The Greatness of Frank Thomas

All the great players in the Hall of Fame have stories about them, anecdotes that capture glimpses of how they were exceptional, even among the already exceptional. Anecdotes developed in part out of exaggeration but largely founded on inconceivable truth. Here’s an old anecdote about Frank Thomas:

“We had this competition, even when he was a freshman, in which we’d wager a Coke on whether he could guess—within one mile an hour—how fast a pitcher was throwing. We had a radar gun. He’d call out the velocity. He was always on. Almost never fooled.”

It’s been my understanding that policemen are trained to do this with vehicles. Frank Thomas wasn’t a policeman, but he was sort of an officer of home plate in a way, and he was liberal with discipline. What was apparent, even early in college, was that Thomas had an unusually gifted sense of the zone. He went on to pair that with one of the best swings ever and now he’s on his way to Cooperstown, a part of baseball immortality. Pretty simple. Thomas was just one of the best at something, and also one of the best at a related something. That allowed him to be one of the best overall.

Even with first-ballot Hall of Famers, it’s been some years since their careers ended. And then the ends of those careers seldom resemble the starts and middles of those careers, so even though in this case, Thomas played as recently as 2008, it’s been a while since he was really Frank Thomas, the guy who earned this honor on the field. The more time that passes, the easier it is to forget about performances, to focus instead on what’s more recent. I think it’s helpful, then, in cases like this, to compare players to more recent players to lend greater perspective. Thomas hasn’t been at his peak for a while. But what did his peak look like? How can we explain him in more contemporary terms?

Thomas was drafted in 1989, and he was in the majors in 1990. He hit instantly, and he was consistently unbelievable all the way through 1997. Through that year — Thomas’ age-29 season — he posted a 177 wRC+, batting .330 while slugging .600. Through his own age-29 season, Albert Pujols posted a 169 wRC+, batting .334 while slugging .628. Over the past four years, Miguel Cabrera has posted a 176 wRC+, batting .337 while slugging .612. Frank Thomas at his best was Albert Pujols at his best and Miguel Cabrera at his best. And Thomas’ best lasted several seasons. He didn’t do much of anything in other areas, but he didn’t have to, being an all-time great destroyer of pitched baseballs.

Pujols makes for an interesting comparison, defense aside. One of the things that made Pujols so special was the way he consistently put the bat on the ball, striking out amazingly infrequently for a power hitter. Thomas, for his entire career, struck out in 14% of his plate appearances. The league average was north of 16%. Meanwhile, he walked in 17% of his plate appearances, and after his limited rookie season, Thomas didn’t strike out more often than he walked in a year until 2001. His career contact rate was 85%, against an 80% average. From 1991 through to the end, that mark never dropped into the 70s.

Let’s go back to Thomas’ peak for a minute. Since 1900, 1,248 players have batted at least 2,500 times through their age-29 seasons. We’ve already established that Thomas was incredible for the first half of his career, but just for fun, let’s look at the top of all those players when we sort by wRC+:

(1) 208 — Babe Ruth
(2) 193 — Ted Williams
(3) 179 — Rogers Hornsby
(4t) 177 — Ty Cobb, Frank Thomas
(6) 176 — Lou Gehrig
(7t) 173 — Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle

It’s not just Thomas among a group of Hall of Famers — it’s Thomas among a group of the absolute cream of the Hall-of-Fame crop. Those are the best players ever, and Frank Thomas, and Thomas did that in the 90s. It’s easy to forget, because people didn’t cover baseball the way they do now, and it’s been a lot of time. But Thomas’ numbers require zero massaging. He was one of the very best hitters in the history of the planet.

Thomas slumped at 30 and 31, where by “slumped” I mean he posted consecutive wRC+ marks of 126. But he did perform worse, as he played through some injuries and some personal problems, and the scene occasionally grew ugly at his own home ballpark. This was written in March 2000:

Thomas was once on a very fast and certain track to Cooperstown, there to join the two hitters to whom he was most often compared, Ted Williams and Lou Gehrig, but today there is nothing either swift or sure about his journey to baseball immortality.

Thomas turned 32 during 2000, when he went deep 43 times. Since 1900, 357 players have batted at least 2,500 times onward from their age-32 seasons. Among them, Thomas ranks tied for 35th in wRC+, even with Tony Gwynn, right between Jeff Bagwell and David Ortiz. The late-career version of Frank Thomas was just as productive as the late-career version of Ortiz, who remains one of baseball’s most feared franchise icons. That’s notable because of how good Thomas was, and that’s notable because of how even that performance seemed short of what Thomas could’ve been. That was his decline.

When you add it all up together, Frank Thomas is unquestionably one of the greatest hitters in the history of baseball. He was, in a sense, close to perfect. That is, as close to perfect as humans can get as major-league baseball hitters. He walked all the time. He struck out less often than he walked. He hit the crap out of the ball, and didn’t waste his time with grounders; Thomas also has one of the lowest groundball rates in baseball history. He knew what he could do, and he did it, and his powerful uppercut was never exploited because it was effectively unexploitable. Thomas posted one double-digit wRC+ — a 90 in 2001, when he played 20 games. He was average in his final year, as a 40-year-old. Over time, Thomas regressed, from one of the highest levels ever.

If we’re going to talk about implications, Thomas was a pure offensive force who collected 57% of his plate appearances as a designated hitter. He made the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Edgar Martinez was a pure offensive force who collected 72% of his plate appearances as a designated hitter. Martinez wound up with a 147 wRC+, and a 66 WAR. Thomas wound up with a 154 wRC+, and a 72 WAR. Martinez isn’t close to making it in, based on current vote totals, but Thomas’ inclusion might represent the most promising step forward. If Thomas can make it in this easily, then Martinez shouldn’t be all that far behind. Shouldn’t be. Will be, but could make it yet.

The other implication is that Frank Thomas is becoming a member of the Hall of Fame. Thus completes his course as modern superstar — Thomas was once highly touted, then he was highly successful and highly beloved. Then he started to draw criticism, due and undue, so he had to overcome local adversity. Toward the end, there was pain and decline and departure. That was followed in time by forgiveness for any and all perceived sins by the original city. Now Thomas will represent that city and franchise in the Hall of Fame museum. In the little picture, it was easy for people in the late 90s to believe that Thomas had turned too much of his attention to his music business. In the big picture, Thomas spent 20 years in the game, many of them as the very model of a human sort of perfection.

Thomas hit well enough for the other stuff not to matter. Hitters better than this most assuredly do come around. Maybe a few times a century, or so.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Cuck City
9 years ago

Damn shame we’ll never know how his 1994 would have finished up. What could ~40 more games have added to his total? He was already at 7 WAR through 113.

9 years ago
Reply to  Cuck City

Same for Ken Griffey Jr.

9 years ago
Reply to  Cuck City

Frank was sitting on an ops+ of 212 ha so

Mike B.
9 years ago
Reply to  Cuck City

+ Jeff Bagwell. 7.8 WAR and .368/.451/.750 through 110 games. Damn.

Andrew J
9 years ago
Reply to  Mike B.

June 12, 1994 Maddux (7.8 1994 WAR) pitched against Biggio (4.6 1994 WAR) and Bagwell (7.2 1994 WAR). Maddux pitched a complete game. Must have been a great game to see.

Carlos Baerga
9 years ago
Reply to  Mike B.

Unfortunately a pitched ball broke Bagwell’s hand right before the strike. I still remember Terry Collins saying that he hoped there wouldn’t be a strike, but if there is it needs to last 4 to 6 weeks.

9 years ago
Reply to  Cuck City

Go look at Frank Thomas’ Slugging % in 1994 compared to league average and his BB/K was literally off the chart good.. he was a very patient hitter