All the wrong reasons to be nervous about Frank Thomas' Hall of Fame case

Jonathan Daniel

Numbers used to speak for themselves, but nobody knows what they're talking about anymore

It's finally time for Frank Thomas to appear on a Hall of Fame ballot, and it should be the only time this is necessary.

He should be a slam-dunk candidate. He's one of 15 players in MLB history to finish with a career .300/.400/.500 line over 2,000 games, and only Babe Ruth, Manny Ramirez, Jimmie Foxx and Ted Williams have more homers among that group. He's got the 11th-highest OPS+ in history (156), and the top 10 are inner-circle Hall of Famers and Barry Bonds.

And if you're a peak voter, he's even better. His first eight years rank among the greatest in major-league history. From 1990 to 1997, he hit .330/.452/.600, good for an OPS+ of 182.

The top five:

  1. Ted Williams, 195
  2. Frank Thomas, 182
  3. Ty Cobb, 180
  4. Lou Gehrig, 179
  5. Mickey Mantle, 176

Thomas' peak was so devastating that it's difficult to comprehend. Hawk Harrelson inadvertently does Thomas a disservice when he says Miguel Cabrera might go down as the greatest right-handed hitter the game has ever seen. As brilliant as Cabrera has been the last four years, he's still not quite as good as Peak Thomas. And he still needs to keep up this level for three more years to stay in the conversation. It'd be much more effective if Harrelson said, "You know how everybody looks at Miguel Cabrera now? Thomas was even harder to get out."

Thomas supplemented his peak with a traditional decline phase -- injuries, rebound seasons, and a change to his plate approach to address physical shortcomings as he moved into his late-30's. Even though he made concessions to time, he still reached milestone numbers while preserving that beautiful .300+ career batting average.

Throw in two MVPs and an honorary third one, and there should be no doubts. Over the next month, we're going to explore his career and case even more, because it's a ton of fun for a White Sox fan. Throw in a plaque-able nickname and a presence that any baseball fan remembers, and it's really, really hard to come up with a sustainable argument against him.

Yet even with this resume, Thomas isn't getting his hopes up.

Thomas, of whom there never was any suggestion he was using PEDs over his career, has said in the past he believes he's worthy of first-ballot induction. But on Tuesday Thomas declined to speculate on his chances, knowing it's an unpredictable process in this muddied era.

"I'm honored and thrilled to be part of this class," Thomas told the Tribune. "Unfortunately, it's one of the biggest and best classes, so I am nervous."

Thomas said he was too "superstitious" to talk about his candidacy and would wait until the announcement before speaking his mind.

Thomas has a right to be nervous, because the system is colossally messed up. I can think of 10 reasons why voters would choose to omit Thomas on this ballot, most of which have nothing to do with Thomas himself.

History says voters could pass over Thomas because:

  • No. 1: They aren't voting for anybody.
  • No. 2: They aren't voting for players who played during the steroid era.
  • No. 3: They aren't voting for big sluggers who played during the steroid era.

I used to think the voters who engaged in grandstanding by turning in a blank ballot didn't really have a purpose in having a ballot. But they might be on more reasonable ground than the voters who think they know who used based on arbitrary dates, or drawing inferences from looks and numbers.

Thomas had no ties to PEDs, advocated stronger testing during his playing days, came into the league as a massive guy and aged like an athlete used to. That's about all he can do to combat conjecture with the frame God gave him, but it might not be enough for the circumstantial-evidence voter detectives.

  • No. 4: They didn't like their interactions with Thomas.

Thomas wasn't the best at presenting himself through the media. Granted, it's not like he's anywhere close to Bonds or Kevin Brown in terms of alienating writers, but there'll be on-the-fence voters who decide based on warm feelings, and Thomas didn't generate the fuzzies the way others did.

  • No. 5: They don't consider Thomas a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
  • No. 6: There is a virtually perfect candidate on the list, which makes Thomas less first-balloty.
  • No. 7: [Insert great player] wasn't a unanimous candidate, so [current player] can't be.

Dennis Eckersley. Cy Young.

One of these pitchers was so great that they named the award for the league's best pitcher after him.

One of these pitchers made it into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.

Somehow, they are not the same person.

There is no official delineation between first-ballot HOF and a 15th-ballot Hall of Famer, but voters make one up to make themselves harder to get. So Thomas, who isn't a flawless candidate, may get dinged by this faction.

Moreover, historical vote totals show that superior candidates tend to have a chilling effect on lesser candidates. Carlton Fisk may have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but he had the misfortune of sharing a first class with Nolan Ryan, George Brett and Robin Yount. Fisk had to wait a year.

There will be some voters who say "Maddux! I did my job this year." Others may tie Tom Glavine to him to make induction day more precious.

And some won't even vote for Maddux, because Hank Aaron wasn't unanimous, because Ted Williams wasn't, because Babe Ruth wasn't ...

  • No. 8: They're biased against designated hitters.

Hey, a baseball reason. And it wouldn't be a bad one, if Thomas' hitting credentials weren't as insane as they are.

I wish ballots were public, so I could compare the votes for closers against votes for designated hitters. Both aren't as involved in the game as their peers, but one actually occupies a real, rules-mandated position.

  • No. 9: Recency bias

See above. Make his first eight years his last eight years, and he'd stand out more. Except then people would suspect him of using PEDs, so he can't win either way.

  • No. 10: They have 10 players they like better.

This reason is actually a good one. I don't buy that there are 10 better candidates on the ballot, but the 10-player limit does encourage voters to rationalize unnatural cut-off lines. Maybe the voter doesn't like taking away votes from players who have always received their support. Or a voter might be compelled to vote strategically if a candidate risks losing ground they can't cover.

Last year, a voter who wasn't concerned about PEDs could've put together a ballot of 10 to 14 names. All of those players are still eligible, and now Thomas, Maddux, Glavine, Mike Mussina and Jeff Kent jump in. That's now 19 names for 10 spots, and it's a brutal game of musical chairs.

Somebody who is a big supporter of Alan Trammell might know that he has an uphill climb. That voter also knows that Maddux is a no-brainer, and Maddux isn't going to need his vote to get in. Thus, a vote for Maddux goes to Trammell. Except with Maddux, it'd be historically stupid not to vote for him, but maybe they know Thomas is eventually going to get in, so perhaps he drops off somebody's ballot to make room.

This shouldn't be a big factor for Thomas, because the average ballot contained just 6.6 votes last year. There's room on this theoretical ballot for Thomas, Maddux and Glavine, leading to a robust Hall of Fame class and an incredible turnout in Cooperstown.

In fact, none of these may be big factors individually. But 75 percent is a high hurdle, enough so that it only takes some political votes, some petty votes, some arbitrary votes, and some people who stopped following baseball entirely to thwart a campaign -- and Thomas can't do anything about any of it. The powerlessness is a good reason to temper optimism, and as the electorate becomes even more confused about their purpose and the process, the BBWAA's ability to agree on anything or anybody shouldn't be underestimated.

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