Thomas is pitchers'nightmare

INSIDE PITCH

May 28, 1994|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Sun Staff Writer

If you're looking for a good reading on the Orioles' pitching staff, this weekend and next will provide the best possible gauge. Also the biggest.

While Ken Griffey and Matt Williams chase home run records, Paul O'Neill flirts with .500 and Joe Carter drives in runs at a dizzying pace, the best offensive player in baseball has gone relatively unnoticed. But not by his peers or opposing managers.

At 6 feet 5, 260 pounds, Frank Thomas is perhaps the most imposing hitter in baseball. What isn't arguable is that he is the game's most productive hitter.

The numbers don't merely speak volumes, they scream for attention. Thomas is the most complete offensive package in the game.

Check out these rankings among the American League hitters. Going into last night's game, Thomas was third in hitting, second in home runs, fourth in RBIs, first in runs scored, tied for third in doubles, second in on-base percentage, first in walks. The man is a run-producing machine and the biggest reason the Chicago White Sox are baseball's highest-scoring team.

With barely more than one quarter of the season gone, Thomas is on a pace to produce an incredible 316 runs (runs scored plus RBIs minus home runs). To date, he has accounted for 29 percent (82) of the 287 runs scored by the White Sox. (Cal Ripken leads the Orioles with 57, which is 26 percent of the team's 219 total.)

Even with capable run producers such as Julio Franco (68) and Robin Ventura (59), Thomas is the wheel that makes the White Sox offense go. The others are mere spokes by comparison.

Stopping Thomas has been virtually impossible for the Orioles in the past. That being the case, minimizing the damage he inflicts figures to be the key to the series this weekend in Chicago -- and again next weekend in Camden Yards.

In his first two at-bats last night, he had a single and a double

(and two long fouls) -- but no runs.

As improbable as it may seem, and as difficult as it is to do, Orioles pitchers have to keep the ball close to Thomas. He is most dangerous on pitches away in the strike zone.

Despite his size, Thomas' vulnerable area is minuscule. Up and in works sometimes. Down and away sounds good, and may be tempting, but it can be a danger zone.

What makes Thomas such a dominating hitter is his discipline and patience. He rarely chases bad pitches and, as his numbers prove, isn't averse to taking a walk.

And, contrary to accepted baseball theorems, this is definitely .. one case when a walk is not such bad strategy.

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