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The eyes have it: Thomas’ greatness built on patience

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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.”

Pablo Sandoval had successful shoulder surgery

Boston Red Sox third baseman Pablo Sandoval (48) prepares to hit during baseball spring training in Fort Myers, Fla. Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016.  (Corey Perrine/Naples Daily News via AP)  FORT MYERS OUT; MANDATORY CREDIT
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Pablo Sandoval underwent successful surgery today to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder. The Red Sox said afterward that he will be out the remainder of 2016 and that they anticipate him being ready for 2017. That’s the official word, of course, on what many reported last night. But it’s nice that it’s official.

It’s also nice that the surgery was “successful.” Of course it’s always “successful” the day of the surgery. No one has ever released a statement saying “Shlabotnik had knee surgery today. It was an unmitigated disaster. Like, oh my god, you don’t want to know and I can’t even with this.” If there are problems, they’re always revealed later.

Here’s hoping there are no problems for Sandoval.

What’s on Tap: Previewing Tuesday’s action

New York Mets starting pitcher Matt Harvey (33) delivers during the first inning of a baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds, Wednesday, April 27, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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We’re back to a full slate of games on Tuesday night. The game to watch tonight, especially if you’re a fan of mismatches, is Braves-Mets. The Mets easily handled the Braves on Monday night, winning 4-1. The club blasted three home runs in the first inning off of Mike Foltynewicz, which is nearly as many homers as the Braves have hit all season (five). The Mets went on cruise control from there. Bartolo Colon finished with seven strikeouts over eight shutout innings. Jeurys Familia gave up a run but was able to reach the finish line.

The Braves are now 6-19, a game ahead of the Astros and Twins for the worst record in baseball. It’s not particularly shocking since the Braves have embraced tanking in their final year at Turner Field. How low can they go? The Atlanta record for losses in a season is 106 by the 1988 club. The 1935 Boston Braves went 38-115. The Braves’ current .240 winning percentage would rank as the worst in franchise history — including Atlanta, Boston, and Milwaukee — if the season were to end today.

Tuesday’s pitching match-up features Matt Wisler for the Braves and Matt Harvey for the Mets. The two will square off at 7:10 PM EDT at Citi Field tonight.

The rest of Tuesday’s action…

Detroit Tigers (Justin Verlander) @ Cleveland Indians (Josh Tomlin), 6:10 PM EDT

Chicago Cubs (Jake Arrieta) @ Pittsburgh Pirates (Jon Niese), 7:05 PM EDT

New York Yankees (Luis Severino) @ Baltimore Orioles (Chris Tillman), 7:05 PM EDT

Texas Rangers (Martin Perez) @ Toronto Blue Jays (Marco Estrada), 7:07 PM EDT

Arizona Diamondbacks (Patrick Corbin) @ Miami Marlins (Justin Nicolino), 7:10 PM EDT

Los Angeles Dodgers (Scott Kazmir) @ Tampa Bay Rays (Matt Moore), 7:10 PM EDT

San Francisco Giants (Jeff Samardzija) @ Cincinnati Reds (Jon Moscot), 7:10 PM EDT

Boston Red Sox (Steven Wright) @ Chicago White Sox (Jose Quintana), 8:10 PM EDT

Los Angeles Angels (Nick Tropeano) @ Milwaukee Brewers (Junior Guerra), 8:10 PM EDT

Minnesota Twins (Alex Meyer) @ Houston Astros (Collin McHugh), 8:10 PM EDT

Philadelphia Phillies (Aaron Nola) @ St. Louis Cardinals (Michael Wacha), 8:15 PM EDT

Washington Nationals (Tanner Roark) @ Kansas City Royals (Chris Young), 8:15 PM EDT

Seattle Mariners (Hisashi Iwakuma) @ Oakland Athletics (Sonny Gray), 10:05 PM EDT

Colorado Rockies (Eddie Butler) @ San Diego Padres (Andrew Cashner), 10:10 PM EDT

Bryce Harper signs the largest endorsement deal in MLB history

Washington Nationals' Bryce Harper pumps his fist as he takes a curtain call after he hit a grand slam during the third  inning of an baseball game against the Atlanta Braves, Thursday, April 14, 2016, in Washington. This was Harper's 100th home run of his career. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
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I figure it’s not that hard to sign the largest endorsement deal in baseball history. In the NBA? Sure. Those deals are insane. But in baseball? Man, we still have major leaguers doing quickie, video taped ads for local car dealerships and sandwich shops and stuff. It would mildly surprise me if I saw a third starter for a .500 team spinning and flipping one of those signs on a street corner near a new apartment complex some day, but I wouldn’t be utterly shocked. It’s just a different set of economics. You can’t really wear baseball shoes out around town. Cleats tend to scuff up the woodwork.

But Bryce Harper is different. He was barely in the league a year before I saw his giant underwear-clad butt in a big glossy ad while walking through the unmentionables department at Macy’s and his Under Armour ads are all over the place. Probably the closest thing we’ve seen to NBA-style shoe exposure in MLB, though it doesn’t quite compare.

It may one day, though: he has reportedly signed a 10-year extension with Under Armour that is believed to be the largest endorsement deal in history for a baseball player. Terms aren’t being disclosed, but they’re claiming that so it’s probably at least plausible.

Baseball players will still never be the kind of product-pushers other athletes are, but Harper is probably the closest thing it’ll get for a while. At the very least he can be the second or third banana in one of those commercials in which stars from various sports do things like shave, drink sports drinks and, I dunno, flex their quads while wearing compression gear. He can be Garfunkel to Steph Curry’s Simon. Or something.

Major League Baseball may cancel the upcoming Puerto Rico series due to Zika concerns

FILE - In this Jan. 27, 2016, file photo, Aedes aegypti mosquito larvae sit in a petri dish at the Fiocruz institute in Recife, Pernambuco state, Brazil. Even before the Zika virus reached crisis levels early this year, Brazil had trouble maintaining routine eradication efforts. An Associated Press investigation found that cities and states in Brazil’s northeast ran out of larvicide for several months last year. The Aedes aegypti mosquito are a vector for the spread of Zika virus. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
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Last month we wrote about how the Pirates and the Marlins are scheduled to play a series in Puerto Rico at the end of May. And how, due to an outbreak of Zika on the island, Pirates and Marlins players have voiced serious concerns. For, among other reasons, Zika precautions are such that those exposed should not engage in procreative sex for several months due to birth defects concerns and baseball players are at an age when doing stuff like having kids is a pretty important thing.

This afternoon Yahoo’s Jeff Passan reports that, while the official line is that the series will still be played, multiple sources with knowledge of the situation are telling him that it’s on “the brink of cancellation.”

It’s understandable though, as Passan notes, it makes politics — both baseball politics and regular politics — with Puerto Rico kind of uncomfortable. And then there’s the concern that Zika could spread to Florida and is already in other countries, which means that the Pirates-Marlins thing is something of a case of first impression which could set precedents beyond just baseball.

That’s understandable, but it’s also a set of concerns that are above the pay grade of baseball players. Personally, it’s hard to blame them for being wary. And this seems like some reasonable wariness, not hysteria.