By Joe Scalzo
On his second day as a South Korean baseball player, Justin Thomas met with the media, where he was asked, “What pitches do you throw?”
“So I told them and after that, I asked them if there were any special pitches I needed to learn so that I can get the Korean hitters out,” he said via email. “And of course it went over their heads.”
That’s when he was reminded of something he learned while playing in Japan last summer: his skills translate better than his sense of humor.
“I guess, just like Japan, sarcasm doesn’t really play here,” he said.
Thomas, a former Youngstown State standout, signed with the KIA Tigers of the Korean Baseball Organization. The Tigers are like the Yankees of the KBO, having won 10 national titles since 1982, most recently in 2009.
After finishing last season playing in Japan’s major leagues, Thomas signed as a free agent with the Los Angeles Angels’ Triple-A team, the Salt Lake Bees. He started 20 games this season, going 4-8 with a 5.99 ERA in 1122/3 innings.
“Pitching in Salt Lake is not that easy of a task, to be honest,” said Thomas, who gave up 21 home runs with the Bees. “The wind blows out and the ball carries due to the high elevation. I had some really good games this year, but was just hurt by giving up a lot of home runs.
“A lot of them were legit but there was the handful or so of wind blown ones that really hurt my numbers. Albuquerque, Reno, Vegas and Colorado Springs also play pretty hitter-friendly, too, so pitching in those places don’t really help your numbers much either.
“It’s common knowledge around baseball that the PCL is a pretty hitter-friendly league but with that said I still didn’t pitch up to my personal standards.”
Thomas had an Asian buyout in his contract, meaning if he got an offer from an Asian team, the Angels had 48 hours to promote him or would have to sell his rights to an Asian team. A Korean scout watched one of his games in Salt Lake, where he pitched well.
“They knew I was interested in returning to Asia so they talked to my agent to see if I would be available,” Thomas said. “Honestly, I didn’t think there would be much interest [from an Asian team] considering my numbers were not that good this year. I had no pitched extremely bad, but my numbers were not very good.”
Thomas’ numbers in Japan weren’t that good, either — he went 0-2 with an 8.71 ERA in three games with the Nippon Ham Fighters last summer — but he’s had success elsewhere in his career, pitching in 31 major league games from 2008-12 with the Mariners, Pirates, Red Sox and Yankees.
On Sunday, Thomas will make his first start with the Tigers. His wife, Theresa, and 21/2-year-old daughter, Ella, will arrive on Aug. 8. He hasn’t exactly immersed himself in the culture yet — he ate at Outback Steakhouse twice in his first three days and ordered room service a few other times — but he’s already noticed a difference between Korea and Japan.
“So far it seems that Korea is more Westernized than Japan was,” he said. “Lots of American chain restaurants and it seems that more people speak English as well.”
He’s also noticed something else — Korean games last even longer than a Red Sox-Yankees game on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball. He watched his first game on Monday and it lasted longer just under four hours.
“From what everyone has told me the strike zone is very small which seems to make the games long,” he said.
That should make for a fun adjustment for Thomas.
(He wrote, sarcastically.)