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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.

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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.”

Chris Archer could lose his 20th game tonight

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 10:  Chris Archer #22 of the Tampa Bay Rays looks on from the mound after surrendering a home run in the sixth inning against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on September 10, 2016 in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
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That’s a pretty negative way to put a headline, but the fact is, a starting pitcher losing 20 games is a rare and notable feat these days. But Tampa Bay Rays starter Chris Archer could pull it off against the White Sox this evening. He’s 8-19 with a 4.02 ERA in 194.2 innings across 32 starts in 2016.

That’s a big fall from 2015, when he was considered one of the rising aces in the game. Archer was an All-Star last year, and finished fifth in the Cy Young voting, finishing fifth in pitcher WAR, sixth in ERA, second in strikeouts, second in strikeouts per nine innings, fourth in fielding independent pitching and allowing the fourth lowest number of hits per nine innings pitched among AL starters.

To be fair, he still should be considered one of the best pitchers in the game. Yes, it has been a bad year for Archer, but he still strikes out a lot of guys. Overall, it takes a pretty good pitcher to lose 20 games in the big leagues. You don’t get the opportunities to do such a dubious thing unless you’re healthy and you have the confidence of your manager to take the ball every fifth day. And to be fair to Archer, he’s had bad defense and awful run support this year. Make no mistake, he has pitched worse than he did a year ago, but not so much worse that he deserves to reach a milestone no one has reached since 2003.

The guy who did that in 2003: Mike Maroth of a 119-loss Tigers team. Maroth won nine games that year and now gets referenced every time someone approaches 20 losses. If Archer avoids his 20th loss, he might match Maroth’s 2003 win total himself tonight. If not, well, everyone will cite Archer’s name, and not Maroth’s, whenever someone get to 19 losses in a season.

And That Happened: Wednesday’s scores and highlights

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 28:  Mark Teixeira #25 of the New York Yankees celebrates his game winning ninth inning grand slam home run against the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium on September 28, 2016 in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Yankees 5, Red Sox 3: Congratulations to the Red Sox, I guess. They won the AL East thanks to the Blue Jays loss while this game was still going on, but they were deprived of the right to woop and holler on the field in New York given Mark Teixeira‘s stunning walkoff grand slam with two outs in the ninth. The Yankees were down 3-0 heading into the inning. The Yankees staved off elimination for another night. It will come, but in the meantime this was their 82nd win, ensuring a winning season at the very least.

Orioles 3, Blue Jays 2Hyun Soo Kim hit a ninth inning pinch hit homer which gave the Orioles a 3-2 lead and, eventually, 3-2 win over the Blue Jays. It simultaneously gave the Red Sox the American League East. Not too bad. Unless you’re a Jays fan, that is. For the O’s, it kept them a game ahead of the Tigers in the Wild Card and pulled them to within a game behind Toronto for the top slot.

Tigers 6, Indians 3: The Tigers likewise keep pace with Baltimore, thanks to a tiebreaking three-run homer from Miguel Caberea moments before the game was stopped on a very rainy night in Detroit. It ended up being shortened to a five inning affair. There was an earlier stoppage of 45 minutes before the 72 minute delay turned into the end of the game. If the Indians hadn’t already clinched the Central I’m guessing they’d be pissed about this, but at least this way they got to go back to the hotel and relax.

Mariners 12, Astros 4: Robinson Cano hit a three-run homer in the first inning and the M’s added four more before the Astros scored their first run, making this one a breeze. The pile on led to a win which kept Seattle two games behind Baltimore for the second Wild Card slot.

Mets 5, Marlins 2: Jay Bruce and James Loney homered as the Mets give themselves a one and a half game lead over San Francisco for the NL’s top wild card spot. The Marlins’ pregame routine for this one was Jose Fernandez’s funeral, so it’s understandable if their heads weren’t completely in this one.

Reds 2, Cardinals 1: Cardinal-killer Anthony DeSclafani allowed only one run over six innings as Adam Duvall‘s two run single in the third holds up. DeSclafani is 4-1 with a 2.13 ERA against St. Louis in his young career. He’s 15-19 against everyone else.

Rockies 2, Giants 0: The Rockies, paced by Tyler Chatwood‘s eight scoreless innings, shut out the Giants. Nolan Arenado singled in a run in the fourth and Gerardo Parra singled in one in the seventh. Jeff Samardzija struck out 11 while pitching into the seventh. If needed, he’ll pitch in a Wild Card tiebreaker on Monday.

Pirates 8, Cubs 4: John Jaso hit for the cycle. It was the first cycle for a Pirates hitter since Daryle Ward did it in 2004. Remember Daryle Ward? Meanwhile, Jake Arrieta went five innings and allowed 10 hits and seven runs in his worst start of the year.

Braves 12, Phillies 2Freddie Freeman extended his hitting streak to 30 games, Matt Kemp hit a two-run homer and Mike Foltynewicz pitched two-hit ball over five innings. The Braves’ second half has been pretty darn good.

Royals 5, Twins 2: The Red Sox lost, but won the AL East anyway. The Royal won, but were officially eliminated from the postseason. Oh well. The Twins lost their 10th game in their last 11. That ties the record for the most losses since the franchise moved to Minnesota. One more loss and they’ll top the 1982 club for this grand honor. Gary Ward was the offensive star of that team. No one remembers Gary Ward, do they?

Diamondbacks 3, Nationals 0: Another rain-shortened game, this one lasting through the top of the sixth. The Nats have lost seven of 11. Between that and all of their injuries, they have to be the division winner with the least amount of confidence heading into the playoffs.

Rangers 8, Brewers 5: Texas was down 5-4 heading into the bottom the eighth but rallied for four. Elvis Andrus singled in run to tie it and then Carlos Gomez hit a three-run homer to give the Rangers the game. It was the second night in a row Gomez hit a three-run shot. In all, he has eight homers and 24 RBI in 31 games since joining the Rangers after being released by Houston.

White Sox 1, Rays 0: Miguel Gonzalez pitched a three-hit shutout into the ninth inning but was pulled when he put a runner on his pitch count went over 100 in what is a meaningless game. His workload was actually higher, as he threw a lot of warmup pitches during a rain delay. Todd Frazier‘ 40th homer was the game’s only scoring. Overall he’s hitting .228/.307/.474.  Statistically this has to be one of the worst 40-homer seasons ever, right?

Angels 8, Athletics 6: A win is nice, but having Mike Trout get hit with a pitch late in the game which will cause him to have tests on his shoulder isn’t the best news. Kole Calhoun homered as the Angels sweep the A’s.

Padres 6, Dodgers 5: Padres rookie outfielder Hunter Renfroe hit a homer onto the roof of the Western Metal Supply Building in right field at Petco Park. He’s the first one to ever do that in the park’s history. Not bad. Now the Padres have something to lead the 2016 highlight reel anyway. Renfroe was the PCL MVP this year and has hit four home runs and drove in 12 in the seven games since he’s been called up.