Welcome to the next volume of a very sporadic series of articles I call Time WARP. You can find the previous volumes of this series right here:
In The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James contends that Dickie Thon would’ve had at least a 51% chance to make the Hall of Fame were he not hit by a pitch on April 8, 1984. When I read that book as a teen, I was slightly confused, because the player that I remember as a kid was, sure, a decent player, but nothing resembling a star player, and keep in mind, this was in the late 80s/early 90s, so I didn’t see him play as a young player. How could one beaning change a course of a career so much? Of course, I was stupid. I didn’t know about Tony Conligliaro, or Ray Chapman, because, you know, kids aren’t that smart. (And I think I was pretty good about learning baseball history as a kid, but, yeah, I didn’t know squat.)
Thon had a cup of coffee with the Angels in 1979 and was a somewhat nondescript part-timer in 1980. After that season he was traded to the Houston Astros for Ken Forsch, and spent 1981 as a very part time utility player, getting 105 plate appearances as a 23 year-old, but also spending the entire season in the major leagues for the first time.
1982 is where things changed for Thon, becoming the starting shortstop for the Astros, and putting up a 6.1 rWAR season. A lot of that value was defense, but make no mistake, the guy could hit, putting up a line of .276/.327/.397, which in that era, was good for a TAv of .283. To put that into perspective, the following players have a career TAv of .283: Thurman Munson, Steve Garvey, Toby Harrah, Craig Biggio, and Adrian Beltre.
1983 was more of the same, but he added some power, popping 20 bombs and putting up a line of .286/.341/.457, which was good for 7.4 rWAR, a .289 TAv, a spot in the All Star Game, and 7th in NL MVP, and you could make a case that he should have been even higher than that. Then, everything changed on that fateful day in 1984.
Going to the Play Index, coupon code BP, we can see that Thon’s 13.1 rWAR before the age of 25 as a shortstop isn’t really all that special. Barry Larkin had 13.5 during that period, so things could have gone either way, because we know what happened with Larkin, but Elvis Andrus had 18.2 before the age of 25, and I don’t see the Hall of Fame knocking down his door anytime soon.
Thon didn’t really play another full season until he was 31 years of age, in 1989. In the years following his beaning, vision problems and ineffectiveness limited his playing time. But, I think that a .254 TAv in 1985, even in limited playing time, is quite impressive when you consider that HE COULDN’T FRIGGIN SEE! Think about that for a second.
By 1988, even during only part time play, and by now having moved to the Padres, Thon had recovered enough to put up a TAv of .279 and was around a 2 win player on all the various WAR type metrics. Even so, if you read the Vice Sports article linked to earlier, (which I recommend you do, because it’s good) he never recovered 100%, and in fact, still has problems with vision and eye strain. Moving on to Philadelphia in 1989, his overall numbers weren’t as good, but he did crank 15 home runs, but by now he was 32, and the decline was beginning to hit. But, even when you figure in his decline phase, and the fact that he barely played during what should have been his peak years, he had an OPS+ of 88, from 1985-1993, playing with one good eye! That’s very impressive, considering, you know, the one good eye thing.
All told, Thon put up a total of 23.9 rWAR, 20.3 fWAR, and 24.1 WARP. Considering he basically missed his entire prime due to the beaning, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he could have been a 50-60 win player, so I consider him to be one of the great “what could have been” stories in baseball.Next post: Back to the Future with Out of the Park 16: 1985 vs. 2015
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