A couple weeks ago, I was scrolling through the ol’ Twitter feed when I came across this:
Congrats to Shaq Thompson, the 2014 recipient of the @HornungAward, given to the nation’s most versatile player. pic.twitter.com/Thyon65FTf
— UW Football (@UW_Football) December 12, 2014
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:
1st plate appearance: strikeout swinging
2nd plate appearance: strikeout looking
3rd plate appearance: walk
4th plate appearance: strikeout swinging
5th plate appearance: walk
6th plate appearance: strikeout looking
7th plate appearance: strikeout looking
8th plate appearance: strikeout swinging
9th plate appearance: walk
10th plate appearance: strikeout swinging
11th plate appearance: strikeout swinging
12th plate appearance: strikeout swinging
13th plate appearance: strikeout swinging
14th plate appearance: strikeout looking
15th plate appearance: strikeout swinging
16th plate appearance: strikeout looking
17th plate appearance: strikeout looking
18th plate appearance: strikeout looking
19th plate appearance: strikeout swinging
20th plate appearance: RBI ground out to 1st (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)
21st plate appearance: strikeout swinging
22nd plate appearance: walk
23rd plate appearance: strikeout looking
24th plate appearance: strikeout swinging
25th plate appearance: strikeout looking
26th plate appearance: strikeout looking
27th plate appearance: strikeout swinging
28th plate appearance: strikeout swinging
29th plate appearance: strikeout swinging
30th plate appearance: strikeout swinging
31st plate appearance: walk
32nd plate appearance: strikeout swinging
33rd plate appearance: walk
34th plate appearance: walk
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
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
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!
I feel like there were a couple “Up and In” episodes where Joe Schmoe from Piscataway, N.J., asked how he would do in 600 major league at bats. The listener usually thought that he would luck into a couple hits, and Kevin would always insist that the guy would go .000/.000/.000. Baseball is *hard*.
As you may recall the Royals that took this strategy of turning athletes into ballplayers to the limit in creating the Baseball Academy in the early 70’s. Frank White and Ron Washington were the main successes of the experiment.
While the Royals discontinued the program, it may be an idea worth going back to.
Hey! long time reader, first time poster.
Much like scouts/announcers say with Russell Wilson now, I’m sure when this kid is in the NFL, they will say what a great “prospect” he was. At least Wilson hit his weight in LoA.