One of the greatest hitters in the history of baseball finds himself back in the news, as Chicago White Sox legend Frank Thomas made it clear that he does not have much sympathy for the hitters of his era whose careers are clouded by PED usage. Thomas said unequivocally that his numbers are “clean” and that he fully expects to be inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame as part of the 2014 class.
This would be welcome news for the Hall itself, as the BBWAA failed to induct a player for the first time since 1996 despite a loaded ballot stocked with great candidates. Many voters could not get past the PED usage of some of the better players on the ballot, and the arrival of a PED-free candidate like Thomas should make for a welcome change.
But will the era he played in cause Thomas to be lost in the shuffle?
In terms of numbers, Frank Thomas has a Hall of Fame case that speaks for itself. The Big Hurt racked up 521 home runs during his 19-year career, hiting between 38 and 43 home runs on seven different occasions. But Thomas was more than just a lumbering slugger, utilizing one of the game’s great batting eyes to rack up a .301 batting average and a .419 on-base percentage in his career. For much of the 1990s, Thomas was walked at a rate that compared favorably with Barry Bonds, creating a juicy argument as to which player was actually the most-feared hitter in the game.
Not surprisingly, Thomas won back-to-back MVP awards in 1993-94 and cracked the top ten in the balloting on seven other occasions.
Many people view Frank Thomas as a classic hulking first baseman whose job was simply to mash at the plate. This, unfortunately, is the only thing that might keep him out of the Hall of Fame.
As brilliant as brilliant as he was with the bat, Thomas provided very little value on defense during his career. As such, Thomas actually spent more time at DH than first base, taking the field in only 41% of his games. Voters have been slow to accept players who do not play in the field as legitimate Hall candidates; among current inductees, Paul Molitor (a first-ballot selection in 2004) is the only position player who spent the majority of his career as a DH.
Molitor was inducted primarily because he cleared 3000 hits, which has long been considered a benchmark number for Hall of Fame induction. This should actually work in Thomas’ favor, as 500 career home runs has also long been considered a benchmark.
Unfortunately for Thomas, this might be the worst possible era for a 500-homer player to be on the ballot.
As a power hitter whose weight hovered around 250, Thomas is almost certain to have the s-word come up when discussing his Hall of Fame case. This is certain to happen even though there is not a shred of evidence to suggest he was juicing during his career.
Thomas has always been big physically – a former tight end, he teamed with Bo Jackson on the Auburn football team for a year. Thomas was also a vocal supporter of PED testing throughout his career and was also the only player in baseball who agreed to be interviewed for the Mitchell Report.
In short, Frank Thomas did as much as any player to prove his innocence with regard to PED usage.
But will this matter with the voters? If the player most-comparable to Thomas is any indication, than perhaps not.
The career of Jeff Bagwell parallels Thomas so perfectly that the two were actually born on the exact same day. Thomas played longer, but Bagwell was a much better defensive player at first base and was actually slightly more valuable in his career in terms of WAR. And like Thomas, there is also not a shred of evidence to suggest that Bagwell dabbled in PED usage during his career.
Yet Bagwell has yet to crack 60% support in his three years on the ballot, and suspected PED usage is the only reason ever given for leaving him out. I suspect that Thomas is also vulnerable to this trap, even though The Big Hurt has done everything to prove otherwise.
In any other era, inducting Frank Thomas into the Baseball Hall of Fame would be a foregone conclusion. But voters do not consider this era to be the same as those who came before it, and Thomas is likely to pay the price. Next year’s Hall of Fame ballot will be among the strongest in the history of the current voting system, and Thomas is not even the biggest no-brainer candidate. As such, it would not be surprising if The Big Hurt had to wait a year or two for Hall induction.
And yes, it would be shameful if this happens.