It is hard to comprehend that the best baseball player of the entire 1990s is underrated. History has largely overshadowed Frank Thomas, in a very unfair way. While Thomas’ accomplishments were amazing, the steroids era diminished Thomas’ pure achievements. Nevertheless, Thomas was an amazing baseball player. Rightfully underrated or not, he was the best player of the 1990s.
It is easy to forget just how good Frank Thomas was. He never hit below .308 in his first eight seasons in the major leagues. While many memories rightfully call a barrage of home runs to mind, it is easy to forget he also hit for average. He even hit .349 and .347 in consecutive seasons in 1996 and 1997. Those seasons, by the way, were not the two consecutive seasons he won MVP trophies. He won that hardware in 1993 and 1994, hitting .317 and .353 respectively. He also finished second in the MVP voting once, third twice, and fourth once, when playing for the Oakland A’s in the twilight of his career – at the age of 38.
But, this debate is to determine not which of the three players represented was the best throughout their career, but which was the best in the 1990s. That crown, too, belongs to Frank Thomas.
Besides the two MVP trophies Thomas won in the 1990s, he also had outstanding stats, which are great for perspective. Thomas averaged 30 home runs a season in the ‘90s, hitting a total of 301. He also knocked in more than a thousand runs, finally landing on 1,040. His 317 doubles are excellent, and his 1,564 hits are truly remarkable. He hit .320, as well, for the entire decade. That average, by the way, is 18 points higher than Griffey’s. Thomas also won the batting title in 1997, a favorite accomplishment of his because he “didn’t get those cheap infield hits.”
Thomas, also known as the Big Hurt, was the most feared hitter in baseball. More than Griffey, more than anyone. Griffey won an MVP in 1997, but that doesn’t compare to Thomas outright dominance of the league in two straight seasons. Thomas was intimidating, in a game changing kind of way. And, he was not cocky in the same way Griffey was. Griffey was rightfully confident, but Thomas never hit a home run and threw his arms up in the air, or threw the bat down, or showboated. Thomas put his head down and ran.
Some additional context on Thomas’ two straight MVPs – he is one of only six players in the history of baseball to accomplish that feat. He belongs among the ranks of players like Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Hal Newhouser, and Jimmie Foxx.
One of the reasons I really like Frank Thomas as a player – beyond the great stats, the impact on the game, and his many other great accomplishments – is because I also liked him as a person. I didn’t like Frank Thomas in a “I would love to grab a beer with that guy” kind of way, either. Rather, I really liked him because he was brazen and relentlessly honest. In that context, his unwillingness to admit steroids or HGH use is authentic, credible, and admirable. He’s just a big dude. He’s a big dude that hit a bunch of homers. And, the steroids era negatively impacted no player more than Frank Thomas. Most of Thomas’ accomplishments are credible, but greatly overshadowed by the fraudulently augmented numbers produced by players like Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire – guys that used performance enhancing drugs.
Thomas, in many ways, was the only player of the steroids era to aggressively campaign against them and deride players for their use. Thomas was attempting to protect his own legacy by preventing cheaters from surpassing his numbers. While he was not able to do that ultimately, Thomas left nothing on the table. He was the only active MLB player to speak on the record for the Mitchell Report.
Here are some comments from Thomas about speaking to George Mitchell:
“There were a lot of guys who wanted to speak out,” Thomas said. “I’m glad I did speak out, because if I didn’t I would’ve been on that list of ‘Wouldn’t talk to George Mitchell.’ That would’ve put a stain on my career and I’m not going to let anyone stain my career.”
“It’s obvious now that there were a lot of guys involved with steroids and HGH. I’m shocked, because I played in that era and had to compete against it. But I’m shocked there were so many guys involved.”
On and off the field Thomas had a major impact on the game of baseball. While the 1990s has many good players, the decade’s best PURE player was Frank Thomas.
Thomas is not the sexiest name of the 1990s. He is underrated, and over-forgotten. And while some experts like Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci, have only gone so far as to name Thomas the best White Sox player in history, the time for further reflection will come on August 29 of this year when the White Sox retire his number. Then, and later when he is a first ballot Hall of Famer, folks will begin to understand just what an amazing player Frank Thomas was.