Devin Thomas has been donning the catchers mask his whole career. He was the Ivy League player of the year as a catcher and was drafted as a catcher. With a rare power and speed combination from behind the plate he was an enticing selection.
His defense was the only question when he was coming out of Brown University. When Thomas was drafted tigstown.com associate editor Jason Avery wrote "He is very athletic and has 6.75/60 speed, which you rarely see in catchers. He'll need to sharpen up his defense, but Thomas figures to be better than most seniors signed" his athletic ability is what makes you hope the shift will be as seamless as possible.
When you are learning to play first base for the first time in your career, the hardest part in the process is the change of view. "It's just a different perspective of the game" said Thomas "you feel a little naked out there". Once you are sans armor you have to deal with different elements of the game.
With the change in vantage point comes with some different tasks. "Simply put, Fly balls and ground balls are something you don't see as a catcher and I have to get acclimated with the nuances of them," said Thomas on the changes in playing first base.
It's a work in progress and he has had seven errors in his 59 games this season. An average of 19 errors for 162 games is far from an adequate standard for a first baseman. When playing the position manager Andy Barkett said there are some other aspects of the job to master "Learning positioning and getting use to bad throws coming at you from different angles" hopefully by starting more games it should help the process.
He might not have the ideal height to be at first base but he might have the intuition to stay at first. "He has the instincts, you're basically the catcher of the infield" said Barkett at manning first base "you have to do your job to make sure nothing gets by you". Thomas has experience blocking with the best of them, now it's refining the skill.
It helps to ease the process when you have a manager who has played multiple positions, including first base. "He's learning on the job, which is the best way to learn it," said Barkett. Thomas was broached with the position switch halfway through spring training this season and since it could mean more playing time it piqued his interest.
When it comes to playing time Thomas will take it regardless the task. "Anyway to get on to the field is the way I look at it". The question is how to get Thomas the necessary playing time for him to develop as a prospect. Playing time is essential, especially when you need to sharpen your best tool.
"He needed some more playing time" said Barkett on the reason to move Thomas to first base. "His better tool has been his hitting and as a catcher your at-bats are limited and if he gets to swing the bat more it will further his development." Removing the protective gear might have been what his bat needed to heat up. Between injuries and only marginal playing time, Thomas was batting below the Mendoza line at .199 in his first 236 pro at-bats. His other numbers weren't much better with splits of .294/.356/.640 in his first two seasons with the Tigers.
This season has been a different story with a .266 batting average and .331/.384/.714. What's the most encouraging part of his splits is that his power numbers since the all-star break have been great. With 14 extra base hits since the break he is finally swinging the bat that the Tigers drafted.
It's hard for Thomas to put a specific reason for the improvement. "It's a confluence of a lot of different factors" the one mainstay has been the instruction of Hitting Coach Larry Herndon. "I feel privileged to work with him every day" says Thomas since he has been able to gain insight at the plate as well as hitting techniques that he's picked up from Herndon and Barkett.
"The biggest thing is trying to use my legs when I swing… look at all the good hitters in the league and they all use their legs well" Thomas said on what the staff has been working on with him. If he continues this second half surge he will be well on his way to the next level.
Considering Thomas only had a very limited 236 at-bats in his first two seasons what has helped his progression the most is the fact he's able to play as often as he has. "Honestly getting to play everyday is a big thing, especially with hitting. It's important to get repetition so you can get your timing down" says Thomas on his marked improvement.
Now that Thomas is healthy and playing everyday this might be the building block to the next step. "He's like everyone else, he needs consistency in his at-bats and in the field" is what Barkett said Thomas needed to improve to get to the next level. The switch for the time being has been a success since Thomas's bat is back to being productive.
Thomas would be a hybrid at his position, a first baseman with a little speed and power from both sides of the plate. All he needs now is to learn his new position.