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September 28, 1998

Prospectus Notes

The Big Hurt and the NL's Best Firemen

by Joe Sheehan

Big Hurt Hurt... But Not As Bad As You Think

One of the great pleasures of baseball in the 1990s has been watching Frank Thomas hit. A lethal package of bat speed, raw power, and plate discipline, "The Big Hurt" has put up a string of seasons that have let us talk about him in the same breath as hitters like Ted Williams and Lou Gehrig. Sure, big Frank isn't much with the leather, but when your career OPS is 1.052, people tend to make allowances for that sort of thing.

Now, Thomas has endured a season-long slump. With his season wrapped up, he finished up hitting .265, and his OPS was off almost 200 points from his career norm. What's wrong with Frank?

Thomas is going through a divorce, and there has been a lot of speculation that this has impacted his performance. Only he knows for sure, and I'm reluctant to join in the second-hand psychoanalyzing.

Let's take a look at his performance this year, and compare it to his estabished level of performance. The first line below is Thomas' stat line from this year. The second, his 1995-97 stats in seasonal notation (per 162 games).

G AB H 1B 2B 3B HR BB UIBB SO AVG OBP SLG
1998 160 585 155 89 35 2 29 110 105 93 .265 .381 .480
1995-7 162 581 195 119 33 0 43 133 109 71 .335 .457 .615
Difference -40 -30 +2 +2 -14 -23 -4 +22

UIBB: Unintentional walks.

Because the raw ABs are so close in this comparison, the two lines compare quite nicely.

The first thing, of course, is to notice that Thomas put up an .861 OPS, a year many DHs would take. He just missed 30 HRs, and has more than 100 walks for the eighth consecutive season. In fact, there's only three things Thomas seems to be doing significantly worse than in a typical season: hitting singles, hitting home runs and being intentionally walked. The rest of his line is right in line with his typical performance.

We'll deal with the most obvious difference first. From 1995-97, with Robin Ventura and an "off-year" Albert Belle hitting behind him, Thomas was intentionally walked 64 times. This year, with a torrid Belle behind him, he's been given an intentional pass twice. Thomas' unintentional walk rate, his plate discipline, is essentially unchanged.

Now, this isn't meant to minimize the difference between this year and the previous three. It is a 200-point drop in OPS, but it's not an across-the-board collapse. Crash Davis' infamous "one hit a week...a dork...a groundball with eyes" would give Frank back about 55 points of average and almost 100 points of OPS. Swings in batting average like that, when they're not accompanied by a falloff in other areas, can reasonably be the result of hitting in bad luck all season. The loss in power is more disturbing, but it's also within a reasonable range for a good power hitter.

My personal observation is that Thomas got into a rut early this year handling pitches in the upper-right quadrant of the strike zone. Thomas has a tendency to back away from this pitch, one that is arguably a strike. And whether it was intentional, or merely coincidental, that pitch was being called a strike on him much more frequently than it had been in the past.

Note that his strikeouts are up by almost as much as his singles are down. That essentially looks like a tradeoff, caused in part by Thomas striking out on that pitch more, and being slow to adjust his approach. This pitch has caused him to be behind in the count more often, giving him fewer opportunities to tee off in cripple counts, affecting his home run output.

Left-handers appeared to attack this chink in Thomas' armor aggressively, particularly earlier in the year. Typically, Frank obliterates lefties; here are his splits:

Thomas vs. LHP, 1998: .327/.365
Thomas vs. LHP, 1995-97: .507/.815

Thomas vs. RHP, 1998: .396/.516
Thomas vs. LHP, 1995-97: .441/.556

The bulk of his falloff has come against lefties. Considering the sample size, and the admittedly anecdotal evidence for causes, I see no reason to believe Thomas will not be back at his 1.050 OPS level in 1998. In fact, he seems to have already made some adjustments:

Thomas K/UIBB ratio, pre-ASB: 61/55
Thomas K/UIBB ration, post-ASB: 32/50

Thomas may be a born DH, but he's definitely an H. His decline this year is part a slow reaction to external change (the strike zone), part the impact of a great hitter behind him (goodbye to the intentional walk) and part hitting a stretch of bad luck (singles). He'll be back next year.

Relief From a Bad Idea

Three relievers:

ERA RA IP H BB UIBB SO HR OOPS IR/ISc
A 1.50 1.50 72.0 41 21 19 85 2 .467 26/4
B 1.44 2.05 87.2 68 25 20 110 5 .480 21/5
C 1.32 1.45 68.1 37 32 30 93 2 .489 14/2

OOPS: Opponent's OBP + SLG
IR/ISc: Inherited Runners, Inherited Runners Scored

Three pretty good seasons, right? Not a whole lot to delineate them? Mr. A has the best OOPS and inherited runner performance, while Mr. B has thrown a lot more innings than the other two, but allowed a number of unearned runs. Mr. C hasn't been used to get out of jams as much, but his performance is almost a dead match for Mr. A. While all three have pitchers' parks for home stadiums, Mr. A's home park is one of the best pitchers' parks in history.

If you were going to give one of these guys a major award, or even a corned beef on rye, who would it be?

Oops, forgot something...

Sv/Opp
A 52/53
B 39/44
C 34/38

Based on this last bit of information, the Padres' Trevor Hoffman is considered in many circles to be a legitimate Cy Young contender, while the Giants' Robb Nen and the Expos' Ugueth Urbina aren't even mentioned. Unfortunately for Nen and Urbina, their excellent years were not supported by , Andy Ashby and a resurgent Greg Vaughn, but by the likes of Mark Gardner and F.P. Santangelo.

Personally, I'll have Hoffman far down on my Cy ballot, if he shows up there at all. Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, et al. all throw more than three times the number of innings as Hoffman and his ilk, and that's just not something that can be made up, shy of a Steve Reed 1995 performance. And Hoffman's year, once you factor in Jack Murphy (OK...Q******m) Stadium's extreme depression of offense, doesn't measure up.

But if you do believe that bullpen aces can be Cy candidates, then you have to have Nen and Urbina on your ballot as well, because the only real differences between them are the opportunities they got and the ballparks. Hoffman may be the best of the three, but the other two need to get those down-ballot votes, to be consistent.

Just For Laughs

AB H 2B 3B HR BB SO AVG OBP SLG
Kevin Maas
July 1990
63 17 1 0 8 13 21 .270 .395 .667
Shane Spencer
September 1998
30 14 2 0 6 4 4 .467 .529 1.133

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

Related Content:  Ugueth Urbina

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