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Frank Thomas' power, magic were unique

7/27/2014

Seeing Frank Thomas head to the Hall of Fame is something special, not just because it's a White Sox thing or a Chicago thing; it is a moment when the greatest slugger in the history of one the American League's original eight gets his due.

But at this point of the build-up to his induction, you probably know all that. You probably know he's one of just four people to hit .300 with 500 home runs, 1,500 RBIs, 1,000 runs scored and 1,500 walks (joining Mel Ott, Ted Williams and Babe Ruth). You probably know he's one of just seven men to ever average better than .300/.400/.500 in 10,000 or more plate appearances, joined by Ruth, Ott, Chipper Jones, Ty Cobb, Stan Musial and Tris Speaker. (Williams is short of at-bats because of his service in two wars, while Jimmie Foxx and Manny Ramirez ran out of gas.) You probably know what Jay Jaffe has to say about Thomas' rank among the all-time greats, and (I hope) you know to respect where he's coming from, because no one has devoted as much care to the study of the subject of who is and isn't a Hall of Fame-worthy player.

You can get worked up about all of this and more besides when it comes to parsing what Thomas did. But let's look beyond all that for a second and remember why we love the game and the people who play. Besides having fun with the numbers that made Thomas' case such an easy slam dunk for the voters, there are other qualities that you can't so neatly sum up, which go toward why he was such a joy to watch.

It's a writer's conceit to talk about the power that words have, but here, it merely serves up the easy observation that Thomas was power, investing even the words used to describe him with greater power still.

In sabermetrics, we're necessarily focused on outcomes, even as we're aware of possibility; it's been this way going back to the ancient Greeks, if not further. When Aristotle discussed his concept of potentiality to explain concepts of physics, he distinguished between the idea that a thing might happen or get done and a thing that might be done well. These days, in simplest terms, we might discuss the difference between potential energy and kinetic energy -- between the energy that could be and the energy that is.

At bat, Thomas was the fulcrum that converted potential into kinetic energy. More than that, he was the man who could take the potentiality of a hunk of cork, yarn and hide, and through his magic, through his intelligence and strength, could could convert it into many things at once, many places at once, a concatenation of facts: souvenirs 400 feet away, runs on the scoreboard, joy for Sox fans, fireworks at the Cell. Call it physics or call it magic; at some point, the distinctions blur because this was a thing that Thomas did more than well -- he did it beautifully.

Watching Thomas poised at the plate, you were only too aware of that potential each and every time that he stepped in. None of us were alone in this, whether you were in the stands, the dugouts, on the field; hundreds of major league pitchers knew this, feared this, and desperately tried to avoid surrendering to his power. And Thomas in turn would not submit to any chicanery outside the zone. Even in a game defined by failure, by the .300 hitter who fails seven out of 10 times or by the pitcher who can never beat every batter every night, Thomas' career-long unwillingness to settle for less than his own excellence generated 1,667 walks.

So, as we reckon Thomas getting his due in Cooperstown, what are we to make of his selection to the Hall at a time when others are outside, with numbers as great or greater, tainted by actual PED usage or unanswerable accusations? It is the big question at times like this, now and in the decades to come. Hallowing Hall-worthy performance has become more of an elective decision for the electorate, and in this, memory and data alike are providing fewer easy answers.

In hallowing Thomas, you can choose to celebrate the performance and all that means: the numbers themselves, the man who made them or the mind's-eye memory indelibly imprinted by one towering blow after another. But what I will treasure most about Thomas -- even at this moment of career closure -- when we know what is known and can put away the arguments, is that sense of anticipation -- that, maybe, tonight, here and now, we'll see magic.

That said -- going back to the stuff that can excite us to this day as far as his career numbers -- Thomas is first in White Sox history in so many things: home runs and RBIs, runs and walks, extra-base hits and total bases, on-base percentage and slugging -- all of which you might have wished for after his college career starring at Auburn. He was the perfect first-round pick, the best of four straight first-round picks from 1987 to 1990 (along with Jack McDowell, Robin Ventura and Alex Fernandez) that turned around a moribund franchise trying to recover from making more mistakes in the '80s than your average hair band.

Looking beyond his White Sox career, we can nevertheless acknowledge and enjoy the three seasons split between Oakland and Toronto at the end of his career. They added the counting stats that may have made it easier for some voters to vote for him at first blush -- the 73 homers pushing him beyond 500 for his career, a number which once held its own magic -- but a .267/.373/.484 line across those seasons made it clear he was finishing his career on his own terms, still able to contribute as an offense-only player as a designated hitter.

Which brings us to another part of the big deal about the Big Hurt's induction: We really shouldn't begrudge Thomas playing more than half of his career at DH. We're now more than 40 years into the history of the thing, more time than baseball was played between the creation of the World Series (1903) and the Hall of Fame (1939). It is, and should be, part of the baseball landscape, and if unofficial "positions" like closer have long since been acknowledged -- with the first real official saves generator, Rollie Fingers, getting into Cooperstown in 1992, less than a quarter-century after the save became an official stat -- then we were overdue for a guy we should describe as a DH.

And in Thomas' case, what a DH. Among all players who have played half of their career or more at the offense-only position, Thomas is the all-time offense-only WAR leader for his full career at 79.8, far outstripping Edgar Martinez (66.4) and David Ortiz (47.2).

That said, again leaning on offensive WAR (oWAR) for the suggestion, Thomas ranks among the best offensive players at first base, with that 79.8 career mark trailing just Lou Gehrig (112.1), Foxx (94.3), Albert Pujols (81.4) and Rod Carew (80.4). Or, if you're like me and want to punt on pre-war, pre-integration and (effectively) pre-slider stats, he belongs in the conversation as one of the best first basemen ever, given the slender margin separating Thomas from Pujols and Carew.

A big part of that was a peak between the ages of 25 and 29 that was picture perfect for illustrating what a great player can do at the peak of his power. In those five seasons, spanning 1993-1997, Thomas hit .334/.455/.631 with 194 home runs and 575 walks. In part, the DH was created to preserve, extend and make possible careers such as this, not merely to create job opportunities for the Ron Blombergs of the world. After Thomas tore the triceps in his throwing arm, ending his 2001 season less than a month into the campaign, his ability to play as a regular first baseman ended. But he also very clearly wasn't done.

Like prior DH stars Harold Baines, Don Baylor, Hal McRae and Paul Molitor, Thomas was a man who was one of the most gifted hitters on the planet. He was someone who the friction of being a pro athlete on both sides of the ball could simultaneously wear down. By blazing this trail and earning this honor, we can hope this means that the Hall of Fame electorate will give due consideration to guys like Martinez (immediately) and Jim Thome (eventually).

As feats go, all of them are individually awesome. So many records remain covered in the dust of decades long gone, set in smaller leagues against fewer foes in puny parks and before integration expanded the game's greatness. Seeing Frank Thomas elected is a validation of the present and the recent past, one earned through his gifts. You don't have to be a White Sox fan to enjoy seeing the big man get his due, but if you know one who rooted for him, here's hoping she or he can pass along how enjoyable watching the big man on the South Side was, a man armed with more thunder in a bat than Thor has in a hammer, a power source who was his own special effect.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.