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Marcus Thames, the Greatest Player of All Time!
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Marcus Thames, the Greatest Player of All Time
by Asher B. Chancey, BaseballEvolution.com
August 31, 2006

One of the things about Moneyball that I enjoyed most was Billy Beane/Paul DePodesta/Michael Lewis describing what psychologists refer to as "the confirmation bias." A central element of Billy Beane's "revolution" revolves around de-emphasizing the importance of scouting and emphasizing the importance of crunching numbers. Scouts, as it turns out, often see what they want to see. Or might see a guy on the best day of his life. Or the worst, for that matter.

Bill James, take note. That silly thing you do where you cite other people's first hand accounts as they suit you is exactly what we are talking about.

The classic case example of the "confirmation bias" is what psychologists refer to as the "women can't drive" example. There are people, often men, who are convinced that all the bad drivers are women, and all women are bad drivers. So, when they are out on the road, and a woman driver messes up, this only confirms their bias - "See, I told you women can't drive" - whereas when a man messes up, they are less likely to notice, less likely to ascribe the mess up to a rule, or less likely to even consider what the man did a screw up.

That is the example of the confirmation bias.

It works the same way for scouts. A scout may look at a video, or another scout's report, or just some stats, and decide, whether consciously or sub-consciously, that a certain player is going to be a star. Then, when the scout goes to look at the player, everything he sees can serve as an indication of greatness sure, he struck out, but look at his bat control; sure, he didn't throw the guy out, but look at that arm. The reverse can be true a player whom a scout has decided is not a prospect will be able to do no right.

Fact is, the confirmation bias can cause a scout to return to his General Manager, swear that a player should be signed, and go to his grave convinced that the kid will be a star, when he actually doesn't have the skills to break out of Double A ball. More importantly, with respect to Moneyball, the scout's report will allow him to avoid seeing that the player doesn't have the head to be a successful player. But I digress.

The point is, because of his bias, the scout will never give up on his guy, because after all, he's seen him play in person, and he knows what he saw.

The reason I bring this up is because I, or more appropriately, Scott and I, experienced just this sort of thing. We sat at a spring training game and watched a certain player of whom we had never heard perform like Willie Mays. He could hit, he could run, he could hit for power, and he could go the opposite way. He took pitches, he fouled off the bad ones. He did it all.

That player was a young man by the name of Marcus Thames.

The game was a spring training game between the Yankees and the Pirates at the Yankees facility in Tampa Bay. It was spring of 2002, so the September 11th thing was still weighing heavy on everyone's minds.

A classic moment actually occurred before the game even began. Every stadium in Florida was searching bags that spring, presumably for weapons, but possibly also for food and drink. Who knows. Anyway, every game that Scott and I went to, I carried a backpack with our scorecards, programs, notepads, and pens and pencils. After a brief search, we would usually pass through

Well, the Yankees' stadium was different. First of all, for those of you who have never been to spring training in Tampa, the Yankees' stadium is unlike all the other fields. Most of the fields are small, humble fields with minimal amenities. To be sure, the aluminum bleacher and chain link fence days are essentially over in Florida, as Spring Training is a major enterprise, but the parks remain humble nonetheless. But the Yankees have a freakin' mini-Yankees Stadium out there. And it ain't that mini! It was the only park we went to where we had any trouble at all seeing the field.

We had to buy freakin' scalped tickets for pete's sake. To a spring training game!

So I walk up to the gate, and put my bag on the table to be searched. After waiting for half an hour for someone selling tickets to even appear, we had just five minutes left before gametime, so we were understandably in a hurry. But we got nothing. The guards at the gate informed us promptly that there were no bags allowed in the stadium. And this wasn't an arguable proposition. I was faced with the prospect of walking the mile back to where we parked the car and stow my bag, and then treking back and missing the first three innings. It was one of those moments where you want to strangle somebody, maybe even yourself, because you know that the person in charge of the situation is totally unreasonable, and that if they would just use their brain for a moment, they would realize there is nothing wrong with you bringing a backpack into the game with scorecards and pencils inside.

Just as I was about to start strangling Scott, the whole scene turned into something from a Three Stooges episode. All at once, as if I had suddenly disappeared, one of the guards said, "Here they come!" and looked skyward. Everyone looked skyward at the same time, as did I, to see ten parachuters who were Navy Seals or New York Fire Department or something, parachuting towards the stadium as part of a pre-game event. I looked quickly looked around at the guards, every single one of which had all suddenly cast their gazes straight up to the sky! Then I looked at Scott, who looked back at me. We knew it immediately.

I quickly and quietly, with my head down, walked passed the guards and through the gates, and we quickly found our seats.

So then, the situation turned downright morbid. There was a pre-game prayer, and some talk about how God was on "our" side in the war against terror, and an incredibly ominous, and slow, banging of a gong for each war the United States had ever been in, and then a tribute to anyone who was an active serviceman, and then anyone related to an active serviceman, and then anyone who was ever a serviceman, and then anyone who knew someone who was an active or former serviceman. Needless to say, the mood was not festive. More importantly, the pre-game activities were dragging on unconscionably.

Then Marcus Thames came to bat. I mean, it was probably the second or third inning, but he was the next significant thing I remember.

Actually, at some point in the early innings, there were not one but two instances in which a Pirates baserunner tried to steal second base, and when Yankee catcher Todd Greene threw the ball to second, not once but twice neither Derek Jeter nor Alfonso Soriano managed to even think about covering the bag, and the ball sailed into centerfield.

If I recall correctly, the ball sailed into center so cleanly, having not coming close to being touched by a fielder, that the baserunner couldn't advance because it went straight to the center fielder, who easily got it back in.

We saw Thames again in the spring of '05 
Anyway, so Marcus Thames comes up to bat. Now, I lost a huge stack of scorecards and programs in the hurricane, so I can't tell you for sure what he did on this day, but I know he had a hit every time up, and I believe he smacked two homeruns. He was crushing the ball. We also had the opportunity to sing his praises when he was in the field as well.

Marcus played the perfect game for us that night, and we went back to the camp site after the game knowing that we would one day be telling our grandkids about the time we saw Marcus Thames at spring training, back when he was young, before anyone knew who he was, before he became the Hall of Fame legend that he was destined to become.

We checked out Thames' minor league stats from 2001. That year, playing AA ball, Thames hit 43 2B, 4 3B, and 31 HR with 97 RBI and 114 runs scored in 139 games! He went .321/.410/.598! He was a sure thing.

This dude was a can't miss prospect. When the Yankees broke camp, and he didn't come north with the team, we were dumbfounded. What does it take? we wondered. Why are the Yankees too dense to bring up their superstar of the future? What are they waiting for? Another three years of Bernie Williams?

Well, that year 2002 Marcus faltered at AAA. He hit only .207, with a .297 on-base percentage, and managed only 13 HRs. It is almost like the Yankees could somehow see through the one game of fabulous that Scott and I had seen and knew that Marcus wasn't ready for the prime time.

Thames did have a highlight in 2002, though. In his major league debut, he hit the first pitch he ever saw for a homerun. Against Randy Johnson.

Boy, when that happened, I knew Thames had arrived. And was here to say.

It was almost like I was seeing what I wanted to see. Hmm.

Those of you who have followed Marcus Thames over the last five years know the rest of the story: minimal major league action with the Yanks, traded to the Rangers for Ruben Sierra in 2003, and then on to the Tigers in 2004. After struggling in AAA in 2002 and 2003, Thames got back on track in 2004 and 2005, going .329/.410/.735 with 24 HR in 64 games in 2004, and .340//427/.679 with 22 HR in 73 games in 2005. It looked like Marcus was back. Again.

This time, he was.

In 2006, at the age of 29, in his fifth year in the majors, Marcus has finally stuck. What's more, he has performed quite well 23 HR with .270/.344/.588 through 90 games with the Tigers. He hasn't played everyday, but he has played often, and he is a major contributor to the surprise first place Detroit Tigers. His OPS is over .900, he leads the team in homeruns despite playing about 75% of the team's games, and his slugging percentage is easily the highest on the club.

And the great thing is, as of now, it looks like the Tigers and the Yankees will both be headed for the playoffs. In an ideal world, Thames would have the opportunity to face his old team in the playoffs. Perhaps even the chance to face Randy Johnson again. In an ideal world, he would get the chance to take Randy deep again and show the Yanks that they were silly not to bring him up sooner, and just as silly not to hold onto him.

I just know that is what would happen. He's awesome. He's a superstar.

Trust me. I've seen him play. And I know what I saw.

Disagree with something? Got something to add? Wanna bring up something totally new? Asher resides in Alexandria, VA, and can be reached at asher@baseballevolution.com.

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