Shaq Thompson and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Baseball Career

A couple weeks ago, I was scrolling through the ol’ Twitter feed when I came across this:

Shaq Thompson? I recognized that name from somewhere. I haven’t really ever followed college football so I knew it had to be something other than football. Eventually, it came to me. Shaq Thompson, the most versatile college football player in the nation, had the worst statistical career in professional baseball history.

In high school, Thompson was a football and track standout. He played in the 2012 U.S. Army All-American Bowl and specialized in the 200-meter dash. After his senior year, Thompson was the no. 1 safety recruit and the no. 4 overall recruit in the nation. He committed to play football at the University of Washington. Thompson, now a junior linebacker for the Huskies, has thrived on the gridiron and has earned national recognition as one of the best all-around players in the country. So where does his baseball career fit in?

Back in 2012, Alex Speier documented Thompson’s incredible journey from his middle school days to his last at-bat in pro ball. It’s especially worth the read now, knowing of Thompson’s immense success on the football field. The Red Sox took a chance on Thompson in the 18th round of the 2012 Draft, with the hope that he could turn his raw athletic gifts into actual baseball skills. Thompson had only played baseball in senior year, and fared well against weak competition, but teams love to gamble on freak athletes with the hope that they can actually learn how to play baseball. Thompson was still committed to playing football for the Huskies in the fall, but wanted to give baseball, a sport he loved as a kid, a try before heading up to Washington. Thompson played in 13 games for the Red Sox in the Gulf Coast League (the lowest level of the minor leagues) over the span of a month–from June 20th to the July 20th. This is how it went:

Game 1

1st plate appearance: strikeout swinging

2nd plate appearance: strikeout looking

3rd plate appearance: walk

4th plate appearance: strikeout swinging

5th plate appearance: walk

Game 2

6th plate appearance: strikeout looking

7th plate appearance: strikeout looking

8th plate appearance: strikeout swinging

Game 3

9th plate appearance: walk

10th plate appearance: strikeout swinging

11th plate appearance: strikeout swinging

12th plate appearance: strikeout swinging

13th plate appearance: strikeout swinging

Game 4

14th plate appearance: strikeout looking

15th plate appearance: strikeout swinging

16th plate appearance: strikeout looking

Game 5

17th plate appearance: strikeout looking

18th plate appearance: strikeout looking

19th plate appearance: strikeout swinging

Game 6

20th plate appearance: RBI ground out to 1st (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)

21st plate appearance: strikeout swinging

22nd plate appearance: walk

Game 7

23rd plate appearance: strikeout looking

24th plate appearance: strikeout swinging

25th plate appearance: strikeout looking

Game 8

26th plate appearance: strikeout looking

27th plate appearance: strikeout swinging

28th plate appearance: strikeout swinging

Game 9

29th plate appearance: strikeout swinging

30th plate appearance: strikeout swinging

31st plate appearance: walk

Game 10

32nd plate appearance: strikeout swinging

33rd plate appearance: walk

34th plate appearance: walk

Game 11

35th plate appearance: strikeout looking

36th plate appearance: strikeout swinging

37th plate appearance: strikeout swinging

38th plate appearance: strikeout swinging

39th plate appearance: strikeout swinging

Game 12

40th plate appearance: walk

41st plate appearance: strikeout looking

42nd plate appearance: strikeout looking

43rd plate appearance: strikeout looking

44th plate appearance: strikeout swinging

45th plate appearance: strikeout swinging

Game 13

46th plate appearance: strikeout swinging

47th plate appearance: lineout to right field

Shaq Thompson went 0-39 with 37 strikeouts. His career line was .000/.170/.000. 

Over his 47 plate appearances, Thompson put the ball in play twice while striking out 79% of the time. He had a .170 OPS, which was also his OBP. Even if you lower the minimum plate appearances threshold to 40, only two position players in baseball history have had a lower OPS for their careers. The next closest (and most recent) is Cincinnati infielder Neftali Soto, who has hit .071/.091/.095 in his first 44 plate appearances. Of course, that’s in the big leagues. Unfortunately, there is no Play Index for the GCL or any level of the minors, so I’m only 99.99% certain that Thompson holds the title for Worst Professional Career Ever. Thompson’s eight walks can most likely be attributed to some combination of the inexperienced pitchers he was facing and the presumed occasional strategy of just not swinging at all. Thompson had the 6th most strikeouts on his team and the 16th most plate appearances. I could go on, but I already feel kinda bad. It doesn’t take advanced stats to know how bad he was. Although, let’s give him credit: he did have one RBI.

Barry Petchesky of Deadspin did a great piece on Thompson right after he unsurprisingly declared his baseball career over. The end of the piece really sums up how I feel about Thompson’s epic struggles:

“Ted Williams always maintained that the hardest thing to do in sports is to hit a baseball. That quote plays well with the crowd who holds up “The Green Fields of the Mind” as great American literature, but it’s surely meaningless. Hitting a ball is hard. Memorizing a football playbook is hard. Sticking with the receiver on an out route is hard. Everything in sports is difficult in its own way, and something like hitting a baseball is so divorced from any other skill set as to be an almost irrelevant marker of athletic talent. Shaq Thompson’s minor league struggles don’t have to mean anything, other than the objective fact that he went 0-for-39, with 37 strikeouts. We’ll always have that.”

I agree: Shaq Thompson’s failures in the GCL don’t definitively tell us anything about professional baseball or Thompson himself. And yet, his brief stint in pro ball can give us some perspective. If you take a not-so-scientific look at the Crazy-Athlete-Trying-To-Play-Baseball Spectrum, you’ll see that most of those attempts to play pro ball end in failure. Thompson certainly represents one end of the so-called spectrum, but there are countless other examples of ‘lottery ticket’ athletes flaming out in the low-minors, much to the chagrin of their respective organizations. However, teams — some more than others — will continue to gamble on these super-freaks with the hope that just one of them really does evolve into a franchise-type player.

More than anything, I’m genuinely happy Shaq Thompson has rebounded so well from his briefly cataclysmic baseball career to become one of the best college football players in the country. ESPN’s Todd McShay recently projected Thompson to be a mid-1st round pick in the 2015 NFL draft, citing him as a “unique talent with an outstanding combination of size, speed, and athleticism”. Thompson’s success on the gridiron only further proves Petchesky’s point that his struggles in pro ball don’t really tell us anything about Thompson or baseball. It was just a remarkably ridiculous thing that happened. Thompson tried one professional sport and failed spectacularly. He’s about to try another professional sport, and has a much better chance at succeeding. That’s pretty awesome! Two professional sports!

There have been plenty of other great football players drafted by baseball teams based on their athletic abilities and performance in high school. Most of them never step foot on a minor league field. You know who else was drafted out of high school in the 18th round? Tom Brady! Tom Brady could have been the one to go 0-39 with 37 strikeouts. We’ll never know. I’m obviously not faulting Brady or any other athlete that chose to forego baseball for other sports, but give Thompson credit: he tried! Just because he turned to be the one to go 0-39 with 37 strikeouts doesn’t mean he’s the only one that could have gone 0-39 with 37 strikeouts. In fact, I’m almost positive Jon Heyman would’ve gone 0-47 with 47 strikeouts if given the opportunity.

Shaq Thompson may hold the title for Worst Professional Baseball Career Ever. But he also briefly held the title of Professional Baseball Player. Soon, he’ll hold the title of Professional Football Player. That’s more than you or I can say. Unless Bo Jackson is reading this, in which case, hey Bo Jackson!

 

First Base Prospects Will Probably Disappoint You

Prospects are fun. They allow us to dream on their basic skill sets and imagine greatness eventually produced at the major league level. First base prospects in specific present a certain type of vision. While the offensive standard for first basemen of late has plummeted, we still want that .300/.400/.500 type slugger at first for our favorite teams. It’s a commodity that has become increasingly hard to find over the last few years. We’re all still waiting for Eric Hosmer to break out. Yonder Alonso has yet to really show anything and Anthony Rizzo still struggles mightily against lefties. Paul Goldschmidt has been very impressive so far but not many people saw this level of production coming. The only true high-end first base prospect in the minors today is Jonathan Singleton for the Astros.

With the help of the free archives of Baseball Prospectus (specifically Kevin Goldstein ‘s scouting reports from his Top 11 lists), I’m gonna look back a few years. This was a time with several high end first base prospects on the rise. These were supposed to be superstar level talents, getting on base at high clips and hitting for plenty of power. This is not meant to discredit Baseball Prospectus in any way; all five of these players were highly regarded throughout the industry.

Daric Barton, Oakland Athletics (2008):

barton 2008

Just a glowing report. He’s gonna bring offensive firepower to Oakland for years to come. No doubt. FLAWLESS PLATE-DISCIPLINE.

Daric Barton, Oakland Athletics (2013):

Besides a freak 2010 season, in which he expressed his “flawless plate-discipline” in the form of a major league leading 110 walks, Barton has yet to show much of the hitting acumen he was praised for as a prospect. He has yet to play a game for Oakland this season, and has 27 career home runs through 1,901 career plate appearances. He has slugged .371 for his career. Daric Barton is 27 years old.

Lars Anderson, Boston Red Sox (2009):

lars 2009

An elite offensive talent. Maturity and intelligence well beyond his years. He’s going to mash.

Lars Anderson, Chicago White Sox (2013): 

Anderson got 56 major league plate appearances over three years with the Red Sox in which he posted a .455 OPS. Last summer, the Sox finally gave up on Anderson and traded him to Cleveland for a knuckleballer named Steven Wright. Several months later, he was traded to Arizona. After that, he was DFA’d by Arizona, claimed by the White Sox, DFA’d by the White Sox, claimed by the Blue Jays, and finally traded back to the White Sox this April. He is currently slugging .267 at Triple-A Charlotte. Lars Anderson is 25 years old.

Matt LaPorta, Cleveland Indians (2009):

laporta 2009

The key piece in the Sabathia deal (!!!!!!). Plus-plus power to all fields. Cleanup hitter on a championship-level team.

Matt LaPorta, Cleveland Indians (2013): 

LaPorta has pretty much exhausted all of his opportunities to start for the Indians. He’s got a career OBP of .301 through 1068 plate appearances, with his “plus-plus power to all fields” only producing 31 home runs. He has not played a single game for Cleveland this season. Matt LaPorta is 28 years old.

Brett Wallace, St. Louis Cardinals (2009):

wallace 2009

Outstanding hand/eye coordination. Enough arm for the hot corner (!!!!!!!!!!!!!). He’ll be among the league leaders in batting average.

Brett Wallace, Houston Astros (2013): 

Outstanding trade bait indeed, as Wallace was traded three times before landing in Houston.  Since making his debut in 2010, Wallace has posted an OPS of .682 through 818 plate appearances. Both FanGraphs and Baseball-reference have Wallace at well below replacement level for his career. Before being optioned to Triple-A, Wallace started the 2013 season 1-24 with 17 strikeouts. Brett Wallace is 26 years old.

Justin Smoak, Texas Rangers (2009):

smoak 2009

An impact hitter in the middle of a lineup. Power from both sides of the plate. Let’s face it, HE’S GOING TO HIT.

Justin Smoak, Seattle Mariners (2013):

Since being traded to Seattle for CLIFF LEE in 2010, Smoak has disappointed the Mariners and their fans to the point that I’m not sure I’m gonna be able to get through this paragraph without getting emotional. Smoak has shown flashes of competency but has mainly expressed his appreciation for groundouts and lazy flyouts through the form of a .372 career slugging percentage over 1,500 plate appearances. As one of 17 first base/designated hitters on the Mariners, I’m curious to see how much playing time he gets this year as the season goes on. HE CAN’T BE THIS BAD. Justin Smoak is 26 years old.

***

IN CONCLUSION…baseball is hard. It’s easy to look back at these failed prospects and get frustrated with what never came to be. I think it’s also a way to appreciate how incredibly difficult major league baseball is. Justin Smoak is a horrendous major league baseball player but holy crap he is an amazing baseball player. It’s never stressed enough how insanely hard it is to succeed at the highest level of this sport. There are success stories, and there are these five players. All five player reached the major league level. And sure, over a combined 5,384 plate appearances they’ve only hit 122 home runs (one every 44 at-bats). And sure, they’ve amassed an astonishingly low total of 6.9 b-ref WAR and 3.5 FanGraphs WAR (which is even more nuts when you realize that Daric Barton’s 2010 alone was worth 5.4 wins and 4.8 wins respectively). But they reached a level that thousands upon thousands of players will never even sniff. Baseball is hard.