Keegan Thompson and Justin Steele are two very different pitchers. They were drafted at different times (2017 out of college vs. 2014 out of high school), rely on different out-pitches (cutter vs. slider), have different responsibilities (reliever vs. starter), and pitch from opposite sides of the mound (righty vs. lefty).
But despite all that, I often lump Thompson and Steele together analytically (and emotionally), because these two homegrown Cubs arms are only four months apart in age and reached Double-A (2018), Triple-A (2021), and MLB (2021) at the exact same time — each with aspirations of joining the Cubs starting rotation long term. I think a lot of us group them together.
That’s kinda why I almost felt bad when camp broke earlier this month with Steele in the rotation behind Kyle Hendricks, and Thompson left behind to fight for scraps in the bullpen. It felt like the Cubs were “picking” Steele “over” Thompson, anointing one and shunning the other, and, well, I just felt bad for Thompson – and perhaps I was unknowingly less confident in him.
Well not only was I wrong about what that decision meant about Thompson’s regular season performance (he’s been a stud), my perspective on his role was completely out of whack. After a dominant performance last night (3.2 IP, 1H, 1BB, 5Ks, 0ER), Thompson is basically getting a starter’s share of innings for the Cubs this season. This was clearly all by design, right from the jump: Thompson was always going to get a BIG opportunity.
And he’s doing a lot with that opportunity:
Compared to the Cubs’ other four starting pitchers, Thompson is …
• Tied for 2nd in innigs (9.2 IP)
• Tied for 1st in earned runs (0.00 ERA)
• 1st in hits allowed (4H)
• 2nd in walks (2BBs)
• 2nd in strikeouts (10Ks)
In other words, you could make the case that Thompson has been the Cubs’ most valuable pitcher – full stop – through the first ten games of the season. Whatever “role” you assigned to him.
Last night’s effort was just the latest impressive example:
That was Thompson’s third appearance of the year, each of which has gone at least 2.2 innings. And the most impressive part is that he’s being deployed in double duty. Sure, David Ross and the Cubs are happy to see him cover multiple innings and preserve the bullpen for other spots (and for the long season, in general), but he’s also being used to get out of dirty innings like a traditional one-out/inning reliever, as well.
Last night, for example, Thompson came in with runners on 1st and third and one out, before getting a quick inning-ending double-play (1 pitch). Four days earlier, he came up with the bases loaded in Colorado and got a lineout to end the inning (3 pitches). And five days before that, the Cubs called on him to take the top of the Brewers lineup in the 6th and he struck out two, walked one, and escaped without any damage.
The thing is that, each time he did the traditional reliever thing, the Cubs also asked him to, just, you know … keep going. And he did! Extremely well!
“There’s a lot to like about him."
David Ross on Keegan Thompson and his scoreless outing. pic.twitter.com/MWvRpMGuwV
— Marquee Sports Network (@WatchMarquee) April 19, 2022
We’ve seen relievers dominate in roles like this before (Andrew Miller is arguably the guy who popularized it six+ years back, and the Brewers have frequently succeeded down a similar path with multiple arms), but it’s very rare and difficult to pull off. And the allure of just moving any pitcher who has that kind of success into the rotation is ever present. And I know that’s what you’re probably wondering right now: If he’s pitching so well over longer stretches – and the Cubs don’t have a fifth starter right now – why not just move him into the rotation?
My answer? Yeah. Maybe. Maybe even this season. But remember, the Cubs are not using him as some, swing-man, mop-up guy. So it’s not like his innings are meaningless (and we’ve already established that he’s getting a TON of opportunities). So while his greatest potential may yet lie in the rotation, it’s important to remember that he’s already providing a ton of value in his current role.
“I have a little more experience and having some of that under my belt, yes, it does give you a lot more confidence,” Thompson said. “And when you’re throwing well, you have a lot of confidence as well. So I’m excited to get back on the mound between each pitch.”
And let’s not forget that the Cubs have tried him out as a starter before, with a lot less success. He’d hardly be the only guy who’s had more success in shorter bursts, but he might hit that sweet spot where he doesn’t need to be ONLY a one-inning reliever to maximize his stuff.
For example, in his last five starts of the year last season (12.2 IP), PitchInfo had Thompson’s four-seamer clocked at 92.5 MPH and his cutter at 88.6 MPH. This season, in his 9.2 innings as a reliever, those numbers are 94.1 MPH and 90.1 MPH. Possible point being? When he knows he doesn’t have to go quite as long and/or face the same guys a third time through the order, Thompson can let it fly a bit more, and that appears to make an enormous difference in his results. So why force him into a role that doesn’t quite get the best out of him *and* removes some of the flexibility to deploy him at will (dirty innings, short outings from the starter, whatever you want)? Yes, maybe eventually you have that conversation again. But for now, Thompson has been stellar in the role to which he’s been entrusted.