FEBRUARY 1, 2004
The True Big Hurt
By Steve Lombardi, NetShrine.com

Chicago White Sox’ Designated Hitter Frank Thomas has had his name in the news often recently.  There is much speculation about a riff between Thomas (aka “The Big Hurt”) and Sox management – specifically the new Sox field manager – Ozzie Guillen.  This spotlight on Thomas has brought cause for a closer look at his career, to date.  

Frank Thomas became a full time major leaguer in the 1991 season (at the age of 23).  From 1991 through 1997, Frank Thomas did things at the plate that few major leaguers have ever accomplished.  In fact, there is an excellent case to be made that the only other major league batters to have such a run, for seven years in a row (like Thomas’ seasons), would be Babe Ruth (1926-1932) and Lou Gehrig (1930-1936).  That is some nice company.  (Ted Williams does deserve honorable mention here – as he probably would have joined this group, if not for serving during the war.)  However, beginning in 1998, “The Big Hurt” had his game go down a few notches.  From 1998 through 2003, Frank Thomas performed more like Jim Edmonds (of the St. Louis Cardinals) than Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig (see below for more).  And, while Edmonds is a fine hitter, he is no Babe or Iron Horse.


                                       OWP       G       PA       OPS      RC    
Jim Edmonds                .690      792     3250     .947      609  
Frank Thomas               .663      775     3378     .917      600

And, it gets worse if you look even closer at Thomas from 1998 through 2003 – and realized that his totals for this period are bolstered by his 2000 season (when he had a great - but not incredible - year).

Therefore, in reality, Frank Thomas’ career looks like this, when broken down:

1991 – 1997:   7 seasons of incredible offensive production - nearly without parallel
1998 – 1999:   2 seasons where his production dropped considerably
2000 (alone):   1 season nearly matching the levels from 1991 to 1997
2001 – 2003:   3 seasons where production dropped from previous levels
                          (with an acknowledgment that he was injured in 2001)

Based on this, it is safe to state that (to date) 62% of Thomas' career has been outstanding and 38% of his career, while very good, was not at levels previously attained by him.  In other words, nearly two-thirds of Thomas' career has been stupendous and about a third, by comparison, has been a left down.  So, what happened?

First of all, in September 1997, Frank Thomas signed a contract extension for six years (at a huge annual salary).  Secondly, when Thomas reported to Spring Training in 1998, he reported to camp noticeably overweight (for the first time in his career).  Also, beginning in 1998, Thomas became (at the age of 30) predominantly a designated hitter (rather than a first basemen) - at his request. 

Putting together the pieces of the puzzle, it is not a stretch to say that Frank Thomas, beginning in 1998, went from being “The Big Hurt” to becoming somewhat of “The Big Fat Lazy Cat.”

As a result of this evolvement, Thomas went from being “possibly the greatest right handed batter ever” and a “media/fan/management favorite” to become a “what happened to him?” player and a “media/fan/management whipping boy.”

Frank Thomas will be 36 years old for the 2004 baseball season.  It is very reasonable to expect him be able to perform for another three seasons beyond 2004.  If Thomas produces from 2004 through 2007 at the same levels (on average) as he has since 1998, he will end up with a very impressive career and a place in the Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame.

And, as many would offer, what is wrong with that?  Considering how many players make the Hall of Fame, there is no shame whatsoever there – in fact, it is a truly great accomplishment.

Still, when one had a chance to be “The Best Ever” and “settles” to become “One of The Greatest Ever” there is that natural reaction (albeit fair or not) to consider their career as somewhat of a disappointment.

For that above reason, the hope here is that Frank Thomas performs in 2004 (and beyond) at the levels he achieved during 1991 through 1997.  Then it could be said that for seventy percent of his career, he was among the best batters ever – and with (then) a dozen such seasons to his credit, he would have to be considered as one of the greatest right handed batters ever. 

Until this happens, former players such as Rogers Hornsby and Jimmie Foxx will remain in the debate of “Best Ever” (for right handed batters) and Frank Thomas will be excluded from the argument.

Perhaps that is the biggest hurt of them all.

Steve Lombardi is the Creator & Curator of NetShrine.com.  Scrawling On The Scorecard appears regularly during the baseball season and sporadically during the off-season.  Steve can be contacted at sots@netshrine.com

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