Frank Thomas: A sure thing from his first swings

Memorable batting practice session preceded a brief minor-league career that could have even been shorter

A funny thing about Frank Thomas: After the White Sox took him with the seventh-overall pick, he sounded more like a prize free agent than a draft selection. From the Chicago Sun-Times on June 6, 1989.

"I was hoping Chicago got me," Thomas said from his home in Columbus, Ga. "They're not doing well at first base or doing well as a team. I'm excited about that. I think I can help."

In fact, Thomas said he thought he could help "in about a year."

In the front office, the Sox thought the world of Thomas. Dan Evans, player personnel administrator under Himes, said they would have picked him with the first overall spot (Baltimore selected pitcher Ben McDonald), but they had to cross their fingers that six other teams would pass. He knew of at least two teams that had Thomas on their board, and when you look at the players selected around Thomas, sure things were in short supply.

OvPck Tm Pos WAR G BA OPS G W L ERA
1 Orioles Ben McDonald (minors) RHP 20.9 211 .000 .000 211 78 70 3.91
2 Braves Tyler Houston (minors) C 1.5 700 .265 .735
3 Mariners Roger Salkeld (minors) RHP 0.3 45 .031 .092 45 10 10 5.61
4 Phillies Jeff Jackson (minors) OF
5 Rangers Donald Harris (minors) OF -1.4 82 .205 .530
6 Cardinals Paul Coleman (minors) OF
7 White Sox Frank Thomas (minors) 1B 73.6 2322 .301 .974
8 Cubs Earl Cunningham (minors) OF
9 Angels Kyle Abbott (minors) LHP -1.3 57 .097 .254 57 4 17 5.20
10 Expos Charles Johnson (minors) C 22.5 1188 .245 .762

Luck allowed the Sox to draft Thomas. Once it only became a matter of talent, luck could take the next eight years off.

Star-divide

A few weeks after the Sox drafted him, Thomas came to Chicago to sign and make a formal introduction. Speaking what was frequently referred to as a "quiet confidence," Thomas once again suggested he could address the Sox' misfortunes sooner rather than later.

"I know they're having a rough year. You don't like to see that, but it's encouraging for me."

After his first in-person media session, he took his inaugural round of batting practice and put on a display that anybody watching couldn't get out of their minds.

Evans said that the majority of guys struggle in this setting, because they feel pressure to show the observers -- big-league staff, media members -- the reason why the team drafted him. Even Thomas wasn't impervious from nerves, but he had a way of steeling himself.

"He went out and put on the greatest power exhibition I have ever seen in batting practice," Evans said. "He hit so many balls that were just missiles into the upper deck, that I think everybody who saw him that day was stunned. It's one thing to hype a guy, it's one thing to speak highly of him, but this is 3:30, 4:00 in the afternoon. There's nobody there but us, so we were a lot more open in our conversation.

"He went out in the next 15 minutes, he put himself in a position where we all knew we were watching the beginning of what was going to be a great career. There was zero doubt. He hit balls harder and farther than just anybody we had ever seen and that ballpark was the most pitching-friendly ballpark I've ever been a ballpark. He made the upper deck look short."

Thomas' display impressed manager Jeff Torborg just as much. In a Chicago Sun-Times article from April 1, 1990, Torborg said:

"He looked like he belonged. Normally, big guys have big swings with big holes. He looked as selective as anybody we had. He's got big power. It's dangerous."

At the time, writers speculated Thomas would make his pro-ball debut in Birmingham, just like their last polished collegiate hitter did. One difference -- Ventura didn't play pro ball in the year he was drafted. Thomas started right away, so the Sox made it a more gradual process for him.

Star-divide

Thomas did what he could to accelerate it. He made easy work of rookie ball, and figured out A-ball pitching relatively quickly, too. Though he only played 55 games, he led Sarasota in home runs. From the Sun-Times on Sept. 15, 1989, scouting director Al Goldis said about Thomas, "He thinks he's going to be a superstar, but he's not cocky about it. The fans are going to love him."

Like Ventura, Thomas started his first full professional season with the Barons. Unlike Ventura, Thomas didn't need the full year. He probably didn't even need half of it. In fact, when the Sox called him up on Aug. 1, 1990, he said he was equal parts nervous and ... miffed.

The White Sox had accelerated Fernandez, who had just finished his career at the University of Miami that spring, while Thomas took a fast, but slower approach, to reaching the big time.

"I was excited about them bringing me up, but I just felt I was wasting time. They were such a bad ballclub and they were spinning my wheels. They were bringing up Fernandez (who made just four starts in Double-A) but I dominated Birmingham day in and day out."

Thomas had such a dynamite spring that there were calls for him to break camp with the club, and he only bolstered everybody's confidence in him during the next four months at Double-A. But a couple things worked against him.

For one, they weren't "such a bad ballclub" in 1990. In fact, they spent most of the year contending in the AL West, even though Carlos Martinez and his .224/.252/.327 line handled most of the first base duties. More to the point, though, Thomas had built up such a gargantuan prospect profile that the Sox felt pressure to get it right the first time.

"We felt there were parts of his game that needed some slight refinement, and we knew once we brought him up, we were probably not going to have an opportunity to send him down," Evans said. "We wanted him to be as complete as he could be offensively and defensively before we made that move."

They could both be right. Thomas probably could have improved the lineup before June, but once he reached the majors, he arrived practically fully formed.

Thomas' minor-league stats
Year Age Tm Lev G PA H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
1989 21 2 Teams A-Rk 72 289 71 14 1 5 41 42 36 .296 .405 .425 .830
1989 21 White Sox Rk 17 66 19 5 0 1 11 11 3 .365 .470 .519 .989
1989 21 Sarasota A 55 223 52 9 1 4 30 31 33 .277 .386 .399 .785
1990 22 Birmingham AA 109 474 114 27 5 18 71 112 74 .323 .487 .581 1.068
3 Seasons 191 804 193 42 6 24 116 157 118 .306 .447 .506 .952

Star-divide

Upon reaching the majors, Thomas spent the first week battling butterflies, saying he was "a nervous wreck" and tried telling himself he was still in Birmingham to help him relax.

At the plate, he looked nervous for six at-bats. He went 0-for-4 in his debut on Aug. 2, then popped out in his first two at-bats on Aug. 3. He showed a bit more restraint in his third crack at Milwaukee starter Mark Knudson ... and nearly left the yard.

Once Thomas started hitting, it was nearly impossible to stop him. A review of his game logs shows only two stretches that could be classified as slumps over the first 1½ years of his career:

  • In 1990: 8-for-44 from Aug. 22 to Sept. 5.
  • In 1991: 4-for-27 from July 26 to July 24

Of course, with Thomas' batting eye, he still managed to post OBPs above .300 during those downturns.

"He was slump-proof," Evans said. "He didn't chase bad balls. He didn't get into bad habits. He was a target the moment he came up. Everybody knew they had to get him out to beat us, so as a result, he carried a lot of pressure throughout his career and delivered -- and delivered as well as any right-handed hitter in the last 30, 40 years."

It's really difficult to overstate Thomas' batting eye. In his first full season, Thomas hit .318 with 32 homers and 109 RBI. He led the league with 138 walks, which fueled an AL best .453 OBP, 1.006 OPS and 180 OPS+. The season was good enough for a third-place finish in MVP voting behind Cal Ripken Jr. and Cecil Fielder (only Ripken deserved it more).

His numbers could have taken a bigger hit when Thomas suffered the worst from a collision at first base. A throw from Charlie Hough glanced off the shoulder of Kansas City's Terry Shumpert and hit Thomas in the teeth, and a subsequent collision left Thomas with a jammed wrist as well.

He missed the next four games, unable to even take flips on the side. It cooled him off -- after hitting .354 from the start of July, he hit just .269 the rest of the season.

His OBP over those last 23 games: .424. Even when he was feeling his worst, Thomas was among the best in the league. When he was right, he was the best hitter in baseball, and soon enough, the greatest hitter the White Sox ever had. That draft-day confidence was warranted.

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