When Frank Thomas first arrived in the majors, he was a force of nature unlike anybody baseball fans had seen in a long time.
There had been big guys before, of course, big guys who certainly intimidated opposing pitchers with their size and made third basemen back up an extra step or four -- players like Frank Howard, Dave Kingman and Dave Winfield. Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco were in their heyday as the Bash Brothers with the A's when Thomas joined the White Sox in 1990. Darryl Strawberry was still mashing.
But Thomas was different. He wasn't tall and lean or even tall and muscular, but instead tall and massive, built like the former Auburn tight end that he was. He wasn't merely a slugger, one who would sacrifice batting average for power. He was a hitter, right from his rookie season, a guy who matched Tony Gwynn's artistry with Ted Williams' plate selection. He hit home runs almost by accident.
From 1990 to 1997, his first eight seasons, Thomas hit .330/.452/.600. From 1946 to 1989 those numbers had been reached in an individual season just 11 times -- seven of those by Williams. My father's generation had Williams; we had Thomas. Thomas won an MVP Award in 1993 when he hit .317 with 41 home runs, 128 RBIs and 112 walks. He won another in the strike-shortened 1994 season, hitting .353 with 38 home runs and 109 walks in 113 games. He earned the nickname "The Big Hurt" and it was absolutely apropos.
Those eight seasons constitute the heart of Thomas' dominance, although hardly the end of his career. He had one final dominant season in 2000, hitting .328 with 43 home runs and 143 RBIs to finish second in the MVP voting as the White Sox won a division title. He hit 42 home runs in 2003 and with the A's in 2006 finished fourth in the MVP vote, as much for his leadership and Oakland's surprising division title as for his numbers (.270, 39 home runs).
Thomas finished with a career triple-slash line of .301/.419/.555, 521 home runs and 1,704 RBIs. He is, unquestionably, one of the 20 greatest hitters of all time and even fewer matched his peak level of offensive dominance.
He's on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time -- and he may not get in.
Edgar Martinez is on the ballot for the fifth time. He has his loyal core of supporters but he's not making progress to Hall of Fame election: he's received 36 percent, 33 percent, 37 percent and 36 percent of the vote in each of the past four years. He's a long way from getting to the 75 percent needed for election and while some Hall of Famers the BBWAA eventually elected did start with a lower vote percentage, Martinez appears to be stuck in mud. The crowded ballot isn't going to help his vote total increase; if anything, the appearance on the ballot this year of Thomas, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Mike Mussina and Jeff Kent (plus the final-year sympathy votes for Jack Morris), may actually cut into Martinez's total.
Martinez's credentials don't quite jump out at you like Thomas' do. He didn't quite have Thomas' power (Martinez hit 309 home runs) and was often overlooked playing in Seattle and overshadowed by teammates Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez, but at his peak he, too, was one of the most devastating right-handed hitters ever seen. Like Thomas, he hit for a high average while drawing an enormous number of walks. He won two batting titles and reeled off seasons where he hit .356, .343, .337, .330, .327, .324 and .322. He sprayed line drives corner to corner; to me, he was a right-handed George Brett (although Martinez drew more walks, so he got on base more). He had eight seasons with an OPS+ of 150 or higher -- more than Reggie Jackson (7), Willie McCovey (7), Griffey (4), Brett (4), Carl Yastrzemski (4), Ernie Banks (2), Johnny Bench (1) and numerous other Hall of Famers. Thomas also had eight such seasons (and two more partial seasons). In terms of career WAR, Thomas is only slightly higher, 73.6 to 68.0.
As Hall of Famer Paul Molitor once said about Edgar, "He was one of the most feared right-handed hitters for a long time in this league. The amount of respect he has from peers speaks to the value of the offensive player he was."
Thomas and Martinez, of course, spent most of their careers as designated hitters. Thomas played 971 of his 2,322 career games at first base; Martinez played 592 of his 2,055 career games in the field, mostly at third base. Thomas was a bad first baseman; Martinez was an adequate third baseman, moved to DH after some injury problems in 1993 and 1994.
Voters have held that against Martinez, suggesting that he was merely a "specialist," as if being one of the best hitters in the game for 13 seasons somehow lacks value; some voters will withhold a check next to Thomas' name on their ballot with the same justification. Designated hitters don't belong in the Hall of Fame.
One reason the Hall of Fame voting is so contentious is because it's often a conflict between emotion and reason. The Jack Morris case is all about emotion; it's difficult to construct an analytic defense for him as a Hall of Famer. The PED disagreements are all about emotion ("Cheaters!") versus reason ("It was part of the game in that era, we don't know who did what, etc.").
This is why the DH argument annoys me; it's an inconsistent application of reason. In recent years, the BBWAA has elected three relief pitchers -- Bruce Sutter, Goose Gossage and Dennis Eckersley (who also started but was elected primarily on his merits as a closer). There is no more extreme version of a specialist than a closer. Lee Smith -- never considered the best closer in the game while active -- received more votes last year than Martinez. Who was the better player? It's not even an argument worth discussing. No general manager would have traded Edgar Martinez for Lee Smith.
Even more infuriating is that Sutter was an elite reliever for only eight seasons, Gossage for 10, Eckersely for five. You can't vote for closers and then dismiss Martinez or Thomas as specialists.
The Hall of Fame is about greatness. Few hitters achieved the level of Frank Thomas and Edgar Martinez (of course, getting some voters to understand the value of all their walks is another issue). They were great, the best in the game, the core definition of a Hall of Famer.
Maybe they were one-dimensional players. But what a dimension. Both are worthy Hall of Famers.