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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.”

CC Sabathia: getting in shape and ready for baseball

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CC Sabatha made headlines in October when he abruptly left the Yankees to go into alcohol rehab. After a month there he came back and gave interviews about his decision and his battle with the bottle and then disappeared into the offseason the way most players do.

He emerged the other day and spoke with the New York Daily News’ Mark Feinsand and says that he’s ready for baseball once again. Indeed, in some ways he’s more ready now than he usually is by mid February. He’s been throwing bullpen sessions for the past three weeks — he normally waits until he gets to Tamps — and he says his troublesome knee is feeling good.

 

Sabathia will turn 36 during the season. In 2015 he was 6-10 with a 4.73 ERA in 29 starts and posted his lowest strikeout rate in a decade. Late in the season, however, with the help of a knee brace, he was at his most effective in some time. He won’t need to return to 2008 form in order to help the Yankees this season, but he will need to look more like he did in September if he is to help the Yankees to the playoffs.

Jacob deGrom open to extension with Mets

New York Mets starting pitcher Jacob deGrom talks during media day for the Major League Baseball World Series against the Kansas City Royals Monday, Oct. 26, 2015, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
AP Photo/Charlie Riedel
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The Mets are currently enjoying the spoils of the best young rotation in the game, but the big question is whether this is just a brief window or the start of sustained success. Given the huge prices on the free agent market, it’s going to be next to impossible to keep the band together, but at least one member of the rotation is open to sticking around for the long-term.

While there haven’t been any talks yet, All-Star right-hander Jacob deGrom told Kevin Kernan of the New York Post that he could see himself discussing an extension with the Mets.

“I’m a little bit older, so I might be more willing to do something like that,’’ deGrom told The Post at Mets pre-camp. “You just have to look at what is fair so both sides get a decent deal. It’s something I’d have to look into and make sure I agree with it.’’

It makes sense from deGrom’s perspective. He broke into the majors later than most prospects, so he’ll be 28 this June. Depending on whether he qualifies as a Super Two, he’ll be arbitration-eligible for the first time after either 2016 or 2017. Either way, he’s under team control through 2020, which means that he’s currently on track to hit free agency after his age-32 season. The market might not be kind to him even if he manages to stay healthy, so it could behoove him to get as much guaranteed money as possible right now. The Mets could always decide to play things year-to-year, but perhaps deGrom would be willing to settle for a discount in order to get them to buy out a free agent year or two. It’s a really interesting situation to think about, but odds are the two sides will wait on contract talks until he’s arbitration-eligible for the first time.

DeGrom owns a 2.61 ERA in 52 starts over his first two seasons in the majors. Among starters, only Zack Greinke, Jake Arrieta, and Clayton Kershaw have a lower ERA since the start of 2014.

Royals, Mike Moustakas avoid arbitration with two-year deal

Kansas City Royals' Mike Moustakas celebrates after hitting an RBI single against the Toronto Blue Jays during the eighth inning in Game 2 of baseball's American League Championship Seriesagainst the Toronto Blue Jays  on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015, in Kansas City, Mo. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP
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The Royals and third baseman Mike Moustakas have avoided arbitration by agreeing to a two-year, $14.3 million deal, reports Jon Heyman of MLB Network.

The deal, which was initially discussed last month, buys out Moustakas’ final two years of arbitration. Jeffrey Flanagan of MLB.com reports that it’s believed he’ll make $5.6 million in 2016 and $8.7 million in 2017.

The 27-year-old Moustakas posted an underwhelming .668 OPS over his first four seasons in the majors, but he enjoyed a big postseason in 2014 before breaking out last season by batting .284/.348/.470 with 22 home runs and 82 RBI.

Report: Rays having “advanced talks” with free agent reliever Tommy Hunter

Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher Tommy Hunter throws to the Miami Marlins during the seventh inning of a baseball game in Miami, Friday, May 22, 2015. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)
AP Photo/J Pat Carter
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ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick reported this morning that free agent reliever Tommy Hunter required core muscle repair surgery earlier this offseason. Coming off a disappointing 2015, it’s understandable why he’s still on the market, but it sounds like he has at least one significant lead.

Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times hears that the Rays are having “advanced talks” with Hunter as they attempt to add an experienced arm to their bullpen. Nothing is considered close and Hunter is also talking to other clubs. Meanwhile, the Rays have been in touch with veteran reliever Ryan Webb while monitoring the trade market.

Hunter posted a 2.88 ERA as a late-inning arm from 2013-2014, but he compiled a mediocre 4.18 ERA over 58 appearances last season between the Orioles and Cubs. On the bright side, his velocity has held steady and his control is still very good. Despite the down year and core muscle surgery, Topkin writes that Hunter may be holding out for a multi-year deal.