Brett Thomas is a fantastic lead-off hitter. This might seem hard to believe, given that his batting average is a good but not great .291, and he only has five stolen bases in 34 games, but he possesses one trait that is vital in the lead-off spot: patience.
Thomas has a .399 on-base percentage (OBP) this season, which would be an above-average mark at just about any level of baseball, much less the PAC-12. A large chunk of that percentage comes from being hit by pitches nine times (!) this season, but he’s still drawn a walk in about 10% of his plate appearances, which is also an above-average mark. Ryon Healy and Mitchell Tolman have been mashing the ball this entire season, so when Thomas and Aaron Payne (also an OBP machine) are getting on base in front of them, runs are likely to score.
Thomas’ ability to lay off balls thrown outside of the strike zone is not his only admirable trait. He’ll also take strikes that would be tough to make solid contact on if he swung. This ability isn’t that beneficial to his team (they’re still strikes, after all) but consistently extending at bats (ABs) can generate meaningful results during the course of a long season.
He exemplified this subtle talent in the Ducks’ March 22 match-up against Arizona. In his first plate appearance, Thomas hit a weak groundout to second base on a 1-2 count. Hardly a strong AB, right? In some ways, yes – but looking deeper, it wasn’t as bad as one might think.
Here, Arizona starter Konner Wade throws a 1-0 sinking fastball on the outside corner. It initially looks like it’s going right down the middle, but it instead sinks down and away from Thomas. Just look at where the catcher’s glove is when he receives the pitch. Perfect location. If Thomas swings, there’s a very small chance he hits it in play and near no chance he squares it up.
Why is this patience important? Not only will he likely hit the ball weakly if he swings, he’ll also prevent himself from seeing more pitches. Yes, he did ground out a mere two pitches later but seeing an extra two pitches can be helpful not just for Thomas but for the entire Oregon team. The Ducks can at least get a little more information about Wade’s stuff and command when he throws two more pitches, and Thomas will be more prepared for Wade later in the game. Speaking of which…
This is from Thomas’ second plate appearance against Wade. This pitch, like in the first image, is a 1-0 fastball but this time Wade misses for a ball. It’s close, but again, Thomas isn’t eager to leave the batter’s box any time soon. Wade is going to have to grind both physically and mentally if he wants to retire the Ducks’ lead-off man.
Here’s the next pitch:
As it says in my fancy little arrow, this is an extremely tough pitch to lay off. These camera angles make it hard to see the horizontal movement of Wade’s pitches, but trust me, his fastballs have a lot of left-to-right action. As I mentioned earlier, these pitches appear destined to finish in the middle of the strike zone but they end up veering to the right.
Also, the count is 2-0, which is often referred to as a “hitter’s count”, based on the belief that pitchers are steadfastly determined to throw a strike in order to avoid a 3-0 count. I doubt Thomas is a hitter who thinks to himself, “2-0 count, must be fastball down middle, must swing,” but I wouldn’t blame him for being a little more aggressive here. Nope, he still doesn’t swing.
One has to wonder if Thomas’ 1-0 take in his first AB (in the first image of this article) helped him lay off this pitch. This pitch is only a fraction more outside than the 1-0 offering in his first plate appearance, but maybe Thomas was able to predict the movement here based on that other pitch. Even though his patience might not have rewarded him in that AB, it helped him with this 2-0 pitch.
This isn’t the only adjustment Thomas makes from his first to second AB. Here is the shot of him swinging in his first AB, resulting in a groundout to second:
Wade throws a changeup that badly fools Thomas, causing him to swing with his arms instead of his whole body. This type of swing causes a hitter to lose all of his power, which explains this weakly struck groundout.
Fast forward to the 3-2 count in Thomas’ second plate appearance, and you get almost the exact same pitch but with a different result:
Another low changeup, another tough pitch to take, and another take from Thomas in a six-pitch plate appearance where he drew a walk without ever taking a swing. Maybe Thomas just has a great eye, but I also believe he has a knack for making in-game adjustments. Wade threw brutally tough pitches in Thomas’ first two plate appearances, yet Thomas was still able to see 10 total pitches and draw a walk.
Thomas hit an RBI groundout and drew a walk in his next two plate appearances, so his production didn’t end after the third inning. Zero hits in four plate appearances without hitting a ball hard might look bad, but he was actually one of the most productive hitters on the night.
This performance truly was a microcosm of Thomas’ season thus far. The hits and the power might not be there, but his patience and ability to adjust has never wavered. For a team that often relies on manufacturing runs, these subtle skills from Thomas are absolutely vital to Oregon’s success.