COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- There are plenty of traits that led Frank Thomas to one of the best careers in baseball history, but it might have been an awareness of his own swing that yielded Hall of Fame credentials.
Picking apart Thomas’ positive offensive traits has been a popular subject this week in advance of his induction to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown on Sunday.
There was Thomas’ patience at the plate that led to some robust numbers since he was a master at swinging at strikes. There was his ability to hit to the opposite field, essentially taking what the pitcher gave him, that helped to keep his run production high.
His raw, natural power has also been cited. Thomas has even suggested that the steroid era might have been influenced by hitters trying to match his natural strength. Thomas has long boasted that he did not touch performance-enhancing substances, crediting coaches from his football days at Auburn for setting him straight on the subject.
But for all Thomas did on the field, it was the things he did behind the scenes that might have been the most important. Thomas’ work with hitting guru Walt Hriniak laid the groundwork for a .301 career batting average over 19 seasons, a .419 on-base percentage, 521 home runs and 1,704 RBIs. In 16 seasons with the White Sox, he hit .307 with a .427 OBP, 448 HRs and 1,466 RBIs.
Thomas didn’t have the prettiest of swings, rocking his weight forward during a pitcher’s delivery and often kicking back his right foot at the point of contact. While many power hitters load up on their back foot, Thomas’ upper-body strength allowed him to cheat the process and get his weight centered earlier than most.
It may not have been a swing to teach, but Thomas got himself where he needed to be at the point of contact. More importantly, he knew how to get himself back into his ideal hitting zone as soon as that swing started to stray.
“Just from what I saw the years he was here, something he had learned obviously before I got here, but he was just really consistent and dialed in with his work,” said former teammate Paul Konerko. “He knew when things went bad and [he] wasn’t swinging the bat the way he wanted to. He had drills and just a whole formula on how to get himself back. He was very aware at all times where he was at with his swing.
“He knew what to do when it was good and knew what to do when he didn’t feel good. He kind of just knew and learned how to kind of get it back to where he wanted to and knew little tricks to do it. That all leads to the numbers and not going through long stretches with bad results. That’s what I saw.”
Another behind-the-scenes trait that served Thomas well was his ability to be self-motivated. Often criticized for focusing on personal statistics, it was that desire to have better numbers than anybody else in the game at the time that enabled Thomas to deliver success for the team.
“People used to ask me about his numbers [and say], 'Well, he's selfish,’” broadcaster Ken “Hawk” Harrelson said. “I said, 'He's not selfish. Guys do that.’ They have to find ways to motivate themselves. You know, 162 games, that's tough. It's really tough, and guys find ways to motivate themselves.”
Konerko seemed to have no issue with Thomas’ perceived stats fetish.
“Well I don’t know if that’s [it]; that sounds kind of bad to say just stats,” Konerko said when asked about Thomas’ motivator. “I just think it was a by-product of his work and his routines. Whoever got him early, when it was when he first got to pro ball or the big leagues, I think gave him kind of a framework and a structure on how to work. He stuck to it, and that produced all the numbers.
“When you are a first baseman/DH type, that’s kind of how people are going to judge you. Not too many times are they going to give you credit or care about anything else besides that.”
And what worked for Thomas probably wouldn’t have been the right course of action for anybody else. Former teammate and current White Sox manager Robin Ventura was a good hitter in his own right, but knew that he wasn’t going to have much success doing it Thomas’ way.
“He was a different hitter and he could do different things than everybody else, so I wasn't going to be in his league as far as being able to do those things,” Ventura said. “So you'd talk about certain things, but he was just able to do a lot more than everybody else. I wasn't going to be able to hit for power the way he did, so it had to be different for me.
“I mean you'd talk about little stuff here and there. You could talk to him and probably get information, but he was just different.”
With that ability to make solid contact, it didn’t take Harrelson long to tag Thomas with his “Big Hurt” nickname.
“He’d just go on a streak there for a while and every time he swung the bat I'd say, 'Man, he hurt it. He hurt it,’” Harrelson said. “All of the sudden I'm up there one day and he was running around first base and he had hit one out there deep, real deep, and it just blurted out. I'm watching him go around first base and, ‘The Big Hurt!'
“That's how it came about and it was a good one. I think it was voted what, third- or fourth-best [nickname] in baseball history. And he deserved it because he was the Big Hurt, no question about it.”