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The Big Hurt’s Big Sendoff

Last week, Frank Thomas officially called it quits, not a huge surprise given that the 41-year-old slugger, who bopped 521 home runs in his career, didn’t play at all in 2009. Today I’ve got a column at Baseball Prospectus celebrating his career, his Hall of Fame case, and his place in history:

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 in the hearts of AL 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 OBP (.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-years-and-change stretch in which Thomas would hit a combined .330/.452/.600 with 1261 hits, 257 homers, and an impressive 582/879 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He led the league in OBP and EqA four times apiece during that span, won the batting title in 1997 (.347) and the slugging crown in 1994 (.729). His 38 homers in the strike-shortened year were good for a 54-homer pace, which would have far outdistances 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!” during a 1991 home run. The moniker became perhaps the era’s most memorable one.

…One can make a reasonable case that Thomas was the AL’s best hitter of the Nineties. 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

…On the traditional merits, his credentials [for the Hall of Fame] are certainly strong, with two MVP awards, five All-Star appearances, 521 homers, 2,468 hits, all-time top 25 rankings in OBP (.419) and SLG (.555), and the ninth-highest walk total (1667). 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 smallball-friendly Manuel and Ozzie Guillen, which has to count for something. Thomas’ only real shortcoming is a .224/.441/.429 line in 68 postseason PA.

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 PA, 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

In terms of JAWS, Thomas (90.2 Career WARP/58.1 Peak/74.2 JAWS) ranks third among first basemen (despite spending more than half his career at DH, that’s where he fits, but it doesn’t really matter) behind Lou Gehrig and Albert Pujols. In fact, the Big Hurt ranks 38th overall in JAWS, and 27th among non-pitchers. That’s not just a Hall of Famer, that’s an inner-circle one.

And for once, we’ve got a big slugger with a sterling reputation on the topic of steroids, so we can forgo the handwringing which will accompany seven of the other nine players who reached 500 homers during careers that broadly overlapped with that of the Big Hurt. At this juncture, Thomas, Ken Griffey Jr. and Jim Thome have reputations unsullied by any allegations regarding performance enhances, while Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Alex Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez and Gary Sheffield all do.

I’m not suggesting that we should throw a blanket on the latter group and keep them out of the Hall of Fame; it’s a complex issue that will take decades to sort out, given that each of those players has a maximum of 15 years on the ballot, and that some of them aren’t retired. I’m just celebrating a guy for whom that won’t be an issue, which is quite refreshing. Just one more reason why the Big Hurt will be missed.

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Oh, and while we’re on the subject, here’s a Reebok commercial for which my friend Adam Gravois did some effects work back in the mid-Nineties. It’s cheesy, but I can’t help but smile.

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