Frank Thomas or Sammy Sosa - Which Chicago Icon Was Better?

by Jerod Morris

The list of outstanding baseball players that have played in the Windy City is long and prestigious. To name a few...Carlton Fisk. Ernie Banks. Billy Williams. Shoeless Joe Jackson. Greg Maddux. Harold Baines. Ryne Sandberg. Fergie Jenkins. Minnie Minoso. Ron Santo. Luis Aparicio. Bruce Sutter. Luke Appling. Hack Wilson.

Yet with all of this greatness, there are no two players who have been greater icons of their respective teams, the Chicago White Sox and Chicago Cubs, than Frank Thomas and Sammy Sosa.

The South Side’s Big Hurt and the North Side’s Slammin’ Sammy defined baseball in Chicago during the 1990s and through the early part of this decade. It is also interesting to remember that they were teammates from 1990-1991 during Big Frank's first two seasons with the White Sox. Sosa came over from Texas near the end of the 1989 season before being shipped to the Cubs for George Bell.

The ridiculous numbers put up by Frank and Sammy during their careers suggest that they will be first ballot Hall of Famers. They were powerful hitters capable of carrying their teams for weeks at a time. They were massive in size, seeming to be larger than life; and neither Comiskey Park nor Wrigley Field was ever more electric than when these two titans stepped to the plate with the game on the line.

So who was better?

This is no easy question to answer. And before I begin to delve deeper into the stats to reach a conclusion, allow me a moment of full disclosure:

Author's Full Disclosure

I am a diehard White Sox fan and absolutely abhor the Chicago Cubs. I hate everything about them as a franchise, specifically the fact that they are universally beloved simply because they suck. It has always been my contention that losing…and losing often…should not be a reason for adoration. Yet the “Loveable Losers” enjoy support across America for reasons I simply do not understand. Part of it is the Harry Caray factor, part of it is that their games are nationally broadcast on WGN, and part of it is the “mystique” of Wrigley Field. Mainly though, I think many people just feel sorry for them and Americans have a propensity to root for the underdog. Well, there is no greater perpetual underdog than the Cubs; and that is not meant as a compliment in any way, shape, or form.

However, for the purposes of this debate, I will do my best to place personal biases aside and be objective.

The Impact of Steroids

In addition, other than these next few paragraphs, I will also remove steroids from the argument completely. I believe that it is pretty much a generally accepted fact that Sammy Sosa used performance-enhancing drugs while Frank Thomas did not. Is there definitive proof? No. Does the preponderance of circumstantial and empirical evidence lead a reasonable person to make this conclusion? Absolutely.

(Quick aside...check out the video above and to the right for just about the funniest and most comprehensive summary of steroids in sports that you will ever see.)

Do not forget that when Sammy, Big Mac, Jose Canseco, and the finger-pointing circus clown Rafael Palmeiro were called before Congress, Frank Thomas was there via videoconference to speak out AGAINST steroids even though he was not forced to be there by anyone. He never came up in the Mitchell Report and is one of the only Major Leaguers to consistently speak out on the topic and appear that he has nothing to hide. Put simply, he has never “misremembered”.

But how do we gauge the impact that steroids had on Sammy Sosa’s career? Sure, we can look at the suspicious mid-career one-year jump from 36 to 66 homers. I could delve into the odd way that Sammy seemed to improve at an age when normal, juiceless players begin to decline…as Frank Thomas did somewhat, though he still maintained solid power numbers made all the more impressive by the complete lack of connection to performance-enhancing drugs. But at this point it’s all just a big, boring cliché. Plus, the steroid issue will be in the background of every statistical debate from this era anyway. For the purposes of this piece, I’ve said all I need to say about the gluttonous pink elephant forever standing in the room of this tainted period in the history of baseball.

Analysis Parameters

To settle the debate about who is better between Frank Thomas and Sammy Sosa, let’s just take a look at the raw numbers, adjusted for nothing.

First, let’s define some parameters. I believe that when analyzing athletes’ performance we should judge them at their peak, not during their adjustment phase to the professional level or during the decline phase at the end of their careers. For this debate I have chosen to look at the 10-year career peaks for both Frank Thomas and Sammy Sosa, with the worst season removed for each.

Frank Thomas’ peak performance came from 1991-2000 between the ages of 23-32. His 1999 season was cut short by injury and was thus removed. The peak years for Sammy Sosa occurred between 1993-2002 between the ages of 24-33. He only played in 105 games in the strike-shortened 1994, so this season was removed. Both Thomas and Sosa did enjoy success after their peaks seasons. Thomas hit 42 HRs in 2003 and 39 in 2006, while Sosa hit 40 and 35 in 2003 and 2004, respectively. However, their other numbers were in pretty sharp decline.

Now let’s begin, first by getting the most insignificant part of this debate out of the way immediately:

Defense

Neither Frank nor Sammy is going into the Hall of Fame for their defense. While Sammy Sosa was a solid outfielder as a young player, his ability declined as he bulked up and his power increased. Which player was more valuable to the Cubs though? The gangly, fast kid who could get to balls and steal bases? Or was it the home run monster that was jacking more than 50 per year with regularity? Easily, the bulkier Sosa is the answer. Still, Sosa’s defense was at least adequate. The Big Hurt’s was for a time, but the White Sox moved him to DH once they found a suitable replacement to play first. Frank didn’t like it…but it was in the best interests of the team. It’s hard to give any edge in defense to a guy who is now more associated with the DH position than any other spot on the field.

Advantage: Sosa

Intangibles

This is a very hard category to quantify, without any statistical measure to use. Reported stories are just about all we have to go on; and both Frank and Sammy have a somewhat checkered history.

Frank was known to be somewhat of a whining baby (hence his other nickname: The Big Skirt, which I have frustratingly called him on numerous occasions, even as a huge fan of his). He was also very much interested in his own statistics, though not necessarily to the detriment of his team; but it did create the perception that he was a “me-first” player. I think this is a huge part of his icy relationship with Ozzie Guillen from their days playing together, and why Ken Williams has (or at least had, based on the video to the right) such a distate for Frank. But Big Frank did lead by example in terms of his hitting preparation, and was notorious for jacking 1st inning homeruns to get the team going.

Sammy Sosa developed a reputation later in his career for being a selfish player more interested in Sammy Sosa than anything else. He once left the team early during their last game of a season in which they were out of the playoff race. Reportedly, Kerry Wood smashed Sosa’s boombox because he was so upset. Sosa also had the infamous corked bat incident in 2003, and his explanation that it was just a “practice bat” held about as much water as a sieve. By the end of his time in Chicago, much of the goodwill he had built up had eroded because of his attitude and declining production.

Despite their fantastic careers, neither Frank nor Sammy left Chicago on the greatest of terms. I am sure that with the passage of time and some perspective their respective teams’ fans will warm back up to each of them, if this has not happened already, for the myriad of great moments they provided. But neither ever won a championship or even got to a World Series. Combine that with the many reports of selfish behavior for each, and it’s hard to give an edge to either in this category.

Advantage: Neither

Durability

During their peak seasons, Sosa averaged 153 games per year while Thomas averaged only 148. During that time, Thomas played in 160 games only twice, and had only one other season in which he played in over 150. From 1997-2002, Sosa never played in less than 150 and played in at least 160 games three times. While Thomas has had more longevity, continuing to play into his 40s today, Sosa was more consistently reliable during their peaks and was rarely injured.

Advantage: Sosa

Baserunning

There is no doubt that early in his peak years, Sammy Sosa provided significantly more value on the base paths than Thomas. In fact, despite the huge drop in stolen base numbers towards the end of his career, Sosa still averaged 16 pilfered sacks per year during his peak. This one is easy, right?

Well, not so fast. Runs scored is also a stat that is at least partially based on a player’s ability to competently run the bases, along with how often they get on base and the skill of the players hitting behind them in the order. Sammy Sosa never scored more than 92 runs until 1998. Frank Thomas, on the other hand, never scored below 102 runs in a full season until 2002. Still, a deeper look reveals that this is largely unrelated to baserunning skill.

Thomas had a much higher On-Base % and also had players like Albert Belle and Robin Ventura, among others, hitting behind him. Sosa was a notorious strikeout king who did not start hitting above .300 and getting walked until his big power surge. And he rarely had big RBI guys hitting behind him early during his peak seasons when he hit lower in the order. The effect of all of this, in my mind, is to negate the difference in runs a function of pure baserunning ability.

Advantage: Sosa

Hitting - The Crux of the Debate

And now, let’s get to the meat of the debate: hitting. This is what both of these guys were paid millions of dollars to do. Honestly, whether Frank Thomas and Sammy Sosa were “me-first” jerks, played poor defense or no defense at all, or could run the bases, their true value and star power was a function of their prodigious ability to hit the baseball. (FYI…for the purposes of using these categories to ultimately answer the question of who was better between Frank Thomas and Sammy Sosa, each of the hitting categories will carry more weight than those that preceded them.)

Understand one more thing: there was a difference between where these two guys played their home games. Comiskey Park, now U.S. Cellular Field, has become a home run hitter’s haven in recent seasons, but this was not the case during Frank Thomas’ tenure on the South Side. Wrigley Field, of course, is notorious for being a launching pad when the wind is blowing out. Do I think that this gave Sammy Sosa at least a slight advantage? Absolutely. Not huge…in fact not big at all…but enough to throw any ties in the direction of Frank Thomas, in my mind.

Hitting For Contact

Frank Thomas’ peak-year batting average was .322. Sammy Sosa’s was .287. That is a tremendous gap and there really isn’t much of an argument to be made for Sosa here. The Big Hurt won the AL batting crown in 1997 (.347) and finished in the top 6 four other times during his peak. Recently, Thomas’ ability to hit for contact has eroded as his bat has slowed, but there is a reason why the name “Ted Williams” got thrown around a lot when Thomas was in his prime. He had the ability to shoot line drives all over the field and hit above .308 every season until he was 30, then bounced back with two more years above .300 after that. Sammy Sosa hit .320 and .328 in 2000 and 2001, respectively, but otherwise was a guy who hit in the .260s and .270s. This one is not close.

Advantage: Thomas

Plate Discipline

Another one that is not close. Again, the numbers present an argument that no Sosa fan can overcome. During his peak, Sammy Sosa had a K/BB walk rate of 2.17:1. That’s K’s to BB’s. Only in 2001 and 2002 did Sosa notch over 100 walks, and this was at the peak of his power. He never played a full season and stuck out less than 143 times. This is not egregious considering he was a power hitter in a power era, but it does mean that he is a slam-dunk loser in this category. In contrast to Sammy, Frank Thomas had a career BB/K walk rate (this is how the stat is usually ordered for hitters) of 1.48:1. This is outstanding, and is a major reason why Thomas’ peak-years On-Base % was .444 to Sosa’s .363. This allowed Thomas to create many more chances for his teammates to drive him in than Sosa did. Does it make up for Sosa’s more impressive HR totals? That is debatable.

What is not debatable is that Frank Thomas is one of the best all-around, disciplined hitters of all-time. He frustrated fans sometimes by taking walks in key situations, but at least he got himself on base. That is more than could be said for Sammy, who was also slump-prone because of his high strikeout totals. Frank Thomas, while not immune to the occasional slump, was a much more consistent hitter.

Advantage: Thomas

Power

Between them, Frank Thomas and Sammy Sosa have hit well over 1,100 home runs. If we judge power simply by the long ball, it is hard to make an argument for Big Frank here. Sosa averaged 48.6 home runs per season during his peak, while Thomas averaged 35.8. While Sammy did play five more games per season, he was still clearly the home run champ between these two. Thomas’ high season was 43, and he hit 40 or more 3 times by the time he was 28, 4 times total during his peak and once after. Sammy Sosa hit 40 home runs once by the time he was 28, but then his power exploded. His home run totals between the time he was 29-33 went as follows: 66, 63, 50, 64, 49. All of those seasons dwarf Thomas’ high year and are the most impressive 5-year streak in the history of Major League Baseball.

With all those home runs, you would think that Sosa’s peak-years Slugging % must be higher than Thomas’ right? Not so fast. The Big Hurt edges out Slammin’ Sammy .592 to .586 during their peak years. This made his peak-years OPS a full half point higher. What allowed Frank to have the higher Slugging %? He averaged 10 more doubles per year than Sammy, as well as 3 more hits total. In addition, because Frank took so many more walks he averaged a whopping 57 less official ABs per season, despite playing only 5 games less on average. The difference in doubles should not be understated. Bloop singles or lucky choppers do not produce doubles. It takes line drives in the gap or shots off the wall for a man of Frank’s less-than-speedy baserunning to get a double. Sammy clearly had more home run power, but Frank was the more powerful all-around hitter.

So who gets the edge? The Big Hurt hit more doubles and had a higher Slugging %. Slammin’ Sammy averaged almost 13 more home runs per year during his peak. Even accounting for the slight advantage that Sammy enjoyed because of his home park, he has to get the edge for this category. At the end of the day, a home run clears the bases on puts runs on the board. Doubles may do this, depending on timing, but a home run can never be taken off the scoreboard.

Advantage: Sosa…but only by a chard of cork. (Sorry…I had to.)

Clutch Hitting

Clutch hitting is a debatable statistic in the world of baseball. I do not think it should be. I believe that Batting Average with Runners in Scoring Position (RISP), Batting Average in Close/Late (C/L) situations, and postseason performance are important. (And for the record, C/L situations are defined as situations when the game is in the 7th inning or later and the batting team is leading by one run, or has the potential tying run on base, at bat, or on deck.)

I do not doubt that the averages even out and fall closer to players’ career mean levels as the sample size increases is…but when the game is on the line I want the guy who has come through before. I used to play a lot of poker, and any serious poker player will understand the importance of playing the averages to increase the probability of success.

Let’s look at postseason stats. There is a reason this did not get its own section: it is a wash. Look at the numbers. Frank’s teams went 1-3 in four postseason series, while Sammy’s teams when 1-2. Frank played in 16 postseason games, had 49 official ABs, 11 hits, 1 double, 3 home runs, 5 RBIs, 18 BBs, and 10 Ks. Sammy played in 15 postseason games, had 53 official ABs, 13 hits, 3 doubles, 2 HRs, 7 RBIs, 13 BBs, and 17 Ks. Sosa had the higher batting average, but Thomas had the higher OBP and SLG. No advantage for either.

However, the numbers for prowess in clutch situations during the regular season tell a different story. Cyril Morong, an economics professor at San Antonio College, has an in-depth cybermetrics blog that I was able to stumble upon. He analyzed clutch hitting in baseball between 1987-2001 (which includes nearly all of the seasons I have defined as peak years for Thomas and Sosa.) I am glad that he crunched all of these numbers…because it meant that I did not have to. These numbers paint a very favorable picture for Big Frank, but also seem to somewhat prove Mr. Morong’s hypothesis that “clutch hitting” is a misnomer due to the fact that most players’ lifetime “clutch” averages are very close to their overall averages.

Regardless, here is the raw data: Frank hit .286 in C/L situations, slugged .475, got on base at a clip of .430, and had a C/L OPS of .905. Sammy hit .260 in C/L situations, slugged .480, got on base at a clip of .331, and had a C/L OPS of .811. With runners in scoring position, Frank hit .330, slugged .585, got on base at a clip of .468, and had an OPS 1.053. Sammy hit .277, slugged .543, got on base at a clip of .369, and had an OPS of .911.

Take a quick breather after digesting those numbers.

Now let’s analyze. Basically, both Frank and Sammy performed worse in C/L situations than their career averages would have predicted. Sammy improved with respect to runners in scoring position, but his OPS w/ RISP was still almost a full point lower than Frank’s. In fact, Frank Thomas was the only player in Major League Baseball between 1987-2001 to finish in the top 3 in AVG, OBP, SLG, and OPS with respect to RISP situations. With RISP and 2 outs, Thomas was not quite as good (.296-.473-.562-1.035 for AVG-OBP-SLG-OPS) but still in the top 7 for each category among all major leaguers between 1987-2001. Sammy cracks the top 10 in only SLG and OPS, and is below Frank in both.

Runs Batted In is a function of all of these numbers, as well as a function of the ability of the guys at the top of the order to get on base. During their peaks, Frank averaged 119 RBIs per season while Sammy averaged 126. Adjusted to a per game basis, however, it comes out almost even during the peak years with Frank averaging .807 and Sammy averaging .824. So by a pretty slim margin Sammy edges Frank as the more prolific RBI man. Consider, however, that he also knocked himself in 13 more times per year based on his home run totals. Since we already accounted for Sammy’s home run prowess in the power category, and because Frank’s other “clutch hitting” numbers are superior, I can confidently pronounce Frank Thomas to be the more clutch hitter of the two.

Advantage: Thomas

Reputation Among Contemporaries

This category is extremely important when trying to gauge the relative greatness of two players. How did they stack up amongst the players playing at the same time? Let’s see.

During their peaks, Frank made 5 All-Star teams, led the AL in OPS 4 times, and won back-to-back MVP awards in 1993 and 1994. He also finished 2nd in the MVP voting in 2000 and 3rd in 1991 and 1997. Sammy made 6 All-Star teams, but did so as an Outfielder, where there are usually 6 spots, as opposed to 1st Base where there is usually a maximum of 3 spots. He also won the 1998 NL MVP award and finished 2nd in 2001. Sammy never finished higher than 8th in the MVP voting any other season.

In my eyes, the All-Star selections are a virtual tie, but Big Frank was more often considered one of the most elite players in his league.

Advantage: Thomas

Conclusion

Among the categories that I considered relevant for this analysis, Sammy Sosa won Defense, Durability, Baserunning, and Power (by a nose). Frank Thomas won Hitting for Contact, Plate Discipline, Clutch Hitting, and Reputation Among Contemporaries. I considered their relative intangibles (or lack thereof, at times) to be even. Nine categories with a final score of 4-4-1.

However, as I said before beginning the hitting analysis, Frank Thomas and Sammy Sosa are baseball legends because of their prowess at the plate. They are Hall of Famers and icons of Chicago and Major League Baseball because they are among the top 10-20 hitters who have ever picked up a baseball bat. So the tie-breaker, in my mind, has to go to the better hitter. Frank Thomas, based on the numbers, won three out of the four hitting categories with the one he lost, Power, being a close call in which he still had a higher peak-years Slugging %.

Based on my admissions from the beginning of this piece, you may not believe that I possess the ability to be objective on this subject; but I hope that my presentation of the raw statistics backs up my ultimate conclusion, which is that Frank Thomas was better than Sammy Sosa. Was it the conclusion I was hoping to come to? Of course it was. Was it the conclusion I expected? Honestly, I did not know. Sammy Sosa had a five-year stretch that was absolutely unbelievable. For those five years he was the better player. But over the balance of their peak seasons, I simply cannot look at the numbers and say that Sammy Sosa was better than Frank Thomas. If you can, please present your argument. For any Chicago baseball fan, this is a rich, entertaining, and worthy debate.

For this Chicago baseball fan, however, there is no debate. The Big Hurt was better than Slammin’ Sammy.

About the Author

Jerod Morris grew up in Indiana and is an avid follower of the Chicago White Sox. He also does not make a secret of his loathing for the Chicago Cubs, though he promises that he tried to be as objective as possible while doing this analysis.

Recently, he started a sports blog, Midwest Sports Fans (link below), that covers any and all sports teams in the Midwest, from the perspective of writers who grew up in the region. For his day job, Jerod Morris is an Account Exec and Copywriter for OrangeCast Social Media Marketing. He currently resides in Dallas, Texas and spends evenings watching White Sox games on GameCast while wishing that it was the White Sox, not the Cubs, who were the favorite team of the nefarious decision-makers at WGN.

You can contact Jerod by sending an email to jerod@midwestsportsfans.com.

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Comments 1 comment

Ssengats 8 years ago

Nice piece Jerod. The only admission I noticed is that you left out that Frank Thomas throws like a girl. Much like Shaq's free throw ineptness taking him out of games late in basketball, as a manager if I had a 1 or 2 run lead going into the bottom of the 9th, I am making a defensive substitution and taking Frank Thomas out of the game. What if is there is a runner on first and a ground ball is hit toward first base? Or what if there is a runner on third with one out and the infield is in and a grounder is hit to first with the runner charging for home?

Frank Thomas is certainly the best DH ever ahead of Edgar Martinez and I would definitely rather have him up with men on 2nd and 3rd with 2 out than Sosa, but hitting and defense need to be considered equally. If not for the stupidest rule in sports...the DH, Thomas' career would be long over. It's like someone taking Shaq's free throws for him. Yes he is a better overall HITTER, but on defense there is no contest; therefore Sosa is the better overall baseball PLAYER. 1st base is the easiest defensive position to play and the best Thomas could do was to be adequate for a few years. If you weigh hitting and defense 50-50 and ignore steroids, Sosa wins. If steroids are considered then give me Thomas because Sosa was a cheater. Go Cubs.

Ssengats

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