The Greatness of Frank Thomas

Frank Thomas, a.k.a. “The Big Hurt,” officially retired today. However his career ended, his up-and-down (but hardly bad) 2000s makes it hard to recall his utter dominance in 1990s. I’m not going to get into the Hall-of-Fame debate about Thomas or designated hitters. Yes, we have to adjust for his defensive “contribution,” but fortunately, Wins Above Replacement does just that. The “FanGraphs Era” currently only extends back to 2002, so for some historical WAR perspective, let’s compare some career WAR numbers from Sean “Rally” Smith’s historical WAR database.

Frank Thomas 75.9
Pete Rose 75.4
Johnny Bench 71.4
Brooks Robinson 69.2
Edgar Martinez 67.2
Duke Snider 67.2
Eddie Murray 66.7

To repeat: these numbers adjust for Thomas’s non-contributions on defense. If you think the players below him on that list are Hall-quality, then Thomas, who was “only” a monster hitter, should get in, too.

Enough of that, let’s discuss Thomas’s greatness as a hitter. For this, I calculated linear weights using data from the Baseball Databank. I use the same basic version of custom linear weights/wOBA that FanGraphs does, but having it on my own database just allows me to manipulate the data for stuff like this.* The linear weights (aka “Batting Runs” or wRAA) are customized so that each event is weighted properly for each season. The runs above average are park-adjusted (thanks, terpsfan). I then convert them to wins, which further reflects the relative value of a run in that season.

* There are probably some slight differences due to discrepancies in source data, different park adjustments, etc. but it’s very close. The batting runs also differ from Rally’s, since his weights are adjusted to reconcile on the team- rather than league-level. Neither is “right” or “wrong,” they are simply two different perspectives.

The top six career leaders in Batting Wins Above Average since 1955 (the first season Baseball Databank records intentional walks):

1. Barry Bonds 126.3
2. Hank Aaron 108.5
3. Willie Mays 91.0
4. Frank Robinson 89.7
5. Mickey Mantle 83.0
6. Frank Thomas 71.5

Granted that good chunks of Mantle and Mays’ value came before 1955… that’s still impressive company. Among those with career numbers inferior Thomas are: Jeff Bagwell (64.0), Willie McCovey (62.8), Harmon Killebrew (60.0), Mark McGwire (56.9), Jim Thome (55.4), and Sammy Sosa (34.8).

Another way of judging impact is to compare overall career numbers with peak value in order to separate guys who just hung on. So let’s look at Thomas and two other great hitters of somewhat recent vintage and compare their career Batting Wins, their top three seasons, and the five-year continuous peaks:

Edgar Martinez
Career Batting Wins Above Average: 54.4
Career wRC+: 151
Top Three: 18.0 (6.8 in 1995, 5.6 in 1996, 5.5 in 1997)
Five-Year Peak: 27.5 from 1995-1999

Mark McGwire
Career Batting Wins Above Average: 56.9
Career wRC+: 161
Top Three: 22.1 (9.3 in 1998, 6.7 in 1996, 6.1 in 1999)
Five year Peak: 30.1 from 1995-1999

Frank Thomas
Career Batting Wins Above Average: 71.5
Career wRC+: 158
Top Three: 20.6 (7.1 in 1991, 6.8 in 1994 [!], 6.7 in 1992)
Five-Year Peak: 31.4 from 1992-1996 (includes 1994 strike)

I included Edgar because of the recent discussions about him, and also because, while he was obviously a great hitter, I wouldn’t have thought his numbers would stand up so well against say, McGwire’s. They aren’t quite as good, but they are in the same territory. McGwire was obviously great, but I think not only Thomas’s career numbers, but arguably his peak was better, too. His five-year peak is slightly better, and though his top three seasons (or best one) aren’t quite as good as McGwire’s, his second and third best seasons are better than McGwire’s.

Moreover, both Thomas’s top three and five-year peak both included the strike-shortened 1994 season. Regression to the mean tells us that Thomas likely wouldn’t have continued at that rate, but do you think he would have hit at a league-average rate or below the rest of the season? There are a lot of “what ifs” in baseball, of course, and in 1994 in particular, as Expos fans know. But 6.8 Batting Wins in 113 games is simply astounding. And keep in mind that the AL was the more difficult league starting in the 1990s.

I’m not sure what better compliment to end on other than to say that when all three were at the top of their game(s), Frank Thomas was a more dominant hitter than Mark McGwire and Edgar Martinez.




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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.


56 Responses to “The Greatness of Frank Thomas”

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  1. Dashboard says:

    As a kid during the rise of Big Hurt and Griffey, I always liked Frank. I think he’s been undervalued throughout his career, and why? Because fans perceive him as too dull.

    Thomas deserves his place in Cooperstown alongside his Similarity Score brethren.

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  2. Jay says:

    And Frank has not been linked to PEDs at all so he’s essentially a first ballot lock.

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    • Joe R says:

      Tell that to Edgar Martinez.

      BTW am I the only one who thinks it’s batshit lunacy that career length seems to be a knock on Edgar, but it’s like #78627 on the list of reasons people don’t vote for McGwire?

      Either way, Thomas was better, longer, than both of them. No argument from me. All three should be Hall of Famers (if you think steroids aren’t a thing, of course).

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      • NEPP says:

        You can’t even compare Thomas and Martinez…not even the same galazy as far as hitting. Thomas is an easy lock for the Hall while Martinez is quite obviously an arguable candidate at best (as we’ve shown several times on this board now).

        I think there are a couple other reasons that no one is voting for McGwire other than career length (as the HOF isn’t just a statistical measurement as a player’s character, etc is supposed to play a part).

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        • Jeff says:

          How are Thomas and Edgar not in the same galaxy as far as hitting? Look at the stats right there in the article. Similar career wRC+ and similar 3 year peak.

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      • NEPP says:

        From BBWAA.com: Voting — Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.

        I would think McGwire was a bit lacking in integrity, sportsmanship, and character personally…just as any other juicer was.

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      • Typical Idiot Fan says:

        NEPP, those voting guidelines are a crock.

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      • Kevin S. says:

        Also, they were widely ignored until moralizing writers on their high horses needed a reason to keep out players who were completely deserving otherwise.

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      • NEPP says:

        Those are the guidelines, like ‘um or hate ‘um. Its not just a “everyone with a career WAR over 50 gets in” or some other strict statistical mark.

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      • Andrew says:

        If we’re going to use the integrity standards for Hall induction, we should apply the same standards to some current HOFers by taking them out. You can start with Ty Cobb.

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      • Joe R says:

        Morals didn’t seem to matter when they put Ty Cobb in there.

        Let’s all remember that Ty Cobb stabbed a black guy for being “uppity”.

        Mark McGwire did steroids.

        Which one is worse?

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      • Frenchie says:

        Mark McGwire took a drug that’s illegal because Congress isn’t interested in listening to the opinions of sports medicine experts.

        Gaylord Perry and Whitey Ford broke a rule that was put in place to prevent batters from dying on the field.

        Which one is worse?

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      • cptspandex says:

        I don’t know if I buy the argument that the voter guidelines are a “crock”. There is no doubt that some of the voters are irresponsible with their ballots, as we saw in abundance this past year — Jay Marriotti perhaps representing the worst of them. I think sportsmanship was the thing that cost Roberto Alomar a first-ballot Hall Of Fame.

        Perhaps you are saying that the guidelines themselves are a crock, and I can’t say if I agree or not. But not all BBWAA ignore them.

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  3. The ironic thing about the Thomas/DH debate is that Frank used to hit way better when he was playing in the field, particularly in the late 90’s when he could still play the field. Fans used to give Terry Bevington and Jerry Manual a hard time about DH’ing Frank so much, and I can’t recall ever hearing a satisfactory answer.

    I looked it up and Frank really did hit a lot better when he was in the field. It wasn’t just perception.

    See 1999, as an example:

    http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/split.cgi?n1=thomafr04&year=1999&t=b#defp

    Or 2000, his last truly great season:
    http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/split.cgi?n1=thomafr04&year=2000&t=b#defp

    Or 2003, when he stopped hitting over 300 but still had power
    http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/split.cgi?n1=thomafr04&year=2003&t=b#defp

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    • dan woytek says:

      best hitter I got to see in person on a regular basis…and it’s not really that close either.

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      • Wally says:

        Being a bay area resident for sometime I got to see Bonds a lot, but I really enjoyed watching Thomas play for the A’s in 2006. Even knowing Thomas was nearing the end, you could tell he really had mastered the art of hitting, it was just his body that was letting him down on occasion. I don’t usually put much stock into professional athletes persona’s, but Thomas always seemed like a decent guy to me too. I’m hoping he gets voted into the HOF on the first ballot and we can stop all this whining about the DH, and maybe that can pave the way for Edgar.

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      • Al Dimond says:

        I grew up in Chicago and lived in the Bay Area for one year — the year Thomas was with the As. Thomas spent a lot of time in the media doghouse in Chicago. The media surrounding Chicago’s baseball teams is a lot tougher than that of the Bay Area — and I don’t necessarily mean that in a good way; Chicago writers can really be overly negative and when they make up their mind on a player they never change it. Thomas made some comments and got in some arguments with his managers when he was young and got the reputation as a petulant baby in Chicago that he couldn’t shake. In Oakland everyone seemed to appreciate him, and I enjoyed seeing that.

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    • Kevin S. says:

      That’s really pretty unsurprising, given what we know about the DH penalty.

      I can’t help but laugh at all the people that insist DHs shouldn’t be allowed in the Hall because they clearly would have broken down otherwise while refusing to acknowledge that DHing makes it harder to hit.

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  4. Chad says:

    Putting him at DH didnt hurt his batting #’s though…he was put at DH because of wear-and-tear, which was also effecting his batting.

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    • Steven Ellingson says:

      There is no way for us to know either way. Most likely, it was some of both.

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    • Kevin S. says:

      Chad, Google “DH penalty.” The first two hits link to The Book Blog. Read them (and the comments). Learn things. Then come back.

      I’m not saying that players can’t stay healthier by not playing the field. They can, but we also need to acknowledge that it’s harder to hit as a DH. Furthermore, how is that any different than a shortstop who moves to first base to save his body from wear-and-tear? We compare his offense when he was a SS to other shortstops and his offense when he was a 1B to other 1B. Same thing with Thomas. Compare his numbers as a 1B to 1B and his numbers as a DH to other DHs.

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  5. Sandy Kazmir says:

    FRANK THOMAS HIT THE WAREHOUSE. I’ll always remember that ball he put into orbit when Camden Yards still had that new stadium smell. Kudos to the most feared hitter of the 90’s.

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  6. Big Hurt is one of the best ever.

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    • Joe R says:

      My buddy who’s a White Sox fan asked me how the BBWAA plans on screwing the Big Hurt.

      I told him to prepare for some strawman nonsense like how he’s 48th all time in GIDP or only had 2,468 hits or how he only hit .224 in the postseason (even though it was actually .224/.441/.429).

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  7. willie says:

    Big Hurt is the best righty pre-Pujols, and in fact is the Proto Pujols. Check it: http://yallkiltit.wordpress.com/2010/02/12/the-proto-pujols-frank-thomas-retires/

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  8. hamandcheese says:

    Thomas’ run from from 91-97 should almost be enough to get him into the hall by itself.

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  9. Everett says:

    I grew up as a mariners fan in the 90s, yet it wasn’t Junior who was my favorite player, but Thomas. I’ve still got a few hundred of his baseball cards that will be displayed to my son when he gets to that age, to tell stories of what a hitter The Big Hurt was (and one of the best nicknames of all time to boot).

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  10. Circlechange11 says:

    There was a period of a few years when Thomas was considered the best hitter in baseball. That’s what I’ll remember ’bout hm. That combined with his counting & rate stats equal dirt ballot hall of fame.

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    • NEPP says:

      Exactly. He was the best hitter in the game for a good 5-6 years…a guy like Martinez can’t even come close to saying that.

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  11. Circlechange11 says:

    Dirt? Err, first. Stupid iPhone.

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  12. PhD Brian says:

    The Big Hurt was ungodly period. Anyone who does not think he is a first ballot HOFr does not understand baseball. It is very sad to see him go. He still has most of it!

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  13. Jon says:

    Thomas belongs in, first ballot, no question. Then again, I can’t really count on writers who find it more fitting to vote Andre Dawson in over Bret Blyvelen (I probably butchered that), Alomar, and one more person whose name escapes me right now. I will direct you to the following link. Scroll down to the achievements section:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Thomas_%28AL_baseball_player%29

    I find it rather impressive that he’s on that short list of guys with a career .300 BA and 500+ HRs, as well as being one of only 6 players ever to win back-to-back MVP awards.

    And if any writer brings up his postseason numbers, they need to stop right there. He had a grand total of 49 ABs in 16 games. It was unfortunate that he was hurt during the 05 WS White Sox win, but seriously, bad luck with how divisions used to work coupled with some mediocre teams were more the reason for that. He did all he could to help his team win.

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  14. Typical Idiot Fan says:

    Frank Thomas used to scare the bajeezus out of me whenever the M’s played the Sox.

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  15. MikeS says:

    I’m biased since I’m a White Sox fan and Thomas is easily the greatest hitter to ever play for them. Who’s even second? Harold Baines? Joe Jackson? Without doing any research, he’d be the greatest hitter ever for a lot of teams. He might be one of the top 10 right handed hitters of all time.

    Anybody who doesn’t think he’s a hall of famer wasn’t paying attention in the 1990’s. Not just ’93 and ’94, the whole decade – when his ops was over 1.000. One year does not make a career, but look at his counting stats from 1994, then look at the number of games played that year.

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    • I’m not sure that I set the table up right to do this, but according to the same table I used for this post, the five most productive players (by batting wins) for the White Sox since 1955 are:

      1. Frank Thomas 66.3
      2. Paul Konerko 17.5
      3. Harold Baines 17.2
      4. Magglio Ordonez 16.3
      5. Minnie Minoso 15.9

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  16. John Q says:

    It’s pretty amazing how under-appreciated Thomas is/was. I think the strike of 94-95 and playing for the White Sox hurt his perception a little bit. That there is even a debate among baseball writers whether he’s a HOF or not is just lunacy.

    Thomas’ 156ops+ is the 15th best since 1901 for a player with at least 6000P.A.

    Thomas’ 2003 Runs Created is 19th all time in baseball history.

    Easily one of the top 20 offensive players in baseball history.

    Also, he was one of the few players of his generation NOT to do steroids.

    Overall he’s easily one of the top 50 players in baseball history. He should be a lock HOF.

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  17. sorry your heinous says:

    Hey Matt, great article. Had some ideas about an approach to DH HoF statistics, but not sure how to start. I guess my first question would be, does historical WAR data consist of any defensive value component? I’m guessing no (?) because UZR, TZ, etc. seem relatively new, but not sure enough to move forward.

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    • Steven Ellingson says:

      Any WAR that you find is (should be?) a total value stat. UZR is new, but Total zone is used back into the ancient times. The further back you go, the less reliable the defensive statistics are, but over the course of a career, they should be pretty accurate. Anyway, it doesn’t matter for a DH, since all you need is a position adjustment, and those should stay about the same from year to year. If you go to baseballprojection.com, you’ll find the WAR for everyone ever. (I’m exaggerating).

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      • sorry your heinous says:

        Thanks Steven! The more I think about it the more trouble I’m having seeing a good approach. I was thinking of looking at how historically players may have fared if given the opportunity to DH for a large percentage of time. Obviously, based on comments and a little searching, this would be difficult to quantify. Then I was thinking, what if we just look at guys who played defense in such a way that it hurt their value. By minimizing that, perhaps a comparison could be made to a DH. Either way, I think this idea isn’t too original and has probably been discussed before.

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  18. West says:

    It makes me sick that there’s even a discussion of whether or not he should be first ballot. What else does the man have to do to get in? His numbers are comparable with the baseball gods, and when you compare him to the bums who have gotten in the past couple of years (Rice, Dawson, Carter) it shouldn’t even be a conversation.

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  19. I’ve always been a huge Bonds fan (I watched his dad play when I was a kid), and when Barry was winning his first set of MVPs in the early 90s there was only one other player in the game racking up similar numbers–Frank Thomas. Any player who can stand comparison to Bonds must have been a force. Thomas is a no-brainer for the Hall.

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  20. Schuyler says:

    @Sandy Kazmir – Thomas didn’t hit the warehouse, Griffey did (in the 93 AS home run derby). The warehouse is in right field, would have been quite a feat for the right handed Thomas to do it. He did hit the longest home run ever at three rivers (into the left field upper deck) in the following year’s AS game.

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  21. arsenal says:

    first ballot HOFer. absolutely ridiculous hitter, great personality by all accounts, not a PED guy since i’m pretty sure he was born 6′ and 200lbs, and one of the best nicknames in modern baseball.

    lets get blyleven, raines, whitaker, trammell, larkin and edgar in there, too.

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  22. Dave S. says:

    Pile on for Thomas in the Hall, first ballot!

    Such an amazing hitter, such an awesome presence, such a pleasure to watch play. Thomas is one of the guys that makes you grateful to witness the skill exhibited by the best of the best in major league baseball, and he always seemed like a great guy on top of it all. To hell with the Chicago media and whatever chips they had on their shoulders: low grade, jealous, petty character assassins that they are. I’m sorry to see him retire.

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  23. Jacob says:

    With respect to Thomas and PED’s. From memory, as I don’t have sources available atm…

    Thomas had for a long time pushed for greater PED testing in baseball, he was the union player rep for the White Sox (I forget which year) when the entire team refused to participate in testing thereby counting as POSITIVE tests. They did because the way it worked (again from memory) is that if a certain percentage of players tested positive than testing policies would be implemented across the league. One has to believe that as player rep Thomas had a lot to do with this.

    Also, as a White Sox fan, I am certainly biased, but he was incredibly fun to watch in his prime. He will be missed.

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  24. Ivdown says:

    The dude put up monster stats, and even in an age of roided out freaks, Thomas’ numbers still stand above almost all others. He better make first ballot.

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  25. I’m going to let you in on a little time sensitive secret. I won’t go into all the details because you should just see the page and watch the video to get the whole scoop. This is not your usual ‘guru’ software that you see all over the internet. The guy that made it is not even an Internet Guru at all. Obviously, this is a tactic that has never been seen before. Once you see how this thing works, you will be slapping your forehead. This software system generates results in as little as 30 seconds, so there’s no waiting around for traffic or to “see if this works”. If you are also tired of jumping through all of those hoops or if you are new to Internet marketing and would like to earn some real income online then you should check this out http://swturl.com/rgme

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