By Chris Cwik
No player who has ever primarily served as a designated hitter has been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, but there's a chance that could change this season, as former White Sox slugger Frank Thomas is in his first year of eligibility. It's hard to dispute what Thomas did at the plate, which is why the main argument to vote against Thomas has to do with the fact that he didn't play the field all that much after his first few seasons. Since he was mostly utilized as a DH, Thomas could be penalized by voters for being a "part-time" player. But using the DH argument against Thomas completely misses the point: he is, quite simply, the best player to ever play the position, and would be the perfect candidate to break the DH barrier.
The main reason there hasn't been another candidate as worthy as Thomas is simply due to the fact that the DH rule is relatively new to baseball, and so we've had very few test cases. The American League first approved the DH for use in the 1973 season, and during that first year, eight of the 12 AL teams utilized a player who played at least 100 games at DH. That didn't last, as the following season it dropped to just five teams. In fact, it's been rare for most teams in the AL to utilize a true full-time DH, and the heights of the initial season have been reached or surpassed in just four seasons since.
It's rare that a team decides to employ a full-time DH, and even more rare that they employ that player for multiple seasons. Teams have found that unless they have an excellent hitter plugged into that role, it's often more helpful to utilize that spot to give players rest while keeping them in the lineup, and so since 1973, there have only been nine players who have played 50 percent of their games at DH, with minimum of 1,000 games played. Due to the way teams have typically employed the position, there simply haven't been many opportunities for full-time DHs to be eligible for the Hall of Fame before Thomas.
There's a chance that will change in the future, as three of those nine full-time DHs, David Ortiz, Travis Hafner and Billy Butler, are still playing, although Hafner hasn't yet found a home for 2014. The other five players who came before Thomas weren't big enough threats to challenge for the Hall of Fame, though Edgar Martinez, Harold Baines, Hal McRae and Don Baylor all had long, respected careers. Baylor, McRae and Baines fell off the ballot after just a few seasons, and none of them really came close to induction.
Martinez is in his fifth year of eligibility after gaining 35.9 percent of the vote last year, and he has a fair share of supporters who insist he's worthy of the honor. That said, the biggest issue with Martinez is the late start he got on his career -- he wasn't a regular until his age-27 season, and while he played into his 40s, he wasn't able to compile the usual benchmarks typically needed for induction. He's likely to gain enough support to stay on the ballot another season, but it's less likely that he'll see a big swell in his support over the next couple years. For now, the closest we have to a full-time DH in the Hall is Paul Molitor, who played just over 40 percent of his games at the position.
Is being a DH actually detrimental to a player's candidacy? In the case of the "full-time" DHs, there are other legitimate reasons for keeping them out of the Hall. It's possible some voters consider that the deciding factor not to vote for Martinez, but given some recent voting trends there doesn't appear to be a penalty for being a "part-time" player. In recent years, the Baseball Writers Association of America has rewarded relief pitchers for excelling in one specific area of the game. The current adaptation of the save rule was added in 1975, so it makes sense that relievers have been on a similar path as DHs. Rollie Fingers, Rich Gossage and Bruce Sutter have been inducted in the past 21 seasons, and Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman will likely be inducted when eligible. In that sense, there's no reason DHs should be punished for excelling in one area. If they performed their task well, they should get the votes.
That's exactly what Thomas did. He not only passes the traditional benchmarks, hitting .301/.419/.555 with 521 home runs, but he's the best DH ever by WAR. Over his career, Thomas posted a 154 wRC+, which means his hitting was 54 percent better than the league average. Those stats remain impressive when Thomas is compared to the other sluggers of his era. Only three players -- Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols and Mark McGwire -- posted a higher wRC+ than Thomas did over the span of his playing career. It's nearly impossible to look at the offensive numbers Thomas put up and conclude that he's not worthy to be included among the game's all-time best.
Two of those names force voters to consider the era Thomas played in. But in this case, it's actually going to benefit Thomas. While he played, Thomas was a staunch supporter of keeping the game clean. Thomas told the Los Angeles Times in 2005 that he would "love to see testing" in order to eliminate suspicions. Thomas was also famously one of the members of the White Sox who tried to protest a drug test in order to make steroid testing mandatory. By refusing to take the test, the players would have been counted as testing positive for steroids, and if five percent of players tested positive, testing would have been increased the following season. He was also the only player to willingly talk to George Mitchell while he was conducting research for the now infamous Mitchell Report. Given that evidence, Thomas is more likely to see a boost due to his era, as opposed to being penalized.
Those factors make Thomas the ideal candidate to be the first "full-time" DH inducted into the Hall of Fame. He's the best candidate to ever come along who meets the criteria, and it's impossible to argue against what he did with the bat. On top of that, Thomas gets points for speaking out against steroids at a time where many ballplayers had their statements come back to bite them. Thomas has tracked well based on the publicly released Hall of Fame ballots, and it's starting to look like there's a good chance he'll be inducted Wednesday. If that's the case, it won't be because voters changed their mind about the DH, it will be because Thomas is too good to keep out, regardless of his position.
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Chris Cwik writes for various baseball sites on the internet, CBSSports.com and FanGraphs.com. He has also contributed to ESPN and the Hardball Times Baseball Annual. Follow him on Twitter at @Chris_Cwik.