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July 6, 2012

Overthinking It

A Prospect Named Shaq, a Streak of 16 Strikeouts, and the Pain of Playing Baseball

by Ben Lindbergh

One month ago today, the Red Sox selected Shaquille Green-Thompson in the 18th round of the amateur draft. Nine days later, they signed him to a contract. This was important for an obvious reason: if Green-Thompson signed and went on to play professional baseball, there would be a professional baseball player named Shaq. But as it turns out, the selection was even more important for another reason: Shaq Green-Thompson was about to remind us how hard it is to play baseball.

Green-Thompson is a 6-foot-2, 225-pound, right-handed-hitting-and-throwing outfielder. But that’s sort of a secondary definition—you can’t bring up his baseball abilities without burying the lead. That's because Green-Thompson is also one of the best 18-year-old football prospects in the country.

This is a video of him as a junior, doing what I can only assume are awesome football things.

And this is a video about how he’s basically the best at everything.

According to the AP, Green-Thompson was the “consensus top-rated safety prospect in the country and was the player of the year [sic] by multiple outlets in California.” He excelled on both offense and defense. In February, he signed a letter of intent to play football for the Huskies at the University of Washington, becoming “arguably the most important signee of UW head coach Steve Sarkisian’s four years at the helm.”

Got it? Good at football. But he played baseball, too. “Dabbled in baseball” might be more accurate—Green-Thompson played varsity baseball in his senior season at Sacramento’s Grant Union High School “for the first time in a few years,” though he “admitted to being a bit rusty” because he’d focused on track in his sophomore and junior years. (Shocking revelation: he was also really good at running.) Football was clearly still his focus: according to the Sacramento Bee, he said that baseball “helped him balance his sporting life so he wouldn’t be overwhelmed by football around the clock.”

In 66 senior plate appearances, he hit .305/.379/.644. He struck out 18 times in 59 at-bats. After he signed with the Sox, Green-Thompson said that he needed to work on his hitting—hold that thought—but that he was confident in his defensive skills. So were scouts. The Bee reported that his “remarkable speed allowed him to cover a lot of ground, and his cannon arm had one scout at a game earlier this season saying, ‘He’s draftable for his defense and speed alone.’ Rumor had it Toronto had the most interest, but the Sox snapped him up first.

Physical tools weren’t all Green-Thompson had going for him. He also had excellent makeup. Here’s what his high school coach, Danny Chavez, had to say about his character:

So many high school kids or players at any age, they strike out and they throw their bat or their batting glove, or have a sour face, but not Shaq. He would jog off the field like a real leader, with no emotion. Not that he didn't care. He hates to fail, but he didn't crack. He didn't let anyone see that he was bothered.

A couple weeks into his professional career, Green-Thompson’s ability to master his emotions has already been tested. On June 20th, five days after signing, Green-Thompson debuted in rookie ball for the Gulf Coast League Red Sox. As the designated hitter, he got three at-bats, and he struck out three times. Due in part to a pair of postponements, he didn’t play again until the 27th, when—with a rehabbing Carl Crawford, whose Red Sox career hasn’t begun much better, in left—he started in center, again got three at-bats, and again struck out three times. The pattern continued. June 29th: four at-bats, four strikeouts. July 3rd: three-at bats, three strikeouts. And finally, July 4th: three at-bats, three strikeouts.

His totals? In five games, 19 plate appearances, and 16 at-bats, he has 16 strikeouts (and three walks). He’s also stolen a base, been caught stealing once, and thrown someone out from center. We don’t know whether his strikeouts were looking or swinging, or whether he hit any foul balls, or whether the walks were a sign that he’s patient or a sign that GCL pitchers can’t throw strikes. What we do know is that he hasn’t yet put a ball in play. “I know it’s a game of failure and it is a hard game to adjust to,” Green-Thompson said on the day he was drafted. He knows that even better now.

Our minor-league game and event files go back only to 2005, so we can’t check for the longest strikeout streaks ever. That said, 16 at-bats is the longest streak for a non-pitcher* from '05 on.






Shaq Green-Thompson





Tyler Williams





Hunter Harrigan


8/13/06-End of ’06



Gemmy Gonzalez





Alexis Espinoza





*Three pitchers (or part-time pitchers) have had strikeout streaks of at least 15 at-bats: Daniel Cabrera, Yeison Del Rosario, and Deunte Heath. Cabrera—yes, that​ Daniel Cabrera—takes the cake: since April 30, 2009, he's had 21 professional at-bats (including six in the majors), and he's struck out in all of them.

Sixteen strikeouts in 16 at-bats is a sort of scouting report in itself. But I wanted to know how Green-Thompson looked striking out all those times, so I asked Chris Mellen, the Director of Scouting at SoxProspects.com, for more information. Here's the info I got:

The initial report I have gotten so far is that he is way behind the speed of the game, the pitch recognition is beyond raw, and he is just plain rough with his swing.  He doesn't really have much of a clue what is coming out of the pitcher's hand.  Obviously has some talent, but ‘fish out of water’ at the plate presently was the quote that stuck in my brief discussion on him.  I haven't seen him yet so tidbits are all I can go on right now.  The other player who was kind of similar to Green-Thompson in initial reports when he first played after signing was Kendrick Perkins.  Another football guy, but a little more experienced coming into pro ball.

A Red Sox source had similar things to say. “He’s a premium athlete that hasn’t played much baseball,” the source said. “Just getting acclimated to the speed of the game down there. … There isn’t much to the short sample.”

Let’s go back to Mellen’s comp, Kendrick Perkins. Perkins was drafted by the Red Sox in the sixth round of the 2010 draft. He, too was a high school football star, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound raw athlete selected for his physical tools, not his feel for the game. Perkins got into three games in the GCL that season. In those three games, he had seven at-bats. And in those seven at-bats, he struck out seven times. Sound familiar?

The following season, Perkins went back to the GCL Sox. He did not continue to strike out in every at-bat. He struck out in 16 of his first 30 at-bats (progress!) and in 46 of his final 141 (more progress!) This season, at Low-A, he’s struck out 24 times in 60 at-bats. He’s also hit .283/.377/.500. He’s not a top prospect, because his approach is still limited, but he’s not embarrassing himself. He’s not still striking out in every at-bat. He’s learning to play baseball.

A few weeks ago, Jason Parks conducted a search for a prototypical raw player who had harnessed his tools and become refined with time. His search came up empty. Neither Jason nor the industry sources he spoke to could think of an example of a player who’d gone on to fulfill his potential after entering the game not just “young and unrefined,” but “raw and overwhelmed.” As Jason wrote:

Some in the game believe that acquiring multi-sport athletes out of high school with unrefined baseball skills is a market inefficiency, one that could produce superstars at bargain prices. This is a high risk/high reward plan of attack, and it places an almost unrealistic responsibility on the player development side, giving them the finest material in the world to work with, but asking them to encourage intrinsic qualities that might not be present in the athlete.

So what do we make of Shaq’s strikeout streak? On the one hand, it’s a small sample, and we try not to read too much into those. We also have a team source’s assurance that it isn’t significant. Finally, we know that the player is a gifted physical specimen with the athleticism to succeed, and that he’s bound to get better with experience. On the other hand, we have history, which tells us that most, if not all players who start out looking like they aren’t suited to be professional baseball players never stop looking that way.

Ultimately, whether Thompson makes contact doesn’t matter much to us. We hope he does, because we instinctively feel sorry for someone who’s going through a tough time, but we won't lose any sleep if the streak is extended. The Red Sox care more, because they know him and have some investment in his success. But it’s not a big investment, and they have hundreds of other prospects, and they knew when they drafted him that Green-Thompson, much like their other selections but maybe even more so, was part of group whose members would mostly fail. Green-Thompson is the only one with a real stake in the outcome of the streak and the season. And regardless of how the rest of his season goes, he’ll be playing football in the fall.

So the takeaway here isn’t what the streak says about this particular player’s potential. The takeaway here is that baseball is hard. It’s a game that can make even freakish athletes look foolish. It’s a game that can humble people who can do things with their bodies that most of us don’t dream of. It’s a game in which one of the most physically talented 18-year-olds in the country can go up against his peers at the lowest rung of the professional ladder and fail to make contact in his first five games, mostly because he hasn’t played much baseball before. And that’s why we should appreciate—really, truly appreciate—how rare and improbable and wonderful it is when it all works out.

*Update* 5:45 PM The streak is over! In three plate appearances this afternoon, Green-Thompson went 0-for-2 with a walk and—wait for it—one strikeout. He's still batting .000, but he scored a run and drove in a run. And more importantly, he made contact.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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