Clete Thomas caught most of Detroit off guard as he was initially selected to break camp with the Big League squad. If you were like me then you didn’t know much, if anything, about him. I was not a fan of the initial decision to allow him a roster slot but I absolutely no complaints with the outcome thus far. Clete has been one of the few bright spots on the team this year as he continues to mash out base hits, outshining those paid drastically more than him.
Thomas never took an at-bat at even the Triple-A level before making the Tigers big league team and spent all of the 2007 season with the Double-A Erie Seawolves. There he showed acceptable hitting and decent patience but not much power. He ended the season with a .280/.359/405 line over 528 at-bats. One would expect such a youngster to come up and struggle for at least a little while as they adjust to big league pitching. Last year’s preseason favorite for AL ROY, Alex Gordon, certainly struggled before getting the hang of it late in the season and into the current season. I expected such a struggle for Clete but so far he seems very much at home.
With the help of MLB’s Gameday pitch-by-pitch data (called pitch f/x), we can take a look at what pitches opposing teams have been using trying to get him out. Get a good look at what pitches Thomas likes and which he is able to lay off. My intial expectations were to see him swinging at a number of out of the strike zone pitches and being a bit of a free swinger. He hadn’t, up until yesterday’s game, had a walk all season. Below is a look at all pitches, through yesterday (April 12th, 2008), that Clete has seen. For all graphs I have weeded out a number of bunts that he’s been asked to lay down (he’s a good bunter btw). The breakout shows balls put in play regardless of the result, called ball and strikes which include foul balls.
From this you can see that he has been a pretty good judge of the strike zone but does tend like swing at balls thrown outside a bit (keep in mind that he bats left handed so outside is to the left of the chart). Below is a further breakout of balls that were strikes which further shows that these are often ones he struggles with as well.
You can see with this strike chart that Clete will also swing at balls that are above the strike zone but has, thus far, been able to make contact and foul them off. His sweet spot, which is no surprise, is directly in the middle of the strike zone, if just a little outside. He hasn’t been able to successfully hit balls that are low in the strike zone though there has been few opportunities.
Just for completeness, below is a graph detailing all called ‘balls’ thrown to Thomas. He’s layed off some balls thrown on the edge of the strike zone, particularly pitches that are low. Other than a few, all are clearly outside the strike zone.
While his early success is very nice to see we should all keep our hopes in check. In 2006 Brent Clevlen was called up from Double-A and went on a tear through 31 games hitting .281 and slugging .641. This was promptly followed up by a very disappointing season in Toledo last year where he batted just .220 with a .304 OBP and no power. Will that be the fate of Clete? I certainly hope not but once major league pitchers figure him out we can expect his stats to take a downturn. However it pans out, he’s looked great in the field, at bat and on the basepaths and has opened numerous eyes. The rest is all up to him as he’s been given a clear shot at the future for the Tigers or other teams.
You can get the raw pitch f/x data directly from MLB.com. Thanks to Billfer @ the Detroit Tigers Weblog for pointing me in the correct direction for some useful pitch f/x tools and other examples.