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The Greatness of Frank Thomas

Posted By Matt Klaassen On February 12, 2010 @ 4:00 pm In Daily Graphings | 56 Comments

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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