Why couldn’t Jacob Thompson strike anyone out?
Jake Thompson was the Rays’ second round pick out Evan Longoria‘s alma mater, Long Beach State. He was a very inconsistent performer in college, but stuff looked to be there. 6’3″, 225, Thompson throws in the 92-94 MPH with his fastball and can ratchet it up as high as 97 MPH. He also throws a two-seamer with nice sink in the low-90′s. He throws a sharp slider that hits as high as the high-80′s and can be a great swing-and-miss pitch and he continues to work on his changeup. With that arsenal, Thompson sounds like a power pitcher. In 2011, his first full season in the minor leagues, he was anything but.
Pitching for the High-A Charlotte Stone Crabs, Thompson went 5-7 with a 2.90 ERA in 2011 in 22 starts and 114.2 IP. His walk rate was a nice 2.9 per 9 innings and he allowed just a 0.3 HR/9. But the strikeouts simply weren’t there- he struck out just 4.4 per 9. The ERA was nice and shiny. But his FIP was 3.72 and his SIERA was just 5.00 (according to Minor League Central). There was more concern for the Rays regarding Thompson than hope. His repertoire didn’t change. But why couldn’t he miss any bats?
In 2012 with the Double-A Montgomery Biscuits, Thompson has performed worse, going 6-6 with just a 4.96 ERA in 16 starts and 81.2 IP. But the interesting thing is that his peripherals have completely changed. He has struck out a solid 7.3 batters per 9 innings, his walk rate has jumped to 4.2 per 9, and his HR/9 has doubled to 0.6. Thompson’s ERA went up more than 2 runs. His FIP got higher to, going to 3.81. His SIERA did improve to 4.52, but that’s no number to celebrate. But while his performance continues to baffle observers, Thompson has made a key realization.
Thompson’s four-seam fastball features some sink and run away from right-handed batters. It never had much movement and Thompson was fine with that. He used the lack of movement to make it easier to control, and he also kept its velocity more around 92-93 MPH for the same purpose. He put the ball where he wanted it most of the time and forced weak contact. But that doesn’t cut it. Thompson’s command isn’t elite. He isn’t some Greg Maddux who can have no velocity left in his arm yet locate the ball down in the zone and continue to pitch well. The lack of movement helped him get the ball in a general area of the zone and throw strikes. However, he missed up in the zone too much and he had a much higher margin of error against High-A hitters compared with hitters at higher levels, let alone the big leagues. In 2012, Thompson realized that if he wanted to succeed long-term he was going to have to be the power pitcher the Rays thought they were drafting.
For most pitchers, if they reach back for more velocity on their fastballs, they will get straighter and have less movement. That was never the case with Thompson. His fastball from 94-97 MPH featured sharp late bite down and away from right-handed hitters. The problem was that he couldn’t control it nearly as well as he could at lower velocities. But while Thompson could control where the ball was going, he had no control over the results. He was trying to make his pitches, but most of the time the hitter was going to put the ball in play and Thompson was going to have to see what would happen. Thompson had lost something. You don’t let hitters dictate what happens. Good pitchers control at-bats. With the game on the line, you don’t want to be staring into the outfield hoping that the flyball is caught. You give the hitter everything you have, and you take all the external factors away. It’s you versus the hitter and as the ball comes out of your hand, no one else matters.
Thompson has a ton of work to do. He has to start over working on his fastball control and command as he throws with more velocity increasingly often. But he’s not holding back anymore. Whether he succeeds or fails, he knows that he’s putting it all on the line.