Yesterday came the unsurprising news that Frank Thomas is calling it a career, although that's really only a technicality as Thomas last played with Oakland and Toronto during the 2008 season. As a young Chicagoan who grew up watching Thomas, I never quite grasped his brilliance as youngin' , but I do have memories of his monster 2000 season, when he posted a .439 wOBA with 43 HR, 44 2B, a .328 batting average and 143 RBI. It was sad to see him leave Chicago on a relatively negative note, but it's likely that he'll go down as the greatest hitter to ever call Chicago his home.
Thomas wasn't just one of the best hitters of his generation. He was great on a historic level, one of the most well-rounded offensive players to ever grace the field. Just look at the raw stats: 521 home runs, 1704 RBI, nearly 500 doubles, and a .301/.419/.555 line over 19 seasons, mostly spent in Chicago. He had 13 seasons with 24+ home runs, and 6 seasons with at least 39 home runs. He finished his career with substantially more walks than strikeouts and he's in the top-40 all times in total bases and times on base. He only went to five all-star games, but he also won 2 AL MVP's and finished in finished in the top-10 in MVP voting nine times, while finishing in the top-3 on five occasions. He lead the league in OPS four times, OBP four times, walks four times, OPS+ three times and extra-base hits twice.
But it's in the less traditional statistics as well. His OPS is 15th best in history, better than Ty Cobb and Hank Aaron. His OPS+ is tied for 19th best in history, with Willie Mays and Dick Allen. His career WAR, according to Rally, is the 43rd best of all-time among position players, better than Tony Gwynn, and Johnnies Mize and Bench. He offered power and patience, along with incredible hitting ability that made him one of the most difficult hitters to pitch to of all time. He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer without a doubt, an absolute force offensively whose production easily made up for his lack of positional and defensive value.
Just look at his list of comparable players from Baseball Reference: Jeff Bagwell, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Fred McGriff, Mickey Mantle, Gary Sheffield, Carlos Delgado, Willie McCovey, Jimmie Foxx and Chipper Jones. Pretty solid company to be in.
Oh, and look at this seven-year run to start his career (1991-1997): a line of .330/.452/.604 (182 OPS+) with five all-star appearances, two MVP awards, top-10 MVP finishes in all seven years, and four top-3 finishes. The guy was like Albert Pujols at the plate year after year, for a period of time he was likely the best hitter in the game, if not the best player. And, it's worth noting that he managed to get through the Steroid Era with relatively little suspicion of PED use, and while that's certainly no assurance that he was clean, I get a better feeling about The Big Hurt than I do about Slammin' Sammy.
I just hope that when his time to hit the Hall of Fame ballot happens, his candidacy won't be docked for being a designated hitter for most of his career like it appears that Edgar Martinez's will be. Because Thomas wasn't just one of the better players of the 1990's, he's one of the best hitters in baseball history, and the best player that Chicago has had since Cap Anson. And that was, you know, a while back.
When I look back at my childhood memories of baseball, there will always be the towering shots of Sosa and the giddiness that I felt watching Mark Prior strikeout ten in his debut, but probably my earliest memory is a grand slam that Thomas hit in the 8th inning of a game against the Tigers in 2000 (or something close to that). My family and I had already left the stadium because it was pouring rain and the Sox were down, but I knew exactly what had happened when the entire crowd exploded as we drove away from Comiskey.
Thanks for an awesome career, Big Hurt.