How MLB Develops impacted Thomas' journey to World Series

D-backs outfielder came up in White Sox ACE program, surrounded by star power

October 27th, 2023

ARLINGTON – Major League Baseball’s Develops programs have aimed to grow the game’s future by setting up showcases and tournaments all over the country. Several players who came up through those programs have begun reaching the Majors. One has now made it to the sport’s grandest stage.

Alek Thomas has flourished this postseason, with clutch moments both offensively and defensively that have helped the D-backs surge to their first World Series since 2001. Prior to his October heroics, or even turning professional, he participated in several MLB Develops programs as a youth, including the 2016 Breakthrough Series.

Those events are where the D-backs really took notice of Thomas’ talents before selecting him in the second round of the 2018 MLB Draft out of Mount Carmel High School in Chicago, where he starred as a two-sport athlete and committed to play baseball and football at TCU.

“I think [MLB Develops] definitely helped put my name out there and get people to notice who I was,” Thomas said. “The combine they had was good. Really, it was all about getting in front of scouts and people that have some pull with MLB teams.”

The experience was somewhat of a family affair for Thomas. His father, Allen, has worked as the strength and conditioning coach for nearly all of the MLB Develops initiatives.

Allen was also the White Sox director of conditioning for 17 years through the 2021 season. This afforded Alek an up-close look at big league life, often tagging alongside Dad for work at the ballpark. Alek also took part in the White Sox Amateur City Elite (ACE) program, which has been helping generate interest in baseball among Black youth, while offering resources and mentorship for kids in Chicago since 2007.

“From Harold Baines to Jim Thome to Jermaine Dye, Paul Konerko, all these guys helped Alek,” Allen said. “I like to say he had more than one dad in that clubhouse, and it was all positive guys.”

The White Sox connection sets up an interesting World Series subplot. Back when Alek was a teenager, one of the players he remembers often paying close attention to while hanging around the batting cage was Marcus Semien, now the star second baseman for the opposing Rangers.

“It is kind of funny,” Thomas said. “I grew up watching him hit BP and talking to him when I was a little kid.”

A baseball iron man who just played all 162 regular-season games, Semien credits Allen for shaping his work ethic. Because of that close relationship, Semien vividly recalls a 12-year-old Alek tracking down fly balls in the outfield at then-U.S. Cellular Field.

“I’ve been bragging about him like, ‘Hey, I knew that kid when he was shagging my group’s BP,’” Semien said. “He was working hard then. He has that same beautiful swing he’s always had. I knew he was going to be something special.”

About 10 years later, the two are now squaring off for a championship. But this isn’t the first encounter. The two teams played a series against each other in Phoenix back in August. In one of those games, Thomas flashed his elite defense by robbing Semien of a potential game-tying hit with a spectacular lunging catch in center field.

“He’s going to be a superstar in this league,” Semien said of Thomas. “He had a decision to make coming out of high school whether to go to TCU or pro ball. I’m glad he made the right decision.”

There was a point earlier this year when it seemed like Thomas might not even be part of Arizona’s potential postseason plans. After struggling through the first two months of the season, Thomas was optioned to Triple-A on May 17 and spent a whole month in the Minors.

Through adjustments to his stance that included opening up his feet at the plate to see left-handed pitchers better, Thomas began to get more of a feel for his swing, which helped his power show up more. Those improvements have carried into October, where his four home runs are tied for fourth-most by any player so far in the postseason.

“The biggest difference is his ability to make adjustments quicker,” said D-backs hitting coach Joe Mather. “His ability to think along with the game pitch to pitch is something usually reserved for All-Stars. He’s shown the ability to do it. … He’s learned to control it in some of the biggest situations we’ve had this year.”

While the pressure is about to turn up a notch in the World Series for this young D-backs club, this type of environment will be nothing new for Thomas. Playing for Team Mexico in the World Baseball Classic earlier this year, Thomas was part of a team that, much like this Arizona squad, overcame the odds as an underdog by upsetting heavy favorites en route to a semifinal appearance against eventual champion Japan.

“Playing in that atmosphere and in front of all those fans, you felt the nerves out there,” Thomas said. “Each moment mattered. It definitely prepares you for something like this.”