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.”

MLB-MLBPA announce the postponement of the Puerto Rico series due to Zika concerns

Ricardo Arduengo -- Associated Press
3 Comments

This, as we have noted previously, was inevitable. But Major League Baseball and the MLBPA just issued a joint press release announcing the postponement of the late May series between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Miami Marlins in Puerto Rico. The reason: fears of Zika in light of the outbreak on the island. The series has been moved to Marlins Park in Miami.

From the release:

The Players Association requested that Commissioner Robert D. Manfred, Jr. relocate the games after numerous players expressed concerns about contracting and potentially transmitting the Zika virus to their partners.  Players and staff of both Clubs received full briefings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) science staff regarding the risks associated with the Zika virus, and the recommended precautions for travelers including those with partners who are pregnant or attempting to conceive.  After discussing the issue with all involved parties, and consulting with federal and Puerto Rican government officials at the highest levels, Commissioner Manfred decided that the players who objected to the trip because of their specific family situations should not be forced to travel to Puerto Rico.  Because too many regulars on both Clubs fell into that category, Commissioner Manfred had no choice but to relocate the games.

The release goes on to say that, in lieu of the games, MLB will stage several youth baseball and community events in Puerto Rico later this month, which will be attended by Commissioner Manfred and several former MLB players. Both MLB and the Players Association also will make contributions to the CDC Foundation to assist the efforts to eradicate Zika in Puerto Rico.

Ultimately, far too many players voiced concerns about playing in Puerto Rico. Expect officials from Puerto Rico to blast the decision as hysteria and alarmism, as they did in anticipation of it in recent days. Also, expect there to be more discussion about Zika in the future, as it’s already something that is entering Florida and will likely be a bigger problem on the U.S. mainland in the future than it is now.

 

What’s on Tap: Previewing Friday’s Action

New York Mets starting pitcher Noah Syndergaard throws during the first inning of the baseball game against the San Francisco Giants at Citi Field, Sunday, May 1, 2016 in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
8 Comments

One game started already. Nats and Cubs in Chicago. As I write this, the Cubs are up 4-2 and Max Scherzer has given up three home runs. Woops.

The rest of the action is ahead of us, however, and the future holds any number of possibilities. Like a Kenta Maeda vs. Marcus Stroman matchup in Toronto. And Vince Velasquez and the Phillies trying to cool off a red hot Marlins team in Miami. Way out west in San Diego Noah Syndergaard goes against the Padres. This has been quite a year for pitchers putting up their best line of their lives against the Padres, so look for Syndergaard to strike out, like 30 Padres. Which, yes, I realize that’s impossible, but I have faith in both Thor and the Friars to do the impossible if they really put their minds to it.

Anyway, here are the games. Most of you are off work tomorrow so stay up late, have fun and watch baseball. And maybe do it even if you gotta work.

Boston Red Sox (Rick Porcello) @ New York Yankees (Michael Pineda), 7:05 PM EDT, Yankee Stadium

Oakland Athletics (Rich Hill) @ Baltimore Orioles (Ubaldo Jimenez), 7:05 PM EDT, Oriole Park at Camden Yards

Los Angeles Dodgers (Kenta Maeda) @ Toronto Blue Jays (Marcus Stroman), 7:07 PM EDT, Rogers Centre

Kansas City Royals (Yordano Ventura) @ Cleveland Indians (Danny Salazar), 7:10 PM EDT, Progressive Field

Milwaukee Brewers (Tyler Cravy) @ Cincinnati Reds (Tim Adleman), 7:10 PM EDT, Great American Ball Park

Philadelphia Phillies (Vince Velasquez) @ Miami Marlins (Wei-Yin Chen), 7:10 PM EDT, Marlins Park

Texas Rangers (Cole Hamels) @ Detroit Tigers (Jordan Zimmermann), 7:10 PM EDT, Comerica Park

Arizona Diamondbacks (Zack Greinke) @ Atlanta Braves (Aaron Blair), 7:35 PM EDT , Turner Field

Minnesota Twins (Ricky Nolasco) @ Chicago White Sox (Mat Latos), 8:10 PM EDT, U.S. Cellular Field

Seattle Mariners (Taijuan Walker) @ Houston Astros (Doug Fister), 8:10 PM EDT, Minute Maid Park

Pittsburgh Pirates (Francisco Liriano) @ St. Louis Cardinals (Carlos Martinez), 8:15 PM EDT, Busch Stadium

Tampa Bay Rays (Chris Archer) @ Los Angeles Angels (Cory Rasmus), 10:05 PM EDT, Angel Stadium of Anaheim

Colorado Rockies (Chad Bettis) @ San Francisco Giants (Madison Bumgarner), 10:15 PM EDT, AT&T Park

New York Mets (Noah Syndergaard) @ San Diego Padres (Drew Pomeranz), 10:40 PM EDT , Petco Park

CC Sabathia goes on the disabled list with a strained groin

New York Yankees starting pitcher CC Sabathia throws to the Baltimore Orioles in the first inning of a baseball game in Baltimore, Wednesday, May 4, 2016. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
4 Comments

CC Sabathia pitched wonderfully Wednesday night, tossing seven shutout innings in what was easily his best start in ages. But since we live in a world in which we simply cannot have nice things, that sweet has to come with some sour: the Yankees just announced that they have placed Sabathia on the 15-day disabled list with a strained groin.

The Yankees have replaced Sabathia on the roster with their old friend Phil Coke, whose contract they just purchased from Scranton.

The Yankees have had bad luck with all of their starters not named Masahiro Tanaka so far this year. Losing one of them just as he put together his best start of the season is just a killer.

Tim Lincecum’s showcase is a lot bigger a deal than it seemed before

Tim Lincecum
6 Comments

When a pitcher doesn’t sign anywhere before or during spring training people sometimes wring their hands a bit, but it’s usually the case that they’ll be OK if they are patient. Once the season starts guys start going down with injuries left and right or show that they’re ineffective. In such cases, a free agent pitcher’s value goes way up. He’s a relatively low cost option for a team which, a month ago, seemed set but is now suddenly desperate.

Tim Lincecum may benefit from that dynamic.

As we noted earlier today, the Angels’ rotation is a hot mess now that Garrett Richards is out for the year and Andrew Heaney‘s absence may be just as extended. The back end of the Giants’ rotation is likewise a mess. Lincecum was never seriously on San Francisco’s radar this past winter, but given how Matt Cain and Jake Peavy are going, those crazy kids may get back together. The Dodgers could use a pitcher and their competition with the Giants may make this whole situation a lot more profitable for Lincecum than it might have otherwise been.

Of course, Lincecum still has to show that he can pitch and that he’s healthy. That’s why he’s having the showcase, that goes down here very shorty — 2:30 eastern time — and you can watch it streaming live at CSNBayArea.com.