Rushing a Prestigious Fraternity
Frank Thomas slugged the 475th home run of his career on Wednesday night to tie Stan Musial and Willie Stargell for 23rd place on the all-time list. Moreover, he is now just 25 HR shy of 500. Despite all the rhetoric about how easy it now is to club 500 homers, there are still only 20 players in the history of the game who have reached that milestone.
The player known throughout the game as The Big Hurt not only is closing in on 500 HR but is also hitting over .300 for his career with a little room to spare. Entering Friday night's game at Texas, Thomas has 2,229 hits in 7,303 at-bats (.3052). If he maintains his current pace this year and goes something like 25-for-95 the rest of the way, he will head into next season with 2,254 hits in 7,398 at-bats (.3047).
Barring a complete collapse, in order for Thomas to fall below the .300 mark for his career, he would have to hit under .220 with 450 or more AB. Although that's certainly within the realm of possibilities, it is unlikely for two reasons: (1) Thomas has never hit worse than .252 over a full season and (2) he probably wouldn't get that many AB if he was hitting so poorly.
Should Thomas call it quits after the 2007 season, he seems like a decent bet to finish his career with at least 500 HR and a .300 or better batting average. If so, he would become just the seventh retired player to reach those magic numbers. (The operative word here is retired because Manny Ramirez, with 469 career dingers, is the odds-on favorite to beat Thomas to the 500 club next year. The Boston slugger also has a career batting average of .315. As a result, he stands an excellent chance of joining Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams, and Mel Ott upon retirement in this exclusive fraternity.)
HR >= 500
AVG >= .300
1 Hank Aaron 755 .305
2 Babe Ruth 714 .342
3 Willie Mays 660 .302
4 Jimmie Foxx 534 .325
5 Ted Williams 521 .344
6 Mel Ott 511 .304
Interestingly, Barry Bonds has dipped below the .300 lifetime mark this year to .298. It would be nearly impossible for Bonds to lift his average back up to the .300 level this late in his career. Nonetheless, the fraternity could gain new membership over time as Alex Rodriguez (455, .305) is a lock to hit 500 but a much longer shot to maintain a .300 batting average. At 37, Gary Sheffield (453, .298) is borderline on both fronts. Vladimir Guerrero (332, .324), who won't turn 30 until December [correction: he celebrated his 30th birthday on February 9, 2006], seems like a distinct possibility to join this exclusive club in due time. Albert Pujols (239, .332) has a ways to go but figures to learn the secret handshake as well.
While it is far too early to speculate on youngsters such as Miguel Cabrera and David Wright, I think we can safely assume that veterans Jeff Bagwell (449, .297), Jason Giambi (349, .293), Ken Griffey Jr. (561, .291), Chipper Jones (350, .304), and Mike Piazza (415, .309)--as good as they have been--are likely to fall short in at least one of the two departments. In other words, there may be no more than a dozen players in the history of baseball ten years from now who have combined hitting 500 HR with a .300 lifetime batting average.
Thomas, if and when he makes it, will clearly be at the low end in both areas. But, hey, that's OK when you are rubbing elbows with many of the best hitters ever. Granted, Frank's defensive shortcomings may prevent him from being thought of as an "inner circle" Hall of Famer but his offensive production is such that there should be no question as to his Cooperstown worthiness when it comes time to vote for him.
Oh sure, Thomas benefited by playing in a higher-scoring environment than many of his brethren. And, by serving as a designated hitter, he was also able to extend his career beyond those who weren't afforded the same luxury. That said, there have been dozens and dozens of DHs during Big Frank's career who have not come close to putting up such prodigious numbers.
In the category of what have you done for me lately, it's almost easy to forget just how great Thomas was in his first seven full seasons. From 1991-1997, Thomas hit .330/.452/.604 with an average of 36 HR, 34 2B, 171 H, 119 BB, 107 R, and 118 RBI. He scored and knocked in more than 100 runs every year. Thomas also walked over 100 times each season. The guy was an on-base machine. His lowest OBP during this stretch was .426. Looked at it a different way, he averaged getting on-base exactly two times per game.
Thomas lost games in 1994 and 1995 owing to the strike. In fact, he was in the midst of one of the greatest seasons of all time--certainly by a RHB in the post-War era--when the work stoppage cut short the 1994 campaign on August 12. He was limited to 113 games that year and the 1995 season was revised to 144 games.
From 1991-1997, Thomas finished in the top 10 of the Most Valuable Player voting every year, winning back-to-back MVPs in 1993 and 1994. Big Frank is the only player in MLB history to hit .300 with at least 100 BB, 100 R, 100 RBI, and 20 HR for seven consecutive seasons.
Thomas struggled over the next two seasons but bounced back in 2000 when he hit .328 with a career-high 43 homers, 115 runs, and 143 runs batted in. The slugger finished second in the MVP voting that season. He was slowed by injuries in 2001, then returned and had a sub-par year in 2002, before rebounding once again in 2003 to hit 42 HR along with 100 BB and 105 RBI.
After a couple more injury-riddled seasons, Thomas (.268/.390/.524 with 27 HR in only 347 AB) has risen from the scrap heap a third time and is one of the mainstays of the AL West-leading A's offense this year. Although the 38-year-old DH is definitely in the twilight of his career, fans and HOF voters alike should take note of just how great he was during the 1990s.
With or without 500 HR and a .300 lifetime average, Thomas is one of the top two dozen most productive hitters in the history of the sport. Now that, in and of itself, is a pretty prestigious fraternity.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]
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Update: Sports Illustrated ran a concurrent article on Frank Thomas. It is a good read.