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.
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.”
Jan 31, 2015, 11:25 PM EST
Meghan King Edmonds and Katie Chadwick Hamilton, the wives of Jim and Josh respectively, will appear on the tenth season of The Real Housewives of Orange County.
Jan 31, 2015, 10:40 PM EST
Brandon Workman will enter spring training as a reliever, attempting to grab a scarce spot at the back of the Red Sox bullpen.
Jan 31, 2015, 9:50 PM EST
The Padres are still interested in Phillies ace Cole Hamels, though they may not be able to put together an enticing enough deal to attain him.
Jan 31, 2015, 9:00 PM EST
The Braves may have pawned off many of their productive players, but Freddie Freeman still thinks they’ll compete in 2015.
Jan 31, 2015, 8:10 PM EST
Jayson Werth signed an inmate handbook for someone during his stay in jail in Fairfax, Virginia.
Jan 31, 2015, 7:10 PM EST
Ernie Banks, who played 19 seasons in the major leagues, made an enormous impact on the game of baseball. That has been evident in the wonderful stories that have been shared over the last week.
Jan 31, 2015, 6:05 PM EST
The Rays added some depth, signing reliever Ronald Belisario on Saturday. It appears they’ll be adding infielder Alexi Casilla as well.
Jan 31, 2015, 5:30 PM EST
Baxter appeared in four games with the Dodgers last season and owns a .225/.331/.342 batting line in the majors. He’ll always be aces with Mets fans, though.
Jan 31, 2015, 4:39 PM EST
Richards emerged as one of the best pitchers in the American League last season before tearing his left patellar tendon in August.
Jan 31, 2015, 4:11 PM EST
Hendrickson turned 40 last June and hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2011, but he still hopes to continue his playing career.
Jan 31, 2015, 3:15 PM EST
Padres general manager A.J. Preller has been very active on the trade front this offseason, but he might not be done yet.
Jan 31, 2015, 2:05 PM EST
Orioles slugger Chris Davis was on hand for the team’s annual FanFest today and opened up about the 25-game Adderall suspension which put an end to his disappointing 2014 campaign and left him on the sidelines during the playoffs.
Jan 31, 2015, 12:40 PM EST
The Brewers remain in the market for a closer, but trade talks for Papelbon don’t have much momentum at the moment.
Jan 31, 2015, 11:25 AM EST
Aardsma pitched exclusively in the Cardinals minor league system last year, but he’s hoping to get back on the radar in 2015.
Jan 31, 2015, 10:10 AM EST
While MLB still needs to give their approval, it appears that Cuban infielder Yoan Moncada is one step closer to finally signing with a team.
Jan 31, 2015, 8:56 AM EST
Buxton repeats as MLB.com’s top prospect despite an injury-plagued 2014.
Jan 30, 2015, 10:50 PM EST
Neal Cotts battled numerous injuries and nearly called it quits before the Rangers signed him to a minor league deal in 2012.
Jan 30, 2015, 9:40 PM EST
Joe Kelly has some bold words for non-believers.
Jan 30, 2015, 8:30 PM EST
Yasiel Puig meant it in a good way!
Jan 30, 2015, 7:20 PM EST
The Rockies addressed their depth on Friday, signing reliever Rafael Betancourt and utility infielder Omar Quintanilla to minor league deals.
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- Chris Davis opens up about his Adderall suspension: “It was a moment of weakness” 50
- MLB.com names Byron Buxton as baseball’s top prospect for second straight year 32
- Yasiel Puig says the Cardinals are the Dodgers’ “principal rivals,” not the Giants 101
- Jayson Werth to serve five days in jail for reckless driving 48
- Keith Law’s top 100 prospects list is out 39
- Great Moments in Media Arrogance: Marshawn Lynch edition 173
- Nationals sign former Blue Jays closer Casey Janssen 11
- Great Moments in Media Arrogance: Marshawn Lynch edition (173)
- Rob Manfred, new Major League Baseball commissioner, suggests ban on defensive shifts (118)
- Yasiel Puig says the Cardinals are the Dodgers’ “principal rivals,” not the Giants (103)
- Why “Deflategate” would never happen in baseball (96)
- The Yankees are going to try to get out of paying A-Rod his contract incentives (85)