Big Hurt should be first-ballot Hall of Famer

    "These guys did put up some incredible numbers, but they're fake."

    --Frank Thomas

Thomas joins the Hall of Fame ballot next year -- along with Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Mike Mussina, among others -- and he believes he should go in on the first ballot. He says his numbers are for real, unlike some other big sluggers from his era, telling reporters at the White Sox fan festival over the weekend: "Watching all the nonsense unfold and not really knowing what was going on, it makes me much more proud of my career because I competed in that era and I played at a high level in that era."

Thomas is definitely right about his numbers; he should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, although I don't believe his election will be so automatic. First, some of those numbers:

  • A career line of .301/.419/.555 with 521 home runs, 1,704 RBIs and two American League MVP Awards.

  • Led the AL four times in on-base percentage and OPS and once in batting average and slugging percentage.

  • During his peak from 1990 through 2000, he hit .321/.440/.579 and averaged 31 home runs and 108 RBIs per season.

If you weren't a baseball fan in the early '90s, it's hard to explain what a devastating force Thomas was when he first arrived in the big leagues. In his first full season in 1991, he posted a .453 OBP and hit 32 home runs. He was the rare combination of the slugger who hit like George Brett or Rod Carew and had Wade Boggs' batting eye, but had power as well. When you talk about hitters who were "feared," well, Frank Thomas was feared. The "Big Hurt" nickname was earned with good reason.

When the White Sox won the AL West title in 1993 -- their first since 1983 -- Thomas was the unanimous MVP. He may not have been the best player in the league that year -- John Olerud actually had a higher OPS and was a better defensive first baseman and Ken Griffey Jr. had similar numbers playing center field, but Thomas was the heart, soul and force of the White Sox. He won his second MVP in the strike season of '94, hitting an insane .353/.487/.729, leading the league in OBP and slugging and collecting 24 of the 28 first-place votes.

Of course, by then everyone started putting up softball numbers and Thomas sort of became just another guy. When the White Sox won another division title in 2000, Thomas hit .328 and drove in 143 runs and finished second in the MVP vote. It would be his last season hitting .300; he missed most of 2001 and although he remained a big presence, he was never quite FRANK THOMAS again.

All that said, three reasons he'll have trouble getting in on the first ballot:

1. He only spent five seasons as a full-time first baseman. He did play a higher percentage of his games in the field than Edgar Martinez -- 42 percent to 28 percent -- but the DH factor could work against him.

2. The Edgar Martinez factor. How much better than Martinez was Thomas? Thomas does lead slightly in career Baseball-Reference WAR, 69.7 to 64.4, and certainly has big edges in home runs (521 to 309) and RBIs (1704 to 1261), but if you add up their 10 best seasons, Martinez edges out Thomas 56.1 WAR to 56.0. Their final slash lines are pretty similar: .301/.419/.555 for Thomas, .312/.418/.515 for Martinez (Thomas played 232 more games). The point here is that Martinez actually compares quite favorably with Thomas, but has languished below 40 percent of the vote.

3. The first-year bias. Simply put: Many voters won't vote for Thomas on the first ballot because they won't perceive him as a first-ballot guy.

Real numbers or not.