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.”
Aug 1, 2015, 12:35 PM EDT
Kennedy pitched seven innings against the Marlins after watching the birth of his daughter.
Aug 1, 2015, 11:37 AM EDT
Angels left-hander C.J. Wilson was placed on the 15-day disabled list Friday with what was termed as left elbow inflammation. We should know more about the severity on Saturday.
Aug 1, 2015, 10:41 AM EDT
Danny Valencia is batting .296/.331/.506 with seven home runs and 29 RBI over 58 games this season, but the Blue Jays cut him loose Saturday.
Aug 1, 2015, 10:05 AM EDT
Dickerson has already been on the disabled list twice this season due to nagging plantar fasciitis in his left foot.
Aug 1, 2015, 9:33 AM EDT
With the White Sox losing in a rout to the Yankees last night, Adam LaRoche got a chance to pitch for the first time in his major league career. And he was pretty good too, retiring the side in order.
Jul 31, 2015, 11:55 PM EDT
John Axford has allowed runs in five consecutive appearances, blowing four saves. He’s out as the Rockies’ closer for now.
Jul 31, 2015, 11:27 PM EDT
Wilmer Flores: your feel-good story of the year.
Jul 31, 2015, 11:20 PM EDT
The Orioles designated struggling Orioles pitcher Bud Norris for assignment to make room for new outfielder Gerardo Parra on Friday.
Jul 31, 2015, 10:52 PM EDT
Starling Marte’s defense prevented Mark Melancon from blowing a save and potentially taking a loss.
Jul 31, 2015, 10:35 PM EDT
The Angels lose C.J. Wilson to an injury but are expected to get Jered Weaver back.
Jul 31, 2015, 10:08 PM EDT
It don’t matter if he’s left or right.
Jul 31, 2015, 9:53 PM EDT
Madison Bumgarner was upset Delino DeShields was upset.
Jul 31, 2015, 9:35 PM EDT
The Giants placed Tim Hudson on the disabled list, which created room on the roster for incoming pitcher Mike Leake.
Jul 31, 2015, 8:55 PM EDT
A.J. Burnett hits the DL with an elbow issue. Recently-acquired pitcher J.A. Happ will take his spot in the rotation.
Jul 31, 2015, 8:28 PM EDT
Diamondbacks GM Dave Stewart laughed when he recalled the Padres asking for Paul Goldschmidt in return in a potential trade involving Craig Kimbrel.
Jul 31, 2015, 7:49 PM EDT
Kendrys Morales is more nimble than we give him credit for being.
Jul 31, 2015, 7:20 PM EDT
Yankees pitching prospect Luis Severino will make his major league debut within the next week.
Jul 31, 2015, 6:14 PM EDT
Clayton Kershaw has been scratched from a start yet again due to a hip problem.
Jul 31, 2015, 5:37 PM EDT
Yes, I realize it’s silly to do this an hour after the trade deadline, as time is required to see how this stuff truly shakes out. But what is the Internet for if not kneejerk reactions?
- Settling the Score: Friday’s results 21
- The benches cleared in Friday’s Giants-Rangers game 171
- The Winners and Losers at the Trade Deadline 70
- 2015 MLB Trade Deadline Tracker 11
- Report: Yoenis Cespedes heading to the New York Mets 37
- The Blue Jays pick up Ben Revere from the Phillies 65
- Cubs trade for Dan Haren 28
- Cardinals add more bullpen help, get Jonathan Broxton from Brewers 13
- The benches cleared in Friday’s Giants-Rangers game (171)
- Blue Jays acquire David Price from the Tigers (112)
- Rangers land ace left-hander Cole Hamels from Phillies (106)
- Royals make another big move, get Ben Zobrist from A’s (95)
- Report: Rockies trade Troy Tulowitzki to Blue Jays for Jose Reyes and prospects (90)