How Frank Thomas' Brilliant Career Was Overshadowed by the PED Era

Jason Catania@@JayCat11MLB Lead WriterJanuary 9, 2014

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During his playing days, freshly minted Hall of Famer Frank Thomas became known as the Big Hurt because of the damage he inflicted on the baseball. According to Thomas, he was also the Clean Hurt—meaning he never took steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs.

Thomas always has been outspoken about baseball's PED problem, as Jorge Ortiz wrote for USA Today, as well as the fact that he did it the right way.

"I'm 100 percent clean," Thomas said at his post-election press conference. "Doing it the right way was something I prided myself in."

What's interesting is that, for a player as dominant as Thomas was—not to mention, one who also played in a big market like Chicago for the vast majority of his 19 years in the majors—his career did feel a bit underrated or overlooked, at least at the time.

Hard to believe, considering the man was listed at 6'5" and 240 pounds.

In large part, that was due to the fact that Thomas' own historic production often was overshadowed by the ridiculous numbers put up by fellow superstars at the time, like admitted steroid user Mark McGwire and alleged users Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds, among others of that era.

Thomas isn't shy about suggesting that his own incredible performance might actually have pushed others to use, as Doug Padilla of ESPN Chicago points out:

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Here's more from Thomas on the topic, via Padilla's full story on ESPN Chicago:

As for the others, I’ll be honest, I think I was one of those guys that made a few guys go that direction, because of the size and the strength of a football player playing baseball. For a seven-year run there, no one basically could compete. There were only one or two guys who put up numbers that could compare. But I don’t fault anyone for what they did, but hey, I did it the right way.

Consider that we're talking about a guy who hit .301 with 521 home runs and 1,704 RBI. A guy who is one of only four players in history to hit .300 with 500 homers and 1,500 walks for his career.

The other three, by the way, are Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Mel Ott. Perhaps you've heard of them?

We're also, though, talking about a guy who made only five All-Star teams. Obviously, that's not a great measure of a player's performance, but it is a valid measure of his popularity and standing within the sport at the time.

Whether Thomas "inspired" others to use PEDs may or may not be true, but it's certainly plausible. The timing does line up to an extent.

Remember, Thomas broke into the bigs as a 22-year-old in August of 1990. Just a year later—his first full season—he became a perennial candidate for Most Valuable Player, having finished third in the American League in 1991, eighth in 1992 and, of course, winning back-to-back MVPs in 1993 and 1994.

Think that might have pushed other players to, ahem, "step up their games"?

It's worth mentioning here, too, that Thomas' numbers in 1994 and 1995—when he finished "only" eighth in MVP voting again—were cut down due to the players' strike that ate up the end of '94 and the start of '95. That certainly didn't do Thomas any favors.

Frank Thomas' MVP Finishes at the Start of His Career
Baseball Reference

While the actual start of the steroid era remains unknown, it is widely considered to have been somewhere right around this point in time—the early-to-mid-1990s. Regardless, the fantastic beginning of Thomas' career happened right before steroids and other PEDs were becoming prominent in the sport in the mid-to-late-'90s.

The last year of the above chart, you'll notice, is 1997—one year prior to McGwire and Sosa's memorable, if tainted, home run chase in which both broke Roger Maris' longstanding single-season record of 61 homers.

Certainly, age and injuries began to work against Thomas at this stage, too, so that has to be factored in. But here's a good example of how the offensive standard in baseball jumped noticeably during this period, making it harder for even great players like Thomas to stand out:

Frank Thomas' OPS and OPS+ Progression/Regression
Baseball Reference

After a drop-off in 1998 and an injury-riddled 1999, the 2000 season was a bounce-back one for Thomas. In fact, he actually set career highs with 43 homers and 143 RBI, while posting an OPS almost identical to those in 1995 and 1997, and yet as the chart shows, his OPS+—which adjusts for league average—dropped nearly 20 points.

It's not such a surprise, then, to realize that Thomas' last All-Star appearance came in 1997. Even though he maintained well-above-average production when healthy well into his mid-30s, the league, one way or another, caught up to him.

To Thomas' credit, though, he managed 83.7 percent of the vote from the Baseball Writers Association of America. That's an impressive amount and well above the 75 percent needed for induction. Beyond that, getting in on the first ballot puts Thomas into an even smaller, more prominent subset within Cooperstown's hallowed halls.

Thomas might have been overshadowed or underrated at times during his career, but he certainly wasn't overlooked in the end. 

To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11

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