Frank Thomas probably won’t win the American League Comeback Player of the Year award. Jim Thome, the man who replaced the Big Hurt in Chicago, has better numbers across the board, and you can’t discount the inherent advantage he has in playing for the defending champs in a major media market.
So let’s give Thomas a nice little consolation prize: The AL MVP award.
The chances of it actually happening are slim, but the case in favor of it is fat, starting with the very definition of “valuable.”
Value in baseball is a tricky thing to determine, subjective to the hilt, and the baseball writers who vote for the MVP likely have a wide range of criteria. But if you take a close look at the teams most likely to either make the playoffs or fall just short, you’ll see that nobody approaches Thomas’ value to his team.
The AL East champs will be the New York Yankees and Derek Jeter is having a phenomenal season. But he’s also batting behind one of the best leadoff hitters in the game and behind him in the batting order is a collection of superstar talent. Boston’s David Ortiz has put up MVP-type numbers, too, but (a) he has Manny Ramirez as a co-star, (b) he could miss significant time down the stretch and (c) the Red Sox
aren’t going anywhere.
The AL Central contenders? Jermaine Dye is having a whale of a year for the Chicago White Sox, but so are Paul Konerko and Joe Crede. Joe Mauer is ridiculously good for the Minnesota Twins, but can you say he’s more valuable than Justin Morneau — or even Johan Santana and Joe Nathan? Not really. And mad love to the Detroit Tigers for what they’ve done as a team this year, but it truly has been a tam effort in every sense; not a single player there jumps out as a legitimate MVP candidate.
The A’s, of course, are in the driver’s seat in the AL West, with the Los Angeles Angels hanging onto contention by white-tipped fingers. Only if the Halos stage an amazing comeback does Vladimir Guerrero get a serious look in this race, because one of the reasons his team is in a sense-of-urgency mode in the first place is his June swoon (.243 average, three home runs and 11 RBIs).
Granted, Thomas was no great shakes for the first two months of this season himself. That was to be expected. The man missed most of the past two seasons with foot and ankle injuries and he asked anyone who would listen this spring not to judge him until he got about 150 at-bats under his belt.
Guess how many at-bats he had in April and May? One-fifty on the nose. And on cue, over his next 213 at-bats — through Tuesday — he batted .296 with 17 homers and 50 RBIs.
Had he not missed two weeks in June with a strained quad, the numbers would surely be even more impressive, but there’s still a month-plus to play. And if Thomas maintains his second-half pace, he’ll finish with close to 35 homers and 100 RBIs.
Other players will post numbers far more gaudy, but in picking an MVP, voters should ask themselves one simple question: Which player, if you took him away from his team, would leave that team in shambles?
The answer is easy: It’s Frank Thomas, who, with apologies to Nick Swisher, is the only true superstar in the A’s lineup. He’s the main man in the middle of one of the worst statistical offenses in the game and without him, the A’s would be a .500 club. That makes him the MVP.
Mychael Urban is the author of “Aces: The Last Season On The Mound With The Oakland A’s Big Three — Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito” and a writer for MLB.com.