Dickie Thon, cautionary tale

Today in baseball history, 1988:  The San Diego Padres signed short stop Dickie Thon who had been recently released by the Houston Astros.  To me, this is worth revisiting as Dickie Thon’s story is an unpleasant one, and should be a reminder to us all about the silliness of some behaviors that still continue in today’s game.

Dickie Thon, as any kid who played Strat-O-Matic in the 80’s could tell you, was a bad man.  But if you didn’t play 8 million Strat games, let me tell you:

Over 1982 and 1983 (Thon’s age 24 and 25 seasons), among MLB short stops, Thon:

  • Was 2nd only to Hall of Famer Robin Yount in OPS+ (ahead of Hall of Famers Alan Trammell and Ozzie Smith).
  • Was 2nd only to the best defensive player of all time in defensive WAR.  (If you don’t know who the best defensive player of all time was, I can’t help you.)
  • Was 2nd only to Yount in WAR.
  • Was tied for 2nd in HR, despite playing in the hardest park in which to hit a HR.
  • Was first in stolen bases.  And with a 75% success rate, he wasn’t Tim Raines, but he was a pretty good base runner.

Simply put, Thon was on a path to Cooperstown.  He wasn’t Yount or Cal Ripken*, but his value exceeded Trammell’s and Smith’s over that time frame.

Then early in the ’84 season, he was hit in the eye with a pitch.  He missed over a season, and was never the same when he returned – 119 OPS+ over ’82 and ’83, 88 OPS+ after.

Why is this worth remembering?

  1. There are many great, great players who are simply forgotten for different reasons. Dickie Thon was a great player whose name you never hear anymore.
  2. And far more importantly, it’s a cautionary tale about the danger and silliness of the false bravado of throwing at a batter.

It doesn’t take courage to stand 60’ away from a player with a weapon and try to intimidate him.  That doesn’t make you tough and scary, it makes you a coward.  And there is no reason – not a guy “digging in”, not a guy flipping his bat, not you being bad at your job and allowing a HR, that justifies throwing near a batter’s head.

So I implore you to remember Dickie Thon the next time Miguel Cabrera tells Michael Fulmer to throw at Gary Sanchez.

Remember Dickie Thon the next time an angry old player waxes poetic about Bob Gibson continually throwing up and in at batters.

And ask “Is it really worth it?” when the topic of someone getting “knocked back” comes up.  Do you have to throw inside, off the plate to pitch successfully?  Absolutely – that’s not what I’m talking about.  But consider…

Guys who throw 99 mph miss by two feet all the time.  Is aiming at a batter’s back that much better?

I’m thinking the strategy should just be better at your job, not get pissed at someone and ruin their livelihood and health.  Remember that a plaque and millions of dollars with Dickie Thon’s name never came to fruition.

 

*To be fair, Cal Ripken played a good number of games at 3B in ’82 so he didn’t qualify as a SS over that span.

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