It is a statistical line that is uncomfortable to contemplate.
Players are expected to struggle in their pro debuts. But few ever have endured the stretch that Shaq Thompson, an outfielder whom the Red Sox took in the 18th round of the 2012 draft, experienced in his first taste of professional baseball.
The 18-year-old wrapped up his first professional baseball season on Friday. He went 0-for-2 with a strikeout for the Rookie Level GCL Red Sox, the last entry into what appears on the surface to be a nightmarish season.
Thompson, a high school football star and one of the top safety recruits in the country, will now head to the University of Washington to start his football season. He leaves behind his summer in Fort Myers having gone 0-for-39 with 37 strikeouts and eight walks. His lineout to right against Twins sandwich-round pick Luke Bard -- in which he was robbed by a shoestring catch in his final at-bat on Friday -- represented just the second ball that he put in play this summer, and the first that he'd sent to the outfield. It was the only time all summer that he came close to collecting a hit.
The hitless month earned Thompson the most undesirable kind of national attention. First, Deadspin picked up on his struggles. That sort of notoriety was distasteful enough. But then came the derisive claim by a national baseball columnist that, finally, he’d found the pro baseball player with skills inferior to his own and those of his readers.
That was the comment that 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. It was the sort of critique that not only struck them as wildly unfair but also, in a larger sense, was potentially damaging to the sport that Thompson was trying to play.
After all, Thompson had virtually abandoned a baseball career from sixth grade until his final year at Grant Union High School in Sacramento. For the better part of six years, the little brother of Broncos cornerback Syd’Quan Thompson had focused his attention -- very effectively -- on turning himself into an elite football player, one with not only a Division 1 scholarship on the horizon but with legitimate NFL ambitions.
But more recently, amidst the concussion crisis in the NFL, both Thompson and his family thought that it might be worth exploring an alternate route. He’d loved baseball as a kid, and so, they decided, perhaps he could give a second sport another chance.
Thompson actively pursued a dual-track, changing his college commitment from Cal to the University of Washington in no small part because Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian -- a former college baseball player at USC -- was willing to let Thompson pursue a pro baseball career even as he progressed through college.
Though a football star with unquestioned credentials, the 18-year-old welcomed the challenge of a second sport with which he had little familiarity. He was mindful, at the time that he was drafted and signed, of the idea that he would struggle when he agreed to a two-sport, four-year deal for what will likely amount to a drop in the bucket in his pro sports future: He received a $45,000 bonus to play this year, and can earn up to $100,000 over four years provided he keeps returning to baseball.
But he wanted to try.
There is nothing simple about what Thompson is doing. He is not getting money that will set him up for life. He is not pursuing a sport in which he can dominate effortlessly or lay claim -- as he can in football -- to the title of the best player on the field. But he is willing to give the game a shot, to work relentlessly and to see if he can improve to turn it into a viable career option.
And the Sox, for their part, were thrilled for the opportunity to select Thompson and to get him signed quickly to begin the player development process. 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.
“He has excellent makeup. It's through the roof. He knew that it wouldn’t be easy and would be a struggle but he was willing to take the risk,” said Sox amateur scouting director Amiel Sawdaye. “We did not have expectations -- I think it’s unfair to put those on any kid in his first year of pro ball.
“We discussed the very real possibility that he would struggle and decided to let him go in and try to get better,” he continued. “He needs to see live pitching -- if he goes 0-for-5 with five punchouts, who cares? There have been a lot of really bad pro debuts."
One person to experience such a struggle was the manager with whom Thompson was paired in Fort Myers. George Lombard, perhaps as much as anyone, understands the challenge faced by the safety-turned-outfielder.
Once one of the top football recruits in the country as a running back out of high school, Lombard turned his back on Division 1 scholarship offers to sign a deal with the Braves as a second-round pick in the 1994 amateur draft.
He had a more extensive baseball background than Thompson. Still, his first experience of professional baseball bordered on excruciating. Lombard, as an 18-year-old in the GCL in 1994, hit .140 with a .260 OBP, .155 slugging mark and 47 strikeouts in 150 plate appearances. And so he knows what Thompson is dealing with.
“That's indicative of not playing the game,” Lombard said of Thompson’s performance. “A lot of kids growing up, inner-city kids or African-Americans, don't get the opportunity to play baseball that much or they're occupied with other sports as Shaq obviously is, being a tremendous football player.
“I told him, 'You're not doing great here obviously, but you're not expected to do well. This is your first year.' I gave him my story. I was in the exact same situation he was. I had a chance at a running back to go pretty much anywhere, and I hit a buck-forty my first year.
“This game was not easy. It's the hardest thing I've ever done in my life,” said Lombard, who methodically improved in the minors to the point where he emerged as prospect who eventually played for 16 professional seasons, including 144 games over six years in the big leagues. “There were a couple times in my career when I asked, 'What am I doing playing baseball?' If he's human, I'm sure he's felt those feelings at some part. He can say, 'Hey, I can just play football.'
“But it's just will power and dedication and having a lot of heart to get up and do it over and over again,” he continued. “One thing I was really good at was working hard, and I had some tools to eventually refine. I just see the same thing in him. The kid loves to work. He likes to play baseball. I think it's pretty factual, some of the things that are out there about the things going on with football players, the concussions and injuries and career and longevity of a way of life. He's dedicated. He signed a contract to come out and play baseball. I admire him for it. It's not easy. It will never be easy.”
But Thompson has embraced the difficulty of the game in a fashion that made him a wildly popular teammate and a favorite of virtually every instructor to go through Fort Myers since he signed about a month ago. Lombard promised to work him into the ground (“I told him I’m going to crush him with drills,” he said) as part of a crash course in baseball (one, incidentally, that complements the efforts by Thompson to take on-line courses with the University of Washington when he leaves the team’s spring training facility so that he can try to graduate in three years). Thompson has responded.
For most of the summer, he’s alternated a day of playing in games (and, yes, taking his oh-fer with one punchout after another) with a day of showing up at the field at 8:30 in the morning to hit in the cages and take extra batting practice, to work on fly balls, to learn about baserunning. By all accounts, Thompson is comfortable with the idea that his progress is moving in inches rather than visible leaps.
"This is a kid trying to improve incrementally in probably the hardest sport to play,” said Sawdaye. “He's an elite athlete who has made progress in simple steps -- batting practice, reads and routes in center field, baserunning when he gets on, etc. He is one of the first kids out there every morning for early work. Simply put, he's one of the hardest working guys there.”
And there have been glimpses of the athletic gifts that made the experiment intriguing to both Thompson and the Red Sox. For starters, when the Sox got their first opportunity to work with him, the instructors agreed that he featured a decent swing that did not require a dramatic overhaul. He’s shown some pitch recognition – he doesn’t swing at bad pitches, and instead seemingly gets locked up taking strikes while trying to formulate a game plan at the plate.
“Mechanically, there's not a ton wrong with [Thompson’s swing],” said Lombard. “For now, it just becomes the repetition of doing it over and over again until you can do it without thinking about it and it becomes second nature. Eventually, you want to get to where you're reacting to the baseball. Right now, you can tell he's up there thinking, trying to get a good pitch to hit and a thousand things are going through his head, which is completely natural for a guy from his background.”
He’s learning routes to fly balls, though his tremendous speed (coupled with incredible acceleration) allows him at times to outrun balls that he’s initially misjudged. His explosive running ability has also been evident on the bases, as when he burst from second to third on a ball in the dirt that was blocked well and barely eluded a catcher.
There are the rawest elements of a talented baseball player that the Red Sox and Thompson are trying to refine.
“The most valuable combination of tools in baseball for a position player is speed and power,” said Lombard. “Everyone knows that he can run and he's stronger than anyone we have. If you can harness those two things, it makes a valuable player.”
But it requires a process -- a painfully deliberate process -- to try to harness those gifts. And there is a very good chance that the efforts to do so will never be brought to fruition.
Even top draftees who have spent their entire lives playing baseball often will fall by the wayside well before they reach the majors. The odds are not with Thompson.
But he is willing to take the chance and try to defy the odds. At any point in his struggles, as the strikeouts piled up, it would have been easy for Thompson to shrug his shoulders, say that he gave it a shot and to head to the University of Washington to focus his athletic intentions on football.
"He can shut it down and say, 'Why am I doing this? I can play in the NFL,' ” said Sawdaye. “He's not."
To the contrary, Thompson has embraced the work to try to improve himself, to see if a baseball career is viable. And in that sense, the outfielder represents precisely the type of player whom Major League Baseball should try to attract but whom the sport has failed to lure in recent years.
“I talked to some of our scouts and asked questions about where the hotspots are for young talent,” said Lombard. “At one point the Dominican was the new wave. You hear about Colombia, Panama. But some of our scouts said that a place that constantly gets overlooked is the inner cities. You've got some of the best athletes right here in our own backyards and they're not getting scouted. They're not getting the opportunity to play.”
The opportunity to play, however, necessarily means the latitude to fail. Players who have spent little time on the baseball field in their lives typically will struggle at the start of their careers, sometimes in extreme fashion.
That is something for which teams must be prepared, and through which players require support. And that is why there was so much concern on the part of the Sox at the idea that Thompson’s performance as a hitter was being treated as a punchline.
“We, as an industry, are trying to get athletes into MLB. We don’t want to lose them to other sports,” said Sawdaye. “So, when we get the opportunity to get a player who has some potential, is an elite athlete, and -- most importantly -- wants to play baseball, it would be a shame if we turn our backs on them.
“Even worse, if we put a microscope on those players -- any player, for that matter -- and ridicule them for their struggles through their first full season, we will never be able to attract the raw player who needs to go through his growing pains. We need to be prepared to take these players and watch them struggle -- it’s not easy, but it’s necessary.
"Most kids do struggle,” he added. “We just forget about it."
And perhaps, if Thompson remains dedicated to the undertaking, then there will come a point where this opening salvo of his professional career will become a footnote. That, at least, is something for which he’s willing to work, and fail, in hopes of getting better.
“Nothing worthwhile comes easy,” said Lombard. “These are the grassroots of baseball in the GCL. When it's all said and done, he's going to have some good experiences, some memorable ones, and hopefully he'll have a chance to get to the major leagues at some point.”