Frank Thomas' peak was beyond reproach

Jonathan Daniel

Record-setting offense made defensive concerns an afterthought

On Friday, we charted Frank Thomas' rapid ascent up the White Sox home run leaderboard. Here's how he made it happen season by season.

Year G PA R 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+ Awards
1990 60 240 39 11 3 7 31 44 54 .330 .454 .529 .983 177
1991 158 701 104 31 2 32 109 138 112 .318 .453 .553 1.006 180 MVP-3,SS
1992 160 711 108 46 2 24 115 122 88 .323 .439 .536 .975 174 MVP-8
1993 153 676 106 36 0 41 128 112 54 .317 .426 .607 1.033 177 AS,MVP-1,SS
1994 113 517 106 34 1 38 101 109 61 .353 .487 .729 1.217 212 AS,MVP-1,SS
1995 145 647 102 27 0 40 111 136 74 .308 .454 .606 1.061 179 AS,MVP-8
1996 141 649 110 26 0 40 134 109 70 .349 .459 .626 1.085 178 AS,MVP-8
1997 146 649 110 35 0 35 125 109 69 .347 .456 .611 1.067 181 AS,MVP-3
8 Yrs 1076 4790 785 246 8 257 854 879 582 .330 .452 .600 1.053 182

Since 1990, hitters besides Thomas have posted a 182 OPS+ in a season 24 times. Thomas averaged that over seven straight seasons, and at a time where it was hard to stand out offensively.

Take Mo Vaughn, who, in 1996, posted a line of .326/.420/.583, good for a 1.003 OPS. If he recreated that performance at Fenway Park in 2013, that would be an OPS+ in the neighborhood of 170, because it's been a pitching-friendly league the last few years.

In 1996, that performance was "only" good for a 150 OPS+. The entire league outpaced itself historically in terms of offensive production, so it was hard for individuals to outpace the league average. Yet even with offense exploding around the league, Thomas took it to a level few could reach, and nobody did it more consistently.

He had counting stats on his side, too. Thomas became the first player to finish with a .300 average, 100 walks, 100 runs scored and 100 RBI in six straight seasons ... and then he did it a seventh straight year.

That's even more stunning when considering reached those 100's while losing 39 games to the strike in 1994, his best season ever.

"I've played with some great players," White Sox radio analyst and Thomas teammate Darrin Jackson tells me, listing All-Stars and Hall of Famers from his stints with the Cubs, Padres and Blue Jays. "But then I got here in 1994, and I went, 'Holy crap. This is not fair.'"

"When Frank comes up, to me? I think the pitcher should have a button to be able to push, and the fence goes up automatically 20 feet to make it more fair. I couldn't believe how good of a hitter he was. This is the best hitter I've ever seen."

Thomas played every game that year, and had he been able to sustain that hellacious pace through the rest of the year, he would have finished with:

PA R 2B 3B HR RBI BB K BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
1994 741 152 49 1 55 145 156 87 .353 .487 .729 1.067 212

Thomas set franchise records in OPS, OPS+ and its components, but he would've also topped the list in runs, total bases, doubles, homers and walks.

To his teammates and the front office, Thomas hit well enough to render any debates about his defense irrelevant.

"He could catch the ball at first base, that wasn't an issue," Jackson said. "He wasn't known for his throwing ... he wouldn't really start many double plays."

Still, whatever outs Thomas couldn't make really didn't matter, because, "He drove in a lot more than he was going to give up."

Or, as former White Sox assistant general manager Dan Evans said, "There were three or four times a game that he came up to the plate, and nobody was too concerned about his throwing."

Evans said American League rules afforded the Sox the best of both worlds. They could keep his presence in the middle of the lineup and improve the defense at first if they so chose. Or, if both sides thought it would be better to play first, they could live with the results.

"Frank's value to the White Sox was to be an incredible offensive player. That's all we asked of him," Evans said. "We wanted him to be out there in the field and give us everything he had at the plate, and he did."

"And for that, you know? To be honest with you, I didn't give a damn about his defense, because his defense wasn't going to be such a problem that we couldn't play him out there. The problem we needed [him to solve] -- we needed him to hit."

And hit he did, better than any White Sox fans had ever seen. Even more remarkably, as we'll read in the next part, those unprecedented numbers come with no asterisks attached.

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