Thompson was Coach Price’s #1 recruit in 2008. The KU head coach took four separate trips to Nevada in 2006 and 2007 to scout and recruit Tony. In his first three years of prep baseball Thompson hit .490 with 23 homeruns and 83 RBIs. Even though Thompson was being heavily recruited by several other schools he got to know and like Price, the coach who drove the furthest to see him, the coach who came to see him play most often. "He’d usually call me and tell me he was coming out and he’d wait after the game," Thompson said of Price in a 2008 UDK profile, "It was kind of an honor to have someone come that far just to see me." Thompson signed on at KU.
It is hard to overestimate the talent gap between high school and Big-12 baseball. Scouts consider Big-12 conference play to be roughly equal to that of High-A minor league baseball. Jumping from a setting where hitters rarely see pitchers with two usable pitches or fastballs that break 80 mph all the way up to the level major league coaches consider about two years removed from the show is enormous. Price expected Thompson to struggle and then adjust. He hoped to see Thompson "hitting around .300 with double-digit home runs and, most of all, playing solid defense." Thompson’s freshman year did not play out like this at all.
At this time last year Thompson might as well have been going to the plate with a broom stick. On March 16th he was hitting .246/.270/.276, an OPS of .546. His defensive play during his first months could at best be described as inconsistent. Thompson was getting to a lot of balls late and then trying to compensate with a rushed and muscled throw to first. Not surprisingly several of these throws were stopped by brick or dugout walls instead of the first baseman’s glove. Even as late as mid-April, two-thirds of the way through the season, Thompson had not hit a grove. His batting line that day stood at .237/.296/.289. Only during the final weeks of the season did the game finally slow down. Outside of one cringe-worthy defensive meltdown at Nebraska Thompson settled down at third and started making the routine plays routinely, while bringing the crowd to its feet at least once a series with a gem. His bat started to heat up as well, singles were followed by line drives and suddenly Thompson’s power stroke arrived. He hit five of his seven extra base hits in the closing weeks and ended the year with an unimpressive, but not horrible, batting line of .276/.325/.374.
Given what happened in 2008 it is understandable that expectations for Thompson were more modest in 2009. I just didn’t see it coming. Somehow Aman wasn’t completely caught off guard. In his season preview he wrote that he expected Tony to "hit near the .300 mark this year with double digit HR’s and much more run production. This team will need Thompson to continue his progression to being a team leader and possible star in this league."
Already in 2009 Thompson has more extra base hits (11) than he had all of last year (7) and as many RBIs (18). The homerun Tony hit on March 6th vs. Northwestern was to dead center. Just using eyeball math I’d guess it went 430 feet. I’ve been to about one hundred games at Hoglund, and I’ve seen some good hitters during that time. Thompson’s homerun was the deepest shot I’ve had the pleasure to watch. I had no idea he had that kind of power. In guy-movie-cliché-speak, watching Thompson that weekend was like the moment in the movie when the mousey librarian lets her hair down and opens her coat and you say, "Hey! That librarian is Rachael Weisz!" (Gratuitous pictures follow to illistrate this transformation.)
Please note, pictures of Rachael Wiesz, not Tony Thompson.
I have no idea how Thompson made the leap that he has, and I have no idea how long he can continue playing at this level, but right now he is the Jayhawks key offensive threat and emerging leader. KU needs this. I knew the 2009 team was going to have trouble scoring runs so the Thompson explosion has been the mosst welcome development of the season. His defensive play at third is now the best I have seen from a Kansas player in the last four years. Thompson’s performance goes a long way in explaining why the Diamond Hawks are exceeding almost everyone’s expectations so far in 2009.