There is something unique about hitting a baseball: the assumption of failure. A batter can fail at his job two out of three times, and do it for 15 years, and he'll make the Hall of Fame. Baseball is a sport designed for only occasional success, even for its most skilled practitioners.
Shaq Thompson may have had the deck stacked against him, but he was playing with house money all along. He doesn't need to be good at baseball. It's not his career, and his future doesn't depend on it. The 18th-round draft pick of the Boston Red Sox also happens to be the top ranked prep school safety in the nation, and will attend the University of Washington in the fall. He'll never need to hit a baseball to find fame and fortune, and that's a mercy—because Shaq Thompson has been truly, historically unsuccessful at hitting baseballs.
Thompson ended his Gulf Coast League stint this weekend, and will soon head to UW's campus to prepare for camp. He leaves behind a mind-boggling stat line: In 13 games, Thompson went 0-for-39, with 37 strikeouts. He got the ball out of the infield just once, in his final at-bat on Friday, a liner directly to the right fielder. For that solid contact, his teammates greeted him in the dugout with back slaps and high fives.
If you subscribe to the tyranny of BABIP, the theory that there's nothing a batter can do beyond just getting wood on cowhide, Thompson is the most self-defeating player to play the game at a professional level. But does that make him bad? Well, here's a different question: Would you, or I, or anyone who played baseball at anything less than the college level, have done any better than 37 strikeouts in 39 at-bats? Maybe. Maybe, with eyes closed, we might luck into a Baltimore chop, or a dying quail into no man's land. But just because we can make solid contact in a batting cage, with the pitch always exactly 65 MPH, always chest high, doesn't mean we'd be better than Shaq Thompson.
That's what rubbed so many people the wrong way about Jon Heyman's tweet last week. Heyman called Thompson "the first baseball prospect who isn't better than me (or you, either). "Better" is clearly a poor choice of words—Shaq Thompson was drafted by an MLB team, of course he's better than me or you or Jon Heyman. According to this great WEEI piece from Alex Speier on Thompson, Heyman's comment "set off a number of members of the Red Sox organization, who circled the wagons around a player who this summer became one of the most popular in the minor league system." (Thompson doesn't make an appearance in Speier's piece, and we were turned down for an interview as well. The Red Sox were protecting an 18-year-old kid who made headlines for the roughest of reasons, and I can't say I blame them.)
You need to read the WEEI piece to put Thompson's struggles into context. He gave up baseball in the sixth grade to focus on football, and only returned to it his senior year of high school. His mind was still on football, but with the recent rise in concussion awareness—-and an awareness that a single hit can end a football career forever—Thompson and his family thought it worth keeping all his options open, and he returned to the sport he had loved as a kid.
The Red Sox took a flier on Thompson, curious if his raw athleticism might translate into baseball skills. It's a longshot, but one every MLB team bets multiple times each draft. Thompson played just a single year of high school baseball—if he had the potential to be a superstar, no one would have known. So they took him in the 18th round, gave him a $45,000 signing bonus, and hoped for the best. But they did something unorthodox: they put him right out there to see what he could do.
The team wrestled with the question of whether to let him learn the game in anonymity, sticking him in a batting cage and on back fields taking fly balls, where he could take baby steps to improve as a baseball player.
That's been the traditional path for players like Thompson, two-sport athletes whose baseball skills are crude. Typically, such players didn't sign until close to the Aug. 15 signing deadline that governed the draft process until this year.
Such players might have seen action in a game or two, or perhaps none (Will Middlebrooks, for instance, did not play a single game in 2007 after he signed). Instead, the team would typically work with them behind the scenes before letting them get their footing in games in the obscurity of the fall instructional leagues, where statistics aren't publicly circulated.
But Thompson will be on the football field for the Huskies this year when the instructional league is taking place, and so the decision was made with the player's input. Let him play in games. Let him learn what 90-plus mph fastballs look like. The experience, even if it resulted in days without contact, was important.
Now Thompson's got that experience. He's put on the jersey, he's sat in the dugout, he's faced live pitching, he's traveled with the team. He's been a professional baseball player now, even if he swung through nearly every pitch. He's had a taste, and he'll decide if he wants another next spring. And if he doesn't? (Or does, and struggles again?) Well, here's what a pissed-off Michael Jordan told assembled reporters after one particularly tough day at Spring Training with the White Sox in 1994:
"If I strike out 15 million times, is that going to hurt my 32-point-whatever scoring average?" he said. "If I fail at baseball, does that make me less of a basketball player? If I'm a horseshit baseball player, that don't tarnish what I did on the court."
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.