.7   42.9   57.8
15  Dick Allen        64.9   50.2   57.6
16  Will Clark        65.8   46.9   56.4
17  Keith Hernandez   66.2   45.6   55.9
18  Jim Thome         69.0   40.6   54.8
    AVG HoF 1B        64.0   43.0   53.5
19  Rafael Palmeiro   67.6   38.9   53.3
20  John Olerud       60.6   40.9   50.8
*: BBWAA-elected Hall of Famer
**: VC-elected Hall of Famer

The Hall of Fame has 10 other enshrined first basemen with scores lower than the ones shown, including five others elected by the writers so, obviously, Thomas has numbers that put him far above average relative to the Cooperstown slate. In fact, the Big Hurt is 38th among all players and 27th among all hitters in terms of career WARP (yes, career-level sortable stats are still on our to-do list). That's not just a Hall of Famer, that's an inner-circle one.

Given the artificial distinctions imposed by the writers between first-ballot Hall of Famers and the rest of 'em, Thomas' numbers and his sterling reputation should play in his favor for a one-and-done stay on the BBWAA ballot, even amid 2013 and 2014 slates that are quite crowded. The former will feature Bonds, Sosa, and Roger Clemens, a trio all tainted by connections to PEDs, as well as Craig Biggio and Mike Piazza, so there's bound to be a backlog even if the voters can somehow rationalize reversing the zero-tolerance precedent they've apparently set with McGwire. The latter group will now contain Thomas, Glavine, Greg Maddux, Mike Mussina, and Jeff Kent, all of whom have decent claims on enshrinement, with Maddux another clear inner-circle type. Anything can happen between now and then, but I suspect Thomas will gain entry without delay. He has both the numbers and the credibility to wind up on the Cooperstown stage ahead of and apart from his more controversial peers.

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