Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas Retire: What’s Their Place in History?

Last night, I heard via Ian Browne on Twitter that Tom Glavine had retired. I quickly posted:

Tom Glavine has retired. This WAR fanatic will tell you he’s 29th all time among pitchers (67.0). Schilling is 28th, Reuschel (!!!) is 30th.

Schilling and Reuschel, you say? Well, Curt Schilling is a heck of a lot more valuable than people give him credit for. This Beyond the Box Score piece from last year was eye-opening for a lot of us. Reuschel? I have to figure that one out. That’s a player who’s WAR greatly exceeds what you may expect. It happens. But often it happens for a very good reason.

29th all time among pitchers is quite incredible. Glavine ranks ahead of guys like Bob Feller, Juan Marichal, Jim Palmer, and this one surprised me—even John Smoltz. So, let’s see the Big Three by career WAR:

  1. Greg Maddux — 96.8 WAR (tied for 8th with Phil Niekro)
  2. Tom Glavine — 67.0 WAR (29th)
  3. John Smoltz — 63.9 WAR (38th)

Still, three of the top 38 pitchers of all time pitching together in the same staff? Wow. When Schilling pitched with Randy Johnson, that rotation featured the #12 and #28 pitchers. When Schilling pitched with Pedro, that rotation featured #23 and #28 (and TIm Wakefield at #182!).

On to Frank Thomas. Andy at the Baseball-Reference Blog wrote a nice article on Thomas. In it, he says:

It’s very common to talk about players’ careers and wonder “how much better would he have been if he could just have stayed healthy?” Thomas is one of those cases, since after his age 32 season he managed only 3 more years with at least 140 games and had 4 full seasons with fewer than 80 games. However, there’s more to it than just the games. After missing almost all of 2001 he had a good-by-anybody-else’s-standards 2002 with 28 HR, 92 RBI, and a 118 OPS+. People wondered if he was done. Then in 2003 he roared back with 42 HR, 105 RBI, and a 146 OPS+. After two more lost years in 2004 and 2005 he came back from injury in 2006 and posted 39 HR, 114 RBI, and a 140 OPS+ in 137 games with Oakland (at age 38!) My point is that the guy twice came back from major injury layoffs to post huge seasons, which really lends credence to the idea that if he had been healthier he had a good shot to post some really big career totals. He might have played 300 more games and realistically could have had 70 more HR, which would have put him close to 600 career bombs.

That’s a great point. But instead of terms of career home runs, let’s look at how that would have affected his career WAR. Because, well, that’s what I do.

Frank Thomas ranks tied for 43rd all time among hitters in career WAR at 75.9. He is tied with turn of the 20th century star Bill Dahlen, who I recently wrote might be the most underrated player ever. Who else is near Thomas? Ranked 40 thru 50 is: Albert Pujols, Sam Crawford, Dahlen, Thomas, Arky Vaughan, Pete Rose, Paul Molitor, Frankie Frisch, Ed Delahanty, Reggie Jackson, and Paul Waner. So, he’s in there with a lot of all time greats.

Thomas missed almost all of 2001 (he had 78 plate appearances and was worth 0.0 WAR). In 2000, he was worth 6.6 WAR and in 2002, the year after the injury, was worth 2.2 WAR. If you average those, you can assume a healthy Thomas would have had a good chance at 4.4 WAR. Of course, were there no injury, one might assume that he would have not only had more than 4.4 WAR in 2001, but more than the 2.2 the season he came back. He followed that with 4.1 WAR in 2003. In 2004, he posted 2.9 WAR in 310 plate appearances (just half a season). Over a full 600 plate appearances, that comes out to 5.6 WAR. So let’s give him credit for 2.7 more. In 2005, Thomas posted 0.5 WAR in just 121 plate appearances. We estimated 5.6 WAR for 2004. In 2006, he had 3.3 WAR. The average between those is 4.45 WAR. I think it’s safe to assume he could have reached 4.4 WAR that year if healthy. Give him another 2.9 there.

In 2007, he posted 2.0 WAR (league average) and followed that up with a replacement level 2008. So, injuries finally brought him down for good there. We won’t add on any additional WAR, but it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say a healthy player could have lasted longer.

So, what did we add?

What happens to Frank Thomas’ rankings if he stayed health and and accumulated 10.0 more WAR? That would put him at 85.9 WAR, which would move him to #30. George Brett currently sits at #30 with 84.9. #30 puts him ahead of guys like Roberto Clemente, Joe DiMaggio, his contemporary Jeff Bagwell, Rod Carew, Ken Griffey, Robin Yount, etc.

Top 30 all time is pretty special. But really, so is #43. Frank Thomas was truly one of the greats.