Frank Thomas’s decision to retire should not spark any real debate about his Hall of Fame chances. Thomas career numbers, dominant peak, and his mini-peak in his mid-30s all but assure his election. The only thing that could possibly derail Thomas’s chances would be some evidence that he had used steroids, but although he played most of his career in the steroid era, Thomas has never been seriously suspected of steroid use, so revelations of that kind are unlikely.
A more interesting question about Thomas’s career is how he ranks among the greatest right handed hitters ever. There are some players who were right handed hitters who were more valuable because of the positions they played and their ability to contribute defensively such as Willie Mays, Mike Schmidt and Honus Wagner, but when looking at batting numbers only, there are fewer right handed hitters who were clearly better than Thomas. Thomas is one of only eight right handed hitters to have over 9,000 plate appearances and an OPS+ of 150 or better, and one of only four with 10,000 or more plate appearances and an OPS+ of 150 or better.
These eight players are Rogers Hornsby, Jimmie Foxx, Thomas, Willie Mays,Manny Ramirez, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson and Honus Wagner. Mays, Aaron and Robinson, like Thomas had more than 10,000 plate appearances. One more active player, Albert Pujols, only has 6,082 plate appearances so far but should be in the discussion as well. The candidates for greatest right handed hitter ever are these nine players.
One player on this list immediately stands out as having been a better than Thomas. Like Thomas, Rogers Hornsby played in a hitter’s era. Although outhomered by Thomas 521-301, Hornsby had more hits, runs, doubles and triples and a higher batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Hornsby also had a higher OPS+ 175-156 and retains his advantage in the rate statistics when the numbers are neutralized. Hornsby is still clearly the greatest right handed hitter ever, with Albert Pujols the only potential serious challenger at this time.
Honus Wagner, while clearly a better all-around player than Thomas, and a formidable offensive player during his career still falls a little bit short of Thomas.Although he played, and dominated, in an era with less offense, Wagner’s numbers do not match up to Thomas. Even when neutralized, his OBP and slugging percentage are .024 and .086 lower than Thomas’s.
Jimmie Foxx was in many respects very comparable to Thomas. Both were dominant players until age 29-30. However, Foxx’s decline was faster and more severe. Although Foxx’s career OPS+ of 163, was higher than Thomas’s, his neutralized OBP, slugging percentage and even home run totals are lower than those of Thomas, pushing him very slightly below Thomas in overall career value.
The title of second greatest right-handed hitter ever comes down to Thomas, two players, Ramirez and Pujols, with whom his career overlapped for several years and three players who were contemporaries of each other, Aaron, Mays and Robinson. Sorting out these six players is not easy. If Pujols continues to hit the way he has hit for the first decade of his career, he will clearly emerge as the best of this group, but there are no guarantees of that occurring. A comparison between Thomas and Pujols is useful in this regard. After his 29 year old season, Thomas’s numbers were .327/.452/.600 with an OPS+ of 182. Pujols, career numbers through his current age of 29 are quite similar.334/.426/.628 for an OPS+ of 172. Jimmie Foxx had similar numbers through the same point in his career hitting .334/..435/.628 for an OPS+ of 167. Foxx and Thomas did not continue to hit that well through their 30s. If Pujols falls of at a similar rate, his career numbers may not exceed those of Thomas. Interestingly Aaron, Mays and Robinson hit almost exactly as well in their 30s as they had in their 20s.Accordingly, it is simply too early to tell about Pujols.
As hitters, Aaron, Mays, Robinson, Ramirez and Thomas are very close. Aaron, Mays and Robinson’s careers overlapped from 1956-1973 and their percentages are almost indistinguishable, falling within a .011 range for batting average, with Aaron in the lead, a .015 range for on base percentage with Robinson leading and .020 range in slugging percentage with Mays leading. Thomas’s batting average and slugging percentages fit into the same range as the other three. When neutralized, all four players are within 10 points of batting average, 14 points in slugging percentage, but a considerably larger 60 point range in on base percentage as Thomas drew far more walks than the other three players.
Aaron, Mays and Robinson all played for a long time and rarely missed time due to injuries. Robinson’s 11,473 plate appearances are fewer than the other two, but are the 8th most of any right handed hitter. Aaron had 3,826 and Mays 2,333 more plate appearances than Thomas. This is an enormous difference meaning that Aaron had roughly six, and Mays roughly four more seasons worth of hitting while posting numbers that, when adjusted for context by OPS+, 156 for Mays and 155 for Aaron, are almost identical to Thomas’s. With fewer plate appearances and adjusted on base percentages and slugging percentages that are below Thomas, Robinson is not quite in this group. Among retired players, then, Thomas is probably the fourth greatest right handed hitter ever behind Hornsby, Mays and Aaron, although the order of the last two players could be reversed, with Jimmie Foxx a very close fifth.
While it is too early to project Pujols’s career numbers with any certainty, Ramirez is in a different phase of his career. Ramirez is 37, but has yet to really enter the decline phase of his career. He currently has 637, roughly one season’s worth, fewer plate appearances than Thomas, but will likely pass Thomas in 2010 or 2011. Ramirez is already ahead of Thomas in career home runs, RBIs, hits, doubles, triples and runs,and will increase these leads over the next few years. Ramirez has fewer career walks than Thomas and is unlikely to catch up.Ramirez OPS+ is 154 only two points behind Thomas, but is only .008 behind Thomas in on base percentage while being .036 points ahead in slugging percentage. If Ramirez ends up exceeding Thomas’s number of plate appearances by 1,000 or more without these rate numbers dropping by more than a few points, he will push Thomas to the number five spot among right handed hitters, but if Ramirez has a few ugly decline years, Thomas will remain ahead of him.
There is a tendency when looking at Thomas’s career to focus on the dropoff beginning when he was 30 years old. Through age 29, Thomas had hit .330/.462/.600 for an OPS+ of 182. This was a cut below Babe Ruth and Ted Williams at similar points in their career, about equal with Hornsby, Lou Gehrig and Ty Cobb and better than everybody else through age 29. The second half of Thomas’s career does not measure to that. Thomas also will be remembered for being a poor fielding first baseman who was primarily a designated hitter, but taken in its entirety, his offensive numbers place him among the top five right handed hitters ever.