Jul 24, 2014, 4:20 PM EDT
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Jul 7, 2015, 6:55 AM EDT
Not-an-All-Star Brian Dozier showed that, while his .500+ slugging percentage is apparently not worth a trip to Cincinnati, it’s worth something.
Jul 6, 2015, 11:19 PM EDT
White Sox ace Chris Sale entered tonight’s start against the Blue Jays with eight straight starts with 10 strikeouts or more, tying Pedro Martinez for the major league record. He fell a little bit short in his efforts of securing the record all for himself.
Jul 6, 2015, 10:26 PM EDT
Nolasco will have a bone fragment removed from his ankle.
Jul 6, 2015, 9:32 PM EDT
Lester was 0-for-66 (0-for-71 if you include the postseason) before collecting his first major league hit tonight.
Jul 6, 2015, 9:01 PM EDT
It’s a bummer that Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton will have to miss the 2015 Home Run Derby due to a broken hamate bone, but now we can also scratch Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper off the list of participants.
Jul 6, 2015, 8:27 PM EDT
And once again, there’s no A-Rod to be found.
Jul 6, 2015, 7:00 PM EDT
The starters for the 2015 MLB All-Star Game were announced on Sunday, so now it’s time to learn the pitchers and reserves who have been selected to represent the American League and National League at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati on Tuesday, July 14…
Jul 6, 2015, 6:13 PM EDT
Jacoby Ellsbury has been out since May 19 with a sprained right knee.
Jul 6, 2015, 5:04 PM EDT
Trade seems likely.
Jul 6, 2015, 4:26 PM EDT
Note: without the ‘fro, Gamble is just sort of blankly staring at you. We know this now.
Jul 6, 2015, 4:10 PM EDT
Harrison has struggled to duplicate his breakout 2014 performance.
Jul 6, 2015, 3:30 PM EDT
Miguel Cabrera’s fill-in?
Jul 6, 2015, 2:51 PM EDT
Garza signed a four-year, $50 million deal with Milwaukee last offseason .
Jul 6, 2015, 2:12 PM EDT
Mitchell Lambson is a lefty reliever who has split time at Double-A and Triple-A so far this year.
Jul 6, 2015, 1:44 PM EDT
His inexplicably bad 2015 is now somewhat exsplicable.
Jul 6, 2015, 12:55 PM EDT
He’s hit just .233 with a .640 OPS through 166 career games.
Jul 6, 2015, 12:24 PM EDT
Maybin is hitting .294/.363.416 with seven homers, 39 RBI and 15 steals.
Jul 6, 2015, 11:20 AM EDT
A Bill Heywood must be allowed to speak his mind.
Jul 6, 2015, 10:45 AM EDT
In-game interviews are usually dumb. But last night one was at least funny.
Jul 6, 2015, 10:15 AM EDT
Werth has been out with a fractured wrist since being hit by pitch on May 15.
- And That Happened: Monday’s scores and highlights 0
- “Final Vote” balloting opens for 2015 MLB All-Star Game 30
- Pitchers and reserves for 2015 MLB All-Star Game announced 56
- And That Happened: Sunday’s scores and highlights 51
- AL and NL Starters for the 2015 All-Star Game announced 106
- That time Manny Ramirez nearly became a Met 10
- Phillies acquire No. 1 international signing slot for 2015-2016 from the Diamondbacks 20
- Orioles activate Jonathan Schoop after 10-week absence 10
- AL and NL Starters for the 2015 All-Star Game announced (106)
- Mike Scioscia says Josh Hamilton should apologize to Angels owner Arte Moreno (90)
- What Yasiel Puig being a pain in the butt means. And what it doesn’t mean. (78)
- Report: Jerry Dipoto “definitely out” as Angels GM (77)
- Brian Dozier is the best second baseman in baseball (72)