By DJ Ramirez | Sports Editor
Andy Thomas oozes confidence. Maybe it comes with his position behind the plate or his status as a fifth-year senior, but the Murrieta, Calif., native has become the de-facto leader and spokesperson of the Baylor baseball team. When he speaks, people are inclined to listen.
He can deliver clutch two-out RBIs, leading the Bears offensively in the category with 42 in the 2021 season. He can bash home runs over the right field wall just when they’re needed, falling just one moonshot shy of freshman outfielder Jared McKenzie’s team-leading seven homers this spring. He can hose runners down from behind home plate, saving 15 bases from being stolen so far this year.
But most importantly, Thomas has the trust of his teammates and, as any catcher is, has been integral in the building and development of the pitching staff under head coach Steve Rodriguez and pitching coach Jon Strauss. But Rome wasn’t built in a day.
“Being a catcher definitely does help,” Thomas said. “You get to see the entire field. You get involved in every play. It’s much easier to be a leader when you’re seeing all that — have that kind of control. The first couple years I was here, it’s always tough to be a young-guy leader. So you kind of got to know your role, take a backseat a little bit and learn from the older dudes who are here. And I had some great mentors. I mean, Richard Cunningham, Matt Menard, Steve McLean, Aaron Dodson and all those guys are just leaders. Nick Lewis was a total leader on the mound my freshman year. Took as much from them as I could, got to the pick their brains, got all the info of how to lead a program at that level. Every year, I feel like my leadership skills grew and grew to where they’re at now, and I think I’m doing the best job I can leading the team currently.”
And while Thomas seems to be a natural leader on and off the field, it’s been a long, winding road to becoming the starting catcher for the Green and Gold.
Andy Thomas credits the trust built up with the pitching staff as part of the reason for its success in recent years.
From Ocean Views to River Views
Thomas had not even made an official visit to Baylor’s campus yet when he decided to commit to its baseball program. He had committed to play for Pepperdine two years prior, in 2014. The coaching staff responsible for recruiting him to the Waves was led by none other than Steve Rodriguez and Jon Strauss.
“It was the end of my junior year, going into my senior year of high school, when they made the decision to come out here [to Baylor]. When I got notification of that, I was a bit confused. I didn’t really know what I was going to do because I really wanted to go to Pepperdine, but more importantly, I wanted to play for [Rodriguez] and Strauss,” Thomas said. “And so I made a few calls to them, and they said ‘You know, we’re not going to’ — they did it the right way — they said ‘We’re not going to have this conversation with you still big committed to Pepperdine, like that’s wrong,’ so I called the then head coach at Pepperdine and said, ‘I really appreciate all that you’ve done for me. I think I’m going to decommit from Pepperdine and explore my options.’ And so I called Coach Strauss back, and we talked about it, and I committed later that week to Baylor. I hadn’t even been out here on an official visit yet, and I committed from what I’d seen. It’s kind of a crazy, crazy journey.”
As the backstop for Murrieta Mesa High School, Thomas was a three-year letterwinner for coach Bryn Wade and earned the 2016 Rawlings High School Gold Glove after his senior season, which saw him throw out 21 of 31 would-be base stealers. Thomas also earned a 2016 Perfect Game Honorable Mention All-American and a second-team All-California region selection. He finished his high school career with a .336 batting average, 46 runs, 87 hits, 42 RBI, 20 doubles, four triples and six homers over 88 games with the Rams.
It would have been easy for Thomas to stay in California and get a chance to start right away, but his interactions with Rodriguez and Strauss through the recruiting process stuck with him in making his decision to commit to Baylor as part of their first recruiting class in Waco.
“When I got recruited at Pepperdine, it wasn’t like they came out and saw me one time,” Thomas said. “There was 30, 40, 50 times of just constantly, them coming out and looking at me. So I really appreciated that. I liked how it wasn’t like I said just, it was a one time play and a couple of balls get out and we’re gonna offer you because they’ve seen me catch and succeed and fail, multiple, multiple times.”
I’ll Back You Up, Brother
Thomas, Rodriguez and Strauss knew Baylor already had an incoming catcher who’d been recruited by the previous coaching staff and who’d decided to remain despite the coaching change. They knew he was talented but perhaps didn’t know just how talented.
“At that time, we didn’t know a lot about Shea Langeliers,” Strauss said. “And Andy, I’ve said for years, would start on any other team in this conference. He just happened to be behind the best catcher in the country. And now that Shea’s gone, he has the opportunity to go back there, and we haven’t missed a beat.”
Shea Langeliers came to Baylor as a three-year letterwinner at Keller High School in the Dallas area. Although he opted out of the 2016 MLB Draft to join the Bears, the Toronto Blue Jays selected him as a courtesy pick in the 34th round. He was a defensive district MVP as a senior, a 2016 first-team all-state selection and played for three different major league scout teams in the summer of 2015. Even though the competition was fierce, it became pretty evident Langeliers would earn the starting catching spot on Baylor’s 2017 squad.
“Honestly, when I committed, I was told that there was a catcher. But I wasn’t told how good he was. And I committed, just coming in thinking, ‘I’m going to work my butt off’ and it was never ‘Oh, you’re coming in here as the backup,’ you know what I mean,” Thomas said. “It wasn’t like that, and I think even through the fall of our years here, we would always compete really heavy behind the plate. And I think we pushed each other and made each other better. So I’m really glad that I made a decision to come here. I think it helps me, not only me, but it also helps him. So that competition really drove both of us to be a better catcher. Me and Shea are best friends. We love each other, and it’s a really good relationship. We’re boys… He’s a laid back dude. I’m not so laid back. So we just meshed really well.”
The two catcher’s met their first day on campus while completing their bloodwork before joining the team that fall and became best friends. They built a bond on and off the field and were roommates during road trips for three years, hanging out and staying up a little too late watching “Survivor,” according to Langeliers.
“He’s a great guy,” Langeliers said of Thomas. “He always has a bunch of energy, he’s always fired up about something and he always has a joke to tell. When you’re in a bad mood, it’s hard to stay in a bad mood because he always knows how to make people laugh and change the morale around the clubhouse.”
Shea Langeliers speaks about Andy Thomas’ leadership and how it helps the team.
While Langeliers took care of business behind the plate, Thomas found other ways to contribute to the team. As a freshman in 2017, he played 14 games either at first base or as a pinch hitter, making four starts at catcher, and finished the year hitting .450 with seven runs on nine hits over 20 at-bats, which included one home run, one double and two triples.
He took over the starting first baseman position as a sophomore and hit .324 over 58 games, roping in 34 RBI, one home run, 10 doubles and 35 runs on 70 hits. He also finished the 2018 season with a .989 fielding percentage and helped lead the Bears to their first Big 12 Tournament title.
As a junior in 2019, Thomas missed the first few weeks of the season due to illness, giving up the spot at first base to fellow Californian Chase Wehsener, and returned to the lineup as the designated hitter. It was one of his best years offensively, as he finished the season with a .335 average over 47 games, leading the Big 12 with 22 doubles while also smashing four homers and 32 RBI, scoring 31 runs on 62 hits.
“I knew, everyone knew, I wasn’t going to be a Gold Glove first baseman, but as long as I could make some plays and give us a chance to win over there and still be able to hit, that would be good. So I worked my butt off my sophomore year. I’d never played first in my life before. Just work, work, work and got it done,” Thomas said. “And in my junior year, I probably would have started at first base, but I got mono two days before season. Gave a couple of guys opportunities over at first, and Chase took that opportunity and ran with it. Good for him. He’s still over there now.
“So when I came back, I think the only role for me was really the DH, and I tried to embrace that the best I could. That’s a tough role as you don’t have any defense to take your mind off the offensive at-bat, so you really have to go out more mentally prepared than a position on the field. I would say, being able to play any position just came from my childhood and honestly if you want it bad enough, you want to be in the lineup bad enough, you’ll do whatever it takes to get out. And that’s kind of what I’ve done.”
After Langeliers was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the first round of the 2019 MLB Draft, Thomas didn’t miss a beat taking over behind the plate. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic derailed his true senior season in 2020, but thanks to the NCAA awarding all spring athletes affected by the cancellation an extra year of eligibility, Thomas returned to Baylor for a fifth-year. His leadership has been essential on a team comprised of 20 true freshmen.
The Bears lead the Big 12 in batting average (.298) and are second in ERA (3.53) 36 games into the season. According to several of the veteran pitchers, Thomas has been a big part of that.
“I wish I could say it’s all me, I don’t care who’s back there at back stop, I’ll be able to do the same job, but that is not true,” senior closer Luke Boyd said. “It’s nice knowing that he, in big games, has played all nine innings before — or eight innings before — and I’m coming in for the first time, but he’s been behind the plate that whole game. Seeing him calm and trusting me, it’s very easy to trust him.”
Andy Thomas reminisces on his favorite memories during his first four years at Baylor.
“Andy is one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever talked to when it comes to baseball or, honestly, really anything,” Langeliers said. “Any information out there, you could talk to him.”
Baylor baseball has always taken pride in motivating its athletes to do just as well in the classroom as they do on the field. Thomas has taken full advantage of that. He’s been on the Academic All-Big 12 team each of his years at Baylor and earned an undergraduate degree in marketing. He’s currently working on getting his MBA.
Newly engaged to his long-time girlfriend Jacey Edwards, Thomas, like any other athlete, hopes to play the game he loves for as long as he can. But he also has plans to work on a law degree if his tenure as a ballplayer comes to an end, aiming at a career in sports as an attorney or an agent if he doesn’t go into coaching.
“I think what this pandemic has taught me a lot is things change, and you have to be ready for it,” Thomas said. “So, I think in the back of my mind, I’m kind of hesitant you know, just always like, ‘if this happens, let’s just roll with the punches,’ that deal. So I think, like I said this last year has really taught me to roll with the punches a lot better than I used to be able to.”