In 29 plate appearances in 2012, he struck out 16 times and did not draw a walk. What the data tells us, but does not need to, is that in this small sampling Thomas was a complete free-swinger. Not only that, he was chasing after anything that moved in the general vicinity of the stadium. This resulted in a quick and much needed demotion to Rochester.
The whiffing did not stop while playing in The Flower City (Authorís note: itís a thing, look it up) either. He was thrown a chair a whopping 109 times in 426 plate appearances. After parting ways briefly in November, the Twins re-enlisted Thomas in December for organizational outfield depth. He was told to tone down his swing and improve his contact.
The idea of retooling a player's swing or pitching mechanics fascinates me Ė particularly for guys on the fringe. You know that thing you have complete muscle memory for and are comfortable with? Change it. If it doesn't work? Oh well, you may be out of baseball. Pat on the butt and best of luck.
Plenty of struggling players are asked to rework this or tinker with that and the vast majority of them seem to stay at or near the level of production they had before the overhaul. That said, there are a few notable players who have turned their careers around by changing things up, like Roy Halladay or Jose Bautista. But players like these are the exceptions, not the rule. Locally, Twins hitter Trevor Plouffe made improvements to his swing and that turned into one of the most potent 30-day power binges this state has ever seen. Although the third baseman has had trouble at third and staying healthy, he has shown an ability to drive the ball better since his re-education. On the other hand, players like Delmon Young and Luke Hughes also made some adjustments that helped fuel brief hot stretches but never really made much long term progress.
On the recent FSN broadcasts, Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven lauded Thomasís work to improve his contact rates; this effort helped him produce a fantastic start with Rochester this year. True, Thomasí strikeout rate stayed the same but it was not due to wild swinging. The edict to change not only incited alterations in Thomasí mental approach (i.e. plate discipline, pitch selection) but also in his mechanics to ensure a greater rate of contact. He improved his walk rate from 6% to 12% and with that came an increase in strikeouts looking. When he put the bat on the ball, it packed some punch. He raised his slugging percentage from .405 to .576 thanks to nine home runs in 36 games, after hitting 12 in 109 last year.
Thomasís changes started with the set. In 2012 (right) he stood more upright, holding his hands higher and keeping his front foot opened. Comparatively, this year, Thomas has brought the front leg inward, lowered his hand level and has a more compacted stance.
The side-by-side differences are evident but how did they affect his swing?
The most noticeable change in how muted his hand-load is this: instead of drawing his hands as far back as he did in 2012, he has a smaller loading point which quickens his hands and bat through the zone. With bat speed being one key to power, this alteration is part of the reason for the increase in power. Second, with the compacted stance, his head does not change planes as much which leads to better vision. If a hitterís eye level is changed during the swing he will have additional difficulty squaring up on the ball. Last, with the more closed stance, his weight stays centered at the middle of the hitter's field rather than pulling open, giving him better plate coverage.
Dating back to his tenure with the Detroit Tigers and their minor league organization, Thomas always had high levels of whiffability but also displayed enough power and speed to continue being considered a fourth outfielder candidate stashed away in Triple-A. However, once at the major league level, pitchers would exploit his deficiencies and render him fairly useless at the plate. The work ethic shown in being able to revamp his approach and swing has made him a useful component to the Twins. His stay with the Twins may be short-lived once Aaron Hicks proves ready to return; nevertheless, give Thomas credit for being willing and able to make enough adjustments in his approach and mechanics to have given himself value to the Twins .