Last night, Keegan Thompson made his first start of the 2022 season as an actual member of the Cubs rotation and the results were good, all things considered: 5.1 IP, 5H, 3ER, 3BB, 3Ks.
We’ve certainly seen Thompson more dominant than he was yesterday (albeit in shorter burst), but he did set career highs in innings pitched and total pitches (89) and did it all against a very good Cardinals offense (107 wRC+, t-9th best in MLB). And to put an even finer point on the results, one of his earned runs scored after he exited the game … and also after he came a few (foul ball) inches close to 6th inning double play that would’ve saved a run and added a couple outs to his final line. Point being, it almost looked a HECK of a lot better than it did.
“He did a really nice job of giving us a good chance to win,” Cubs Manager David Ross said via Cubs.com. “Whether he ran out of juice there at the end or not, it looked like the ball was still coming out really well. He just lost command there at the end. We tried to push him a little bit longer. But, really nice outing.”
But there were some peculiarities worth discussing, and I think they’re all related. Let’s start with the pitch-mix, which was pretty different than usual. For the season, Thompson has been throwing his curveball 21.5% of the time, but last night he was almost half that mark (12%). And we see similar jumps in the opposite direction for two other pitches.
2022 Season: 6.2%
Last Night: 11%
2022 Season: 2.6%
Last Night: 9%
NOTE: Thompson threw 6 of his 11 total curveballs against his last 6 batters.
So why abandon the curve early for more changeups and sinkers? Well, one theory is pretty straight forward: He was pitching to contact early in the game, because he knew he wanted to make it the longest outing of his career.
Remember, just earlier this week, word came down that Thompson was to officially join the Cubs rotation “for the foreseeable future.” And while he’s always said all the right things about getting outs however he’s used, there’s probably a pretty unavoidable mentality shift there.
And while the curveball has been his best pitch for generating whiffs and putting batters away, whiffs and strikeouts can run up a pitch count pretty quickly. So did it work? Well, last night Thompson netted just 5 (not a lot!) whiffs on 89 pitches, two of which came in that final stretch when he started deploying his curve. It’s not a bad strategy, but it’s only half the story.
So now let’s discuss the velocity.
By my eye, Thompson had some really nice life on his four-seamer yesterday, and he was impressively able to maintain an elevated velocity throughout his start.
Cubs manager David Ross was impressed with how Keegan Thompson held his velocity in his longest outing of the year:
"I don't know what its's like to get on the back side of a start like that. I kept looking at the gun. The stuff looked sharp." pic.twitter.com/FEI7btJvIh
— Jordan Bastian (@MLBastian) June 3, 2022
Take a look at the differences in velocity from last night vs. his time as a starter last season (via PitchInfo):
2021 as SP: 92.5 MPH
Last Night: 94.2 MPH (+1.7 MPH)
2021 as SP: 91.8 MPH
Last Night: 94.4 MPH (+2.6)
2021 as SP: 88.6 MPH
Last Night: 90.6 MPH (+2.0 MPH)
Those are some massive differences.
He may have started losing command near the end of the game, but he was still throwing hard all night. Harder than he was as a starter last season as a starter, when he struggled quite a bit to maintain velocity and effectiveness out of the rotation. Heck, that was a big part of why the Cubs had him in a relief role to begin this season.
And that’s where the cutter and weak contact comes in. Yesterday, the Cardinals were seeing Thompson’s cutter well enough, but they just weren’t doing much with it: 14 swings and only ONE whiff, but an average exit velocity of just 87.7%. And of the 17 total balls put in play last night, only 4 registered above 95 MPH (the hard% threshold). And one of those four had a -5 degree launch angle, meaning it wasn’t anywhere close to being barreled up. So for at least one night, Thompson was something of a (really good!) contact manager.
So how do we synthesize all of this information? I think it probably goes something like this: As a newly minted member of the Cubs starting rotation, Keegan Thompson wanted to last deep into the game last night. So he decided to pitch to contact early using fewer of his out-pitches. However, unlike last season, when he struggled as a starter, Thompson came into this outing with one additional plan: Just empty the tank. Go at the Cardinals right away. Keep his four-seam velocity high, deploy more sinkers, and let them put the cutter in play.
And it worked!
“We joke, like, guys are saying he’s ‘opening’ for five or six innings,” Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “It’s, attack the strike zone and come right at guys earlier with his best stuff, and go as long as he can.”
In the future, Thompson may need to strike a better balance between getting whiffs when he needs them and pitching to contact, but if he’s actually able to maintain these elevated velocities through 5-6 innings and 90+ pitches, he may have found the answer to the issues that stumped as a starter in his debut last season.