Thomas perfecting timing at plate
Designated hitter focusing on having strong start in 2008
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The batting-practice fastball that jumped off Frank Thomas' bat on Sunday morning rocketed deep to center field inside Knology Park, where the baseball caromed off the padded wall with a loud thud.
Blue Jays right fielder Alex Rios, standing in the outfield to shag fly balls, hunched over and howled with laughter, slapping his knees for sarcastic effect.
"Can of corn!" shouted Rios, teasing Thomas for falling short of a home run.
Thomas reset himself in the batter's box and launched the subsequent offering toward left field, sending the ball hurtling into a group of trees just beyond the fence. With that, Rios grinned and joined a handful of Thomas' Toronto teammates in offering some cheers for the veteran designated hitter.
While some of the Blue Jays were in Fort Myers, Fla., for a Grapefruit League pairing with the Twins, Thomas and the majority of Toronto's "A" squad were enjoying a light workout at their spring home. Plenty of the Jays were goofing around, but Thomas made sure to use the day to get a little more serious in the batting cage.
The 39-year-old slugger has been slumping through the spring, managing just one hit among 27 at-bats in the exhibition games. Slow starts have been a staple throughout Thomas' storied 18-year career. That's a main reason why he's not concerned about the lack of hits at this point in the spring.
"Things will take off," Thomas said. "Me? I'm not going to worry about anything, because I'm more of a timing guy. Once my timing is set, I'm set for the rest of the year. That's just the way I am. It just takes time to get going, but once it gets going, it stays. It's been like that my whole career."
The most important thing to Thomas, right now, is the fact that he's healthy -- finally over the left ankle woes that dogged him in recent years. That's been evident throughout the spring, with Thomas dedicating time to running drills, standing in as a baserunner during fielding practice, and always seeming to be in the center of the workouts.
Thomas is more comfortable physically than he was a year ago, when he used the early portion of Spring Training to build up the strength in his legs and finished with only 32 at-bats in the Grapefruit League slate. It's been drastically different this spring for Thomas, who seems to wear an ever-present smile as he saunters around camp.
"It's fun for me right now, because I feel good," Thomas said. "I'm running around on the field -- that's a big thing for me. The burden of not being able to run and trying to get your legs caught up with all that other stuff, I don't have to do that right now."
That luxury has allowed Thomas to focus on his hitting. Before Toronto's camp officially opened, 64-year-old Walt Hriniak -- Thomas' longtime hitting coach -- made the trek from his home outside of Boston to spend time working with the slugger in Florida.
The results haven't been there yet this spring, but Thomas said his hitting style relies heavily on timing and rhythm, which can be slow to come in the early stages of a season. Hriniak, who was the hitting coach for the White Sox early in Thomas' career, still keeps close tabs on the hitter, and Thomas said he calls his old coach often to discuss his swing.
"I try to call him," Thomas said. "When I haven't called him in six or seven days, he's going to curse me out. I'll call him in the next few days just to let him know that mentally I'm good. It's just a thing right now of getting more quality strikes to get the results."
That was a similar issue that Thomas cited early last season, when he labored through a brutal slump in the first two months. Thomas hit just .217 with eight homers and 22 RBIs through his first 55 games with the Jays. Over his final 100 contests, though, Thomas regained his rhythm and posted a .308 average with 18 homers and 73 RBIs.
Thomas said part of the problem was that he got such a late start in Spring Training. The timing issues that can plague any hitter during the preseason carried over into the regular season. It's an issue that Thomas, who is scheduled to make $8 million this season, wants to avoid in the early going this time around.
"I don't want it to happen this year," Thomas said. "Last year, it started in April and it was mid-May before I really finally worked it out. I knew what happened. I sat there and tried to do too much there too early. I was trying to hit home runs when I wasn't ready."
Blue Jays hitting coach Gary Denbo has kept a watchful eye on Thomas' issues this spring and he doesn't believe the slugger's offensive struggles are anything out of the ordinary.
"The timing element with Frank is very important," Denbo said. "He's going through a stage right now that everybody goes through at this time in Spring Training. He's working very hard in the cage to try to get the right feel of the move that he wants to make when he gets out on the field.
"It's that time of year that you go through, where everybody is trying to find that timing. Once you get it, you start having a lot more comfortable at-bats, and I'm sure that's what's going to happen with Frank."
That's been a trend for Thomas, who is a career .303 hitter, but has a .287 career mark in April -- the lone month his average is below .300. Thomas wants to have a strong start to this season, especially in light of the fact that the Blue Jays have their sights set on competing for the American League East crown.
With that in mind, Thomas, who has grown more comfortable in Toronto's clubhouse over the past year, said he's willing to become more of a vocal leader on the club. On Saturday, Jays ace Roy Halladay delivered a similar message.
"I'm always going to chirp," Thomas said. "I pick my moments and pick my spots to do that. I don't think it's necessary all the time. Like [on Saturday], I said a couple of things about [how] it's time to pick it up a little bit more mentally -- take at-bats a little more seriously."
Even during a light Spring Training workout.
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.