The next Frank Thomas? Why new Ole Miss signee Tywone Malone might be blazing his own trail
You don’t have to look very far to see Tywone Malone mentioned in the same breath as Frank Thomas.
It’s the most natural comparison to make for Ole Miss’ newest football/baseball signee. You’ll hear it from observers who see him play at national baseball tournaments, writers who watch his highlights and even the middle-aged SEC fans who have clear memories of watching Thomas, AKA “The Big Hurt,” become a legendary hitter at Auburn and ultimately a Hall of Fame first baseman.
It’s the massive size and power to all fields. It’s the smooth swing from the right side of the plate. It’s the athleticism and coordination that Ole Miss defensive coordinator Chris Partridge compared to “a dancing bear.”
Malone signed his National Letter of Intent with Ole Miss on Wednesday, setting forth on a path that new teammates John Rhys Plumlee (QB/OF) and Jerrion Ealy (RB/OF) already set out on. That’s a major reason Malone agreed to leave the East Coast for Oxford. Granted, Plumlee and Ealy weren’t 6-4, 300-pound defensive tackles like Malone, who play first base. Hence, the Thomas comps.
After all, Thomas went to Auburn on a football scholarship to stick his hand in the dirt and bully people at the line of scrimmage in the fall and then rake against SEC pitching in the spring. That’s what Malone signed up to do at Ole Miss (every school with a hat on the table at his announcement said they wanted him for both sports).
But eventually when the social media rabbit hole of watching Malone’s athletic feats concludes — it takes at least a half-hour — perhaps it’s worth asking the question.
Are the Thomas comps fair? Or is this something new?
“Frank Thomas comparisons always kind of scare me once people start throwing those around,” Baseball America writer Teddy Cahill told SDS. “That’s one of the best power hitters of his generation … that said, I see where it’s coming from in terms of his body size and what kind of hitter he is.
“I’ve had some scouts tell me (Malone) is the biggest baseball player they’ve ever scouted. You don’t see players like that.”
Wow. Some early fireworks here at @NYBCbaseball.
Tywone Malone Jr. DESTROYS that opposite-field homer. pic.twitter.com/mugUrpUdk6
— CBS Sports Network (@CBSSportsNet) July 26, 2018
That’s partially why Malone might already be on a different path than Thomas. Heading into his freshman year, Malone is at 300 pounds, which is approximately 50-60 pounds more than Thomas was at Auburn in the late 1980s.
There’s also the fact that Thomas accepted a football scholarship but injuries in his first year at Auburn prevented him from ever really living out that 2-sport dream. That’s why he made the full-time switch to baseball instead of trying to become the next Bo Jackson on the Plains.
Given those 2 details and the fact that as Cahill said, “(Malone) isn’t just a guy that’s talking about being a 2-sport athlete and he’s very much serious about it,” there’s another question worth asking.
Can you think of another comp for Malone?
“I can’t,” Cahill said. “And that’s part of the fascination I have with Malone. It’s so different.”
Cahill’s fascination with Malone began last summer when he started seeing videos of him clearing 405-foot fences with ease at national tournaments:
4-star football recruit Tywone Malone is the next Frank Thomas 😱 pic.twitter.com/ryh8FICbw0
— Athlete Swag (@AthleteSwag) July 9, 2020
Malone spent his summer playing baseball for DBacks Elite, which is a travel team based out of Dearborn Heights, Michigan. It was even better than the competition he saw at Bergen Catholic (NJ), which he could only attend if he woke up at 5:20 a.m. and drove 70 miles every day. Consider that a reason Malone isn’t likely to fall into the group of guys like Feleipe Franks and D.J. Uiagalelei who discussed the idea of playing baseball in the recruiting process but never went through with it.
By virtue of going to college to play both sports, Cahill doesn’t suspect that Ole Miss football/baseball is going to have to sweat out an MLB Draft decision from Malone like it did with Ealy. Baseball America doesn’t have an official projection on Malone because he’s outside the latest top prospect rankings, and with the number of draft rounds uncertain, Cahill said it’s hard to put a real number on him. Part of that is because Malone didn’t come from a baseball hotbed in New Jersey — though that was the knock on New Jersey native Mike Trout as a prospect — so even with the national competition he saw over the summer, he still has to show scouts he can hit next-level breaking balls and velocity.
“It’s a big jump from New Jersey high school baseball to the SEC, but I’d be fascinated to see how he does it,” Cahill said. “You can’t bet against anyone with that kind of athleticism and that kind of power.”
If there’s another holdup with MLB scouts, it’s just the simple unknown of how his frame will hold up at the next level.
“There’s Prince Fielder and Prince’s father (Cecil). But in terms of hitters, I don’t know precisely how many of them are running around at 6-4, 300 pounds,” Cahill said, “but it’s not many.”
The Fielders and Thomas all topped out at roughly 275 pounds by the end of their careers. And of course, none of them spent a solid chunk of the year trying to become an elite SEC defensive tackle. That, by the way, was the thing that helped make Malone the No. 1 football recruit in New Jersey and the No. 62 recruit nationally. He’s the highest-rated signee of the Lane Kiffin era.
Malone does all the things you’d want from a freakish defensive tackle. He has an 80-inch wingspan to get off blocks and stop the run. He has the ability to bull-rush and get to the quarterback. He has the hands to haul in a tipped screen pass and take it back for 6.
Oh, and if Kiffin wants to really shake things up, well, let’s just say fun things happen when you split Malone out wide and give him a jump ball 35 yards down the sideline.
Me: I think I’ll watch some highlights of 6-4 300lb DT Tywone Malone.
— Tony Gerdeman (@TonyGerdeman) May 23, 2020
Those skills on the football field make it unlikely that Malone will follow the path of a Cord Sandberg or a Chris Weinke, both of whom played Minor League Baseball out of high school and then returned to play college football several years later (Weinke spent a few days on Florida State’s campus before making that move).
There’s a scenario in which Malone could follow the path of former Ole Miss receiver A.J. Brown. As a high school senior, Brown was drafted in the 19th round by the San Diego Padres. He signed the contract, which meant he was ineligible to play baseball at Ole Miss, but because the professional contract wasn’t in the same sport, he was still allowed to play football without violating any NCAA rules.
Fortunately for Kiffin and Co., Malone choosing that path wouldn’t impact his football eligibility. Fortunately for Ole Miss baseball coach Mike Bianco, all signs to Malone being devoted to both sports. That’s why they worked together and had Zoom calls with Malone that had as many as 28 people on.
Ole Miss went all in to land Malone. The proof of concept with Ealy and Plumlee surely gave Malone some assurance that he could manage his time successfully and that he wouldn’t be part of a tug-of-war between the baseball and football programs.
If Malone pulls off 2-sport stardom, he’ll have already accomplished something that Thomas didn’t. Though obviously if those comps to Thomas continued deeper into his baseball career, that’d be a good sign for Malone. And if he also continues to get compared to Hall of Fame defensive lineman Bruce Smith deeper into his football career, well, that 2-sport stardom dream will be a reality.
If that happens, it won’t look like Bo Jackson, Kyler Murray, Deion Sanders, Jameis Winston or any other baseball-football phenom. None of those guys ran around at 6-4, 300 pounds. Malone is different. So different.
Let the fascination begin.