This summer, the Virginia Tech baseball program announced not only a new head coach in John Szefc, but also a number of new assistant coaches. One of those coaches is volunteer assistant coach Micheal Thomas.
Thomas was the catcher for the University of Kentucky from 2011-2014. In his senior season, Thomas excelled, hitting .315 with eight home runs and 45 RBIs while leading the Wildcats to the NCAA tournament. Following his career at Kentucky, Thomas was drafted in the 22nd round to the Detroit Tigers organization, where he played for two seasons in the minors.
After retiring from professional baseball, Thomas joined Kentucky’s coaching staff for the 2017 season, helping guide the Wildcats to a Super Regionals appearance. This summer, Szefc announced the addition of Thomas to his staff to primarily work with the catchers.
So how did Szefc even hear about Thomas? Kentucky assistant coach Jim Belanger worked for four years as the pitching coach under Szefc at Maryland. In the 2017 season, Belanger and Thomas quickly formed a bond as a part of Kentucky’s coaching staff. Thomas credits Belanger with helping him connect with Szefc at Virginia Tech.
“We [Kentucky] lost in the Supers to Louisville and Jimmy [Belanger] called Szefc literally on the way home that night,” Thomas said. “It just happened to work out that Szefc was meeting somebody in Waynesboro where I coached this summer. We sat and talked and just kind of went over what I believe in in terms of the catching part of it. For me, the big part of it was how was I going to be able to come in and help with that position? The part that made me feel comfortable was that I didn’t know Szefc if I saw him walking down the street and vice versa. He felt comfortable enough that he could hire me knowing nothing about me previously. I would assume Jimmy probably made a pretty nice phone call for me. I think that the things he wanted, I was capable of giving him in terms of being a catching guy. To come in and just take that on and run away with it. It happened a lot faster than I thought it would. It was literally a three day process.”
During his two seasons in the minors, Thomas quickly learned how baseball didn’t just become your job, but it became the main part of your life. He hopes to apply some of these lessons to the way he coaches, so the players can better understand all that it takes to be an athlete at Virginia Tech.
“It’s a grind,” Thomas said. “In the minor league side of it, it’s 140 games. My first year when I got there, I think I played 95 games after being drafted. I didn’t play in all of them, but you learn how to manage yourself, how to manage your time. You figure out what’s important very quickly. For 18-22 year old kids in college, that’s really a large piece of it. They lack in the area of understanding that everything they do is important, every second of every day is important, so they have to find the best way to utilize it. It’s us [the coaching staff] adapting to a new schedule and helping those guys utilize their time the best.”
After graduating in 2014, Thomas was in the position of the players not too long ago. Now as their coach, he sees it both as a blessing and a curse.
“I think there’s a very fine line between it,” Thomas said. “Between being their coach and being old enough where I can be their friend. That’s a daily challenge. I have to make sure I have the relationship with them that they understand that I know what needs to be done. I love it because four years ago I was still playing, and I didn’t have the easiest path getting there to be the everyday guy. I know what it takes to work day in and day out. That’s the part that I enjoy about it, especially with the catchers.”
As a volunteer assistant coach, Thomas doesn’t receive a salary for his coaching duties. Instead, he earns a large portion of his money through the camps that he runs for the Hokies. However, Thomas likes to think of these camps not just as a way to make some money, but a way to build the program by using it as a recruiting tool.
“It’s solely my responsibility in terms of planning the camps, setting them up, the coordination of the actual day,” Thomas said. “For me, it’s not a money deal. It’s more of how can we best use those camps to help the program? If we’re doing our job, we should make some money off of it, but at the same time we should sign some kids. We did end up getting a couple kids from the first one which was nice. The next one we hope to get a couple more and kind of see where it goes from there. It gives us a chance when we don’t necessarily have the time to go out and watch, those kids can come to us.”
In addition to the camps, Thomas holds a valuable role in the Hokies’ recruiting plan since he is in charge of working with the catchers. Not many baseball programs around the country have one specific coach dedicated to working with the catchers like Virginia Tech has with Thomas. This allows Thomas to make a strong pitch to the catchers that he is recruiting, promising that they’ll get specialized attention that they won’t be able to find elsewhere.
“I think a large part of it lets the kid know when he gets here, it’s not going to be a secondary thought,” Thomas said. “For the parents who are more tuned in to how that works, it makes them feel more comfortable knowing that there’s somebody there who’s solely going to work with their kid.”
Right now, Virginia Tech has five catchers on the roster: senior Joe Freiday, redshirt junior Luke Horanski, sophomores Marcus White and Andrew Webb, and freshman Nolan Wilson. The catchers do work as a group, but Thomas explained how each catcher gets his own individualized plan for the day. Having five catchers also allows Thomas to rotate them in and out during bullpen sessions or practices so no one catcher is taking a beating.
“For instance, Luke Horanski may spend a day when he’s working on his pre-pitch glove movement or lack thereof,” Thomas said. “Joe Freiday might spend that same day where he really needs to hone in on his blocking technique. Maybe with Marcus [White] it might be, ‘Hey, let’s get in a good position where we can throw.’ For me, everybody has their own plan. When we go into our bullpens, what can we do as a group to come out of that with the five guys who catch and feel successful for the day?
“With it being such a physically tasking position, I don’t want those guys to just feel like they’re getting dominated for 45 minutes. I’m more of a quality over quantity type of guy. It’s not a more is more, it’s a less is more type of approach. We’ll work, but I like to make sure that we’re getting the most out of it. Activity doesn’t create development. You’re just moving around. You need to have something attainable, measurable, and go get it.”
In his only year on staff at Kentucky, Thomas saw the Wildcats come together and create a team that competed every day. As a result, Kentucky finished the year ranked No. 9 in the final rankings by Baseball America. Now at Virginia Tech, Thomas wants to be a part of something special again. It’s a task that may take some time, but also one that Thomas can sense with the Hokies.
“If we want to do the things we’ve never done before, we’re going to have to physically train ourselves to do those,” Thomas said. “Every day is a process and a step towards our end goal. It’s going to be awesome when we get to where we want to go, and we feel like we’re progressing and going in the right direction. It’s going to be very satisfying, but at the same time, there’s the next part. As soon as we get there, it keeps going. You have one goal and you have to get to another one.”