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The eyes have it: Thomas’ greatness built on patience

Jul 24, 2014, 4:20 PM EST

There are so many inconceivable skills necessary to hit Major League pitching, but if I had to pick one that most boggles the mind it would simply be this: recognizing, in an instant, whether a pitch is a ball or a strike. It is a skill that, when you break it down, seems impossible. A hitter has a little bit less than a half-second to fully react to a 90-mph fastball, closer to four-tenths of a second against a 100-mph fastball.

I can, just barely, comprehend a player having the bat speed necessary to hit the ball. I cannot understand at all that ability to recognize the ball will be a couple of inches outside the strike zone.

[MORE: What set Big Hurt apart?  |  Thomas, Maddux already represented in Hall]

This was Frank Thomas’ Jedi talent. Everything else flowed from it. In his very first full season, he walked 138 times and posted a .453 on-base percentage — a higher on-base percentage than Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Stan Musial or Roberto Clemente ever achieved in a season. In his first eight seasons combined, Thomas posted a .452 on-base percentage. Here are the Top 5 for their first eight seasons.

1. Ted Williams, .488

2. Babe Ruth, .467

3. Frank Thomas, .452

4. Wade Boggs, .443

5. Lou Gehrig, .443

“The hardest thing to teach,” the old White Sox hitting coach Walt Hriniak said when talking about the absurdity of Frank Thomas, “is patience.” You could argue that it’s impossible to teach, because “patience” is some heady mix of instantly recognizing the pitch, communicating to the body to swing or not to swing and, perhaps most of all, understanding your own limitations as a hitter. The mind of most hitters screams confidence and tends to believe that it can hit ANY pitch. If you think about it, laying off bad pitches is actually something of an ego check.

When Thomas was in college at Auburn, he almost never got a strike. His old coach Hal Baird said that if Thomas had waited only for a strike, “He wouldn’t have had a bat all season.”

So, choosing from the mixture of bad pitches and very bad pitches that anyone was willing to throw him, Thomas figured out which balls were at least hittable. He hit .403 with 19 homers as a junior and was promptly taken seventh in the draft, one spot behind a high school hitting phenom named Paul Coleman, one spot ahead of a high school hitting phenom named Earl Cunningham. You sometimes have to wonder what the heck baseball scouts are looking at.*

*This is particularly true for Thomas, who was not even DRAFTED out of high school. The scouts would say that was because Thomas had already committed to play football at Auburn, but this is ridiculous because (1) Teams take flyers on football players all the time and (2) Thomas has said, point blank, he would have signed. Scouts just whiffed on Thomas probably because they did not appreciate just how remarkable his pitch recognition skills were.

[MORE: Mind over batter — Glavine’s great genius]

Thomas’ extraordinary eye made him an extraordinary hitter more or less from Day 1. He wasn’t intimidated by the crowds (he had been a football player at Auburn, so he was used to crowds), and he never doubted that he belonged. Thomas just knew instinctively which pitches he could drive, which pitches he could hit the opposite way, which pitches he needed to spoil, which pitches would spin out of the strike zone. That first full year, he hit .318 with 32 homers. He had tape stuck to his locker with the initials: “D.B.T.H.” That stood for “Don’t Believe The Hype.”

At the same time, when reporters asked him if he could have reached the NFL, he said yes, but, “In baseball I could dominate. In football, I had a lot of work to do.”

Thomas led the league in walks and doubles his second full year. In his third, he struck out only 54 times in 676 plate appearances, which was all but unheard of for a modern power hitter. Nobody in 20 years — not since Henry Aaron — had hit 40-plus homers while striking out fewer than 60 times.  Thomas won his first MVP award. The next year, he hit .353 and slugged .729 in the strike-shortened season, and he won his second MVP.

He was so big and strong that it was easy to think of Thomas as a slugger, but he really wasn’t one, not until the later part of his career when his bat had slowed somewhat and his greatest value to teams was as a pure home run-hitter. He hit 521 home runs, but never hit 45 in a season.

In his prime, Thomas was an artist — more Gwynn than McGwire, more Boggs than Sosa. He would hulk over the plate, and he looked a little bit sleepy up there, and if a pitch was an inch off the plate or an inch below the knee, he would just watch it go by. He knew what pitchers were trying to do. He was like a crocodile: He could stand there perfectly still and convince his prey that he was just a log in the water.

[MORE: PED-linked managers skate to Hall while players languish]

And then, when he unleashed, he UNLEASHED — left foot up in the air then stomp on the ground as he rushed his bat through the strike zone with such force that that the bat seemed to pull his body off the ground. His right leg sometimes came up flying behind him as he followed through. He swung the bat so hard, there did not seem any limit to how far he could hit a baseball. But, many of his best shots were not home runs — they were screaming line drives that stayed three or four feel off the ground and crashed into the wall so loud you could hear it reverberate through the stadium. Miguel Cabrera hits baseballs about as hard as Thomas did, but he is so much more balanced. The effect with Thomas was even more awesome because of how much force he put into his swing.

The thing Thomas could do was hit. He had played tight end at Auburn, so he could run a little bit when he was young, but that faded. He was never a good defensive first baseman, and almost 60 percent of his time was as a designated hitter. The position was made for him. For the first 10 years of his career — and again in certain years afterward — he was a one-of-a-kind hitter. I asked him once at an All-Star Game how someone can develop that eye. He smiled. “Can’t develop it man,” he said. “Gotta be born with it.”

  1. jrob23 - Jul 24, 2014 at 4:30 PM

    very good odds he used PED like pretty much all his peers. It would be moronic to think otherwise. Prove who the morons are below

    • beefytrout - Jul 24, 2014 at 4:34 PM

      I don’t think anyone is going to out-moron you.

      • larrymahnken - Jul 24, 2014 at 4:43 PM

        JERRY: You have no idea what an idiot is. Elaine just gave me a chance to get out and I didn’t take it. (pointing to himself) This is an idiot.

        GEORGE: Is that right? I just threw away a lifetime of guilt-free sex, and floor seats for every sporting event in Madison Square Garden. So please, a little respect. For I am Costanza: Lord of the Idiots!

        ROXANNE: (yelling out the window) You’re all winners!

        GEORGE: But suddenly, a new contender has emerged…

    • jdd428 - Jul 24, 2014 at 4:51 PM

      No player was more adamantly outspoken against PED use.

      • manimalof7 - Jul 24, 2014 at 5:53 PM

        Frank Thomas doth protest too much, methinks.

    • snitor - Jul 24, 2014 at 6:46 PM

      People believe the decision on whether you should use PED or not is a moral one. They don’t realize that if the system in place allows you to gain an advantage that settles your family financially for generations to come, and a lot of other players are taking advantage of that, you really have no choice.

      • Tim OShenko - Jul 24, 2014 at 9:32 PM

        Um, yes, you actually do have a choice. You can say no. The whole “everyone else is doing it” argument is just a tiresome excuse used to try and justify an action that you know full well is wrong.

        The money argument isn’t really valid here – even an average Major Leaguer draws enough salary to set their family up for generations. Given Thomas’ naturally ability, he was/would be able to compete at a high level without PEDs. And while the system may have been set up so as not to punish players for cheating, that doesn’t mean all players cheated. Hell, it doesn’t even mean all *good* players cheated.

        I honestly don’t know whether or not Thomas took PEDs, and aside from the fact it would make him look like an ass given his past comments, I don’t much care. But let’s not pretend that he and the other players “[had] no choice” in the matter.

    • deadguy3535 - Jul 26, 2014 at 10:58 AM

      The Columbus Ledger has a number of photos of Frank from his High School days. Just look at the size of him back then.

      http://www.ledger-enquirer.com/2014/07/19/3203962/frank-thomas-through-the-years.html

  2. larrymahnken - Jul 24, 2014 at 4:41 PM

    In the 90s, it felt like Thomas hit a line drive every time he swung the bat. Edgar Martinez was the only hitter I dreaded seeing hit against my team more.

  3. mgv38 - Jul 24, 2014 at 6:03 PM

    Ricky Davis!

  4. mrhonorama - Jul 24, 2014 at 6:39 PM

    One year, all players had to give urine samples in a pilot steroid testing program. The notion was that if enough players tested positive, under the CBA, a full-time testing program would be instituted. Led by Thomas, the White Sox decided that they were not going to go through with the tests. What that would have meant is that all of their tests would have been considered positive, which would increase the chances that the full-time testing program would go into effect. However, Players Association representatives caught wind of this plan and told the Sox to undergo the testing, rather than game the system. I always felt this was a pretty good indication that the Big Hurt’s steroid stance wasn’t b.s.

    • jrob23 - Jul 24, 2014 at 9:24 PM

      right…cuz nobody who has ever done steroids and claimed they didn’t were caught lying. Also, users are always ahead of the testers. Remember McGwire who openly displayed his bottle of Androstendione in his locker for the whole world to see. Maybe to throw people off the scent…kinda how Thomas was so vehement yet there was no testing in his prime for steroids, and certainly no testing for HGH.

      I’m not passing judgment, I was and am a big fan. I’m just pointing out how fanboyism will make you believe the exact opposite of conventional wisdom. People need to just accept the fact that their favorite players for close to three decades were mostly dirty.

      • bellweather22 - Jul 24, 2014 at 11:26 PM

        And, of course,Palmeiro wagged his finger in his lying denial before Congress.

      • raysfan1 - Jul 25, 2014 at 12:21 AM

        Couple of points…
        1) McGwire did not have his andro out in the open in his locker to throw anyone off the scent. There was nobody hunting for steroid users then. There were no consequences for using steroids in 1998. The reporter who mentioned seeing it got excoriated not only by MLB players but also by other media members and Bud Selig.

        2) Players are ahead of testers in baseball for one simple reason–testing does not happen often enough. Until this year players were tested twice a year, once in spring training and once during the season. All anyone had to do was be careful with the dosing cycle. Biogenesis did not use any drugs which could not be detected, but most never had a positive test because of the low frequency of testing. As of this year testing is 4 times, still little enough that many who cheat will get away with it. HGH testing? It’s a joke. Only 25% get tested at all. Besides, it only lasts in the system for a couple hours, so ever catching anyone will be dumb luck.

        However, your main point, that users lie and say they don’t use all the time.

  5. gmkev - Jul 25, 2014 at 11:06 AM

    Frank Thomas should have won so many more MVP’s. He hit 500+ HR and is member of the .300/.400/.500 club. He was one of baseballs greatest batters.

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