|Monday, July 22
Updated: July 23, 3:02 PM ET
Hall debates: Frank Thomas
By Joe Sheehan
Special to ESPN.com
Note: With Ozzie Smith being inducted into the Hall of Fame this weekend, we'll take a look at five other players and their Hall of Fame debates, one each day throughout the week.
Is this a Hall of Famer?
Years AB HITS RUN 2B 3B HR RBI AVG OBP SLG 11 5474 1755 1083 361 10 344 1183 .321 .440 .579
The raw numbers are a little low in what is a very short career, but given the performance and the monster rate stats, I think most people would agree that this player is a worthy honoree.
How about this guy?
Years AB HITS RUN 2B 3B HR RBI AVG OBP SLG 2 403 97 52 23 1 18 68 .241 .335 .437
Not in this or any other reality, unless perhaps we're talking about one hell of a pitcher, and he keeps it up for a while.
You've probably figured out that we're talking about the same player in both cases. Frank Thomas, who was the game's dominant batsman in the 1990s, has seen his performance drop dramatically in the past two seasons. He missed almost all of 2001 with an arm injury, and hasn't hit at anything resembling an acceptable level for a DH in 2002 (.245/.342/.436).
The 2001-02 falloff is most dramatic, but in fact, Thomas' career path is stranger than that. After being the game's best hitter for the first eight years of his career, Thomas has hit at his established level just once in the past five years. Sure, Thomas' subpar 1998 (.265/.381/.480, 29 home runs) and 1999 (.305/.414/.471, 15 home runs) would seem fine by most players' standards, but Thomas had established a level of performance so high that these seasons were pedestrian for him.
This would have seemed like a silly column even two years ago, when Thomas followed up those two mediocre campaigns by finishing second in the MVP voting after hitting .328/.436/.625 and leading the White Sox to the AL Central crown. In fairness to Thomas, it still might be ridiculous to question his qualifications. Per baseball-reference.com, Thomas is deep into Hall of Fame territory by some of the accepted methods of measuring such things:
Thomas also does pretty well if you run his career through the Ken Keltner List, getting positive responses to 10 or 11 of the 15 questions therein.
Wow, that sounds a lot like Dale Murphy.
Murphy also won back-to-back MVPs at his peak, and he even tacked a huge year in his early thirties -- 1987 -- before falling off the face of the earth. Jim Rice had a similar career path as well, with a shorter decline phase after his last good season. (Albert Belle, with a comparable career path to Rice, is almost certain to be treated badly by the voters, albeit for other reasons.) Neither player has been embraced by the BBWAA in Hall of Fame voting, which is why it's worth wondering if Thomas has to do more to assure himself immortality.
Thomas has better credentials than those two do, but a lot of his value is in his walks, which aren't the sexiest line on a Hall of Fame resumé. Additionally, Thomas has essentially no career defensive value, and by the time he retires, may have spent more time as a DH than as a first baseman. There are pockets of resistance against that type of player in the BBWAA, so Thomas may be best served by reaching some milestones like 400 home runs, while keeping his rate stats high enough to make him appear to be a no-brainer. It's very difficult to keep a 980 OPS out of the Hall of Fame. OK, it's impossible, but put nothing past the BBWAA.
Of greatest concern is Thomas' list of most comparable players. Throughout his peak, Thomas was most comparable to Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg. Now, however, he is most comparable to Jeff Bagwell (which is eerie, given that the two were both born on May 27, 1968), who also falls into a nebulous gray area. Of Thomas' top 10 comps, just three (Greenberg, Johnny Mize and Chuck Klein) are enshrined. The rest of his list consists of Dick Allen and a bunch of contemporary players, none of whom is a good bet to be voted in (Juan Gonzalez, Larry Walker, Edgar Martinez, Albert Belle).
Yes, Thomas is probably a Hall of Famer, but given his complete lack of defensive contributions and his performance since the age of 30, it's fair to look at him and wonder what happens if he continues to slouch towards retirement. Another big year, or even a couple of 1999s, would really help him at this point. If he really is as done as his last 400 at-bats seem to indicate, then he may be sweating out the middle of January for a while after he retires.
If you don't believe me, ask Dale Murphy.
You can check out more work from the team of writers of the Baseball Prospectus (tm) at their web site at baseballprospectus.com. Joe Sheehan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.