140724-frank-thomas-1000

The eyes have it: Thomas’ greatness built on patience

15 Comments

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.”

And That Happened: Monday’s scores and highlights

DETROIT, MI - SEPTEMBER 26: Cleveland Indians player celebrate clinching the Central Division Championship after defeating the Detroit Tigers 7-4 at Comerica Park on September 26, 2016 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Marlins 7, Mets 3: Giancarlo Stanton exhorting his teammates to “play the game like Jose would play the game.” The club kneeling in prayer beforehand. Dee Gordon’s right-handed hitting tribute and dramatic home run. A team which had every reason to be lost in a fog playing dominant baseball. Leaving their caps on the mound after the game. It was moving and sad but simultaneously triumphant and uplifting. A reminder of how beloved a teammate and person Jose Fernandez was to those who knew him. A reminder that people play this game and their personal bonds are tighter than we usually acknowledge.

Diamondbacks 14, Nationals 4: One of many routs last night. Here. Cubs over Pirates. Reds over Cardinals. Clinton over Trump. It’s almost as if one side showed up prepared and ready to play and the other side was clearly overmatched and out of their depth. At least the baseball teams get to do this 161 other times rather than have it be a mere three games. Oh well. Here Yasmany Tomas drove in five with a three-run homer and an RBI double. Jean Segura homered twice, driving in three. If the loss wasn’t bad enough, losing Wilson Ramos to a knee injury is something that could severely impact the Nationals’ prospects in the playoffs. Just as disastrous night all around.

Cubs 12, Pirates 2: Chicago picks up its 100th win of the year thanks in large part to a huge night from Javier Baez who drove in six with a grand slam and a two-run single. Meanwhile Kyle Hendricks continued to make his Cy Young case, scattering seven hits across six scoreless innings while watching his ERA sink to 1.99 and picking up his 16th win.

Yankees 7, Blue Jays 5: Maturity abounds as Luis Severino hit Josh Donaldson, the Jays throw at Chase Headley in retaliation and then the Yankees throw at Justin Smoak in retaliation for the retaliation. Based on the video and the game situation it did not appear as if Dondaldson was hit intentionally, but big macho baseball men gotta be big macho baseball men. After Headley was hit the Yankees had to put their big macho baseball men pants on too, apparently. They’re lucky no one was hurt. Luis Severino and J.A. Happ will almost certainly face fines or suspensions. As for the game, Mark Teixeira hit a tying homer in the ninth inning, flipping his bat and then jawing from his dugout, yelling “blown save!” to Jason Grilli. Aaron Hicks subsequently hit a two-run homer and the Yankees’ four-run lead heading into the bottom of the ninth was too much for the Jays to overcome.

Indians 7, Tigers 4: The Indians clinch the AL Central, but it wasn’t all champagne and Budweiser, as ace Corey Kluber had to leave the game with groin tightness. Assuming he’s given an off day for what would’ve been his final start he’ll get a good week and a half or so of rest if he needs it before the ALDS starts. Coco Crisp and Roberto Perez homered for the Indians, and Jason Kipnis doubled in a run. The Tigers are now two games back of the idle Orioles in the Wild Card.

Brewers 8, Rangers 3Jonathan Villar homered twice and had a career-high five RBI as the Brewers put the Rangers a game back in the loss column of the Red Sox for home field advantage in the playoffs.

White Sox 7, Rays 1Justin Morneau and Carlos Sanchez each hit a two-run homer and James Shields won his first game in two months. He’s 4-11 since coming over from San Diego.

Mariners 4, Astros 3: Robinson Cano homered in the top of the 11th to give the M’s the win. He hit a homer in the third inning too. The victory moves Seattle into a tie with Detroit, two games behind Baltimore for the second AL Wild Card. Houston has droppd four of five,and is now three and a half games back in the race.

Reds 15, Cardinals 2: Cincinnati jumped out to a 10-0 lead by the top of the fourth. Four homers from the Reds, two from Adam Duvall, who was 4-for-6 with five RBI on the night. The Cards are one game out of Wild Card position behind the Giants now.

Angels 2, Athletics 1: The clubs exchanged solo shots — Mike Trout for the Angels, Steven Vogt for the A’s — but the tie was broken by Albert Pujols‘ run-scoring groundout in the eighth.

Marlins defeat the Mets, then pay their respects to Jose Fernandez on the pitcher’s mound

MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 26: Miami Marlins players all wearing jerseys bearing the number 16 and name Fernandez honor the late Jose Fernandez before the game against the New York Mets at Marlins Park on September 26, 2016 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)
Rob Foldy/Getty Images
9 Comments

The Marlins were somehow able to muster up the strength not only to play Monday night’s game against the Mets, but also win it convincingly one day after losing Jose Fernandez in a tragic boating accident. The Marlins and Mets helped pay tribute to Fernandez prior to the start of the game as outlined here.

When the game started, the Marlins came out of the gate with a bang. Dee Gordon homered in his first at-bat, then the club hung a four-spot in the second inning. They tacked on two more in the third inning to chase starter Bartolo Colon and take a commanding 7-0 lead. The Mets chipped away for two runs in the fifth on an Asdrubal Cabrera two-run homer and tacked on one more in the eighth, but ultimately fell short by a 7-3 margin.

Gordon finished 4-for-5 with the homer and two RBI. Justin Bour went 3-for-3 with a single, double, triple, and a walk along with an RBI and two runs scored.

A.J. Ramos, who closed out the win, placed the ball on the pitcher’s mound for Fernandez. The Marlins huddled around the mound and said a prayer. The players huddled closer to the rubber on the mound, then left their hats behind as they retreated to the clubhouse as fans at Marlins Park chanted, “Jose, Jose, Jose.”

In a post-game interview, Gordon called his first-inning home run “the best moment of my life,” as NBC 6 Sports reports.