By Brandon Warne
Aaron Thompson marches to the beat of his own drum. That probably isn’t a shock to many, as he falls under a number of subsets that we’ve grown accustomed to seeing oddities from. Bert Blyleven will frequently suggest pitchers are a different sort on Twins telecasts, but beyond that Thompson is also a reliever as well as left handed — two things that push him further down the oddball spectrum in baseball circles.
Twins general manager Terry Ryan — a fellow former left-handed pitcher in his own right — said as much in a pregame chat with the media earlier this month. “He’s a unique personality, I can tell you that,” Ryan said. “He’s a little different egg, in a good way. He’s just a good fella. He’s a good worker and a good teammate. He’s left-handed, too, don’t ever forget that.” Ryan also hinted in a later chat that Thompson is one of the more heady players on the team, and opined that if he wanted a future in coaching, that it’d probably be there for the taking for him in the future. More on that later.
Thompson also has a pretty good left-handed confidant out there in the bullpen in coach Eddie Guardado. Guardado was the first name off Torii Hunter’s lips in a recent chat with Cold Omaha on what the difference was between this year’s team and last year’s. “Guardado is huge,” Hunter remarked. “A lot of guys go to them and ask him questions and he gives it to them. I think he’s probably one of the biggest parts of that bullpen down there; he gives them that bulldog mentality.” It’s not just bark, but also bite for Guardado, even at age 44. When diminutive utility man Eduardo Escobar got a little lippy before Wednesday’s series finale against the Red Sox, the former closer — with the aid of catcher Kurt Suzuki — gave the infielder turned outfielder a bit of a beatdown. All in good fun of course, but it simply feeds the notion that this is part of what has contributed to a much looser and carefree clubhouse atmosphere so far this season. Winning also helps.
And the funny thing is that as loose as the roster is, it’s one Thompson nearly didn’t make. In fact, he didn’t, but once rosters were set and he was on his way to Rochester, word of the Ervin Santana suspension came down and suddenly Thompson was a lefty in luck.
Thompson surely hasn’t been used like a 25th man, however. Only Seth Maness of the Cardinals and Jeremy Jeffress of the Brewers have appeared in more games than Thompson coming into Thursday’s action. He’s not really being used as a LOOGY — lefty one-out guy — either, as he has more appearances recording four or more outs (eight) than he does recording one or zero outs (six). The splits back it up, too, as he’s faced 56 right-handed hitters and 39 lefties.
To Thompson’s credit, he doesn’t do too much differently against righties or lefties either, with one interesting exception. He scorns the changeup against left-handed hitters as most pitchers will to same-side hitters — “I don’t use a lot of changeups and stuff to lefties. It’s a real specific thing. You think lefties like it down and in, and you throw a pitch if they’re out in front of and fooled, it’s still down and in. Bad news.” — but the real interesting thing he does is that he moves on the rubber based on the handedness of the hitter he’s about to face. The reasoning is simple, but intuitive: “That’s the way I practice is to execute angles and things that have worked for me. I don’t move pitch to pitch, just batter to batter. It’s really not like a trick.”
One should note that Thompson has, despite his usage, nuked lefties (.121/.205/.152) and has been somewhat pedestrian against righties (.308/.339/.423). He also hasn’t been used for a full inning in his last eight appearances as well, so perhaps his role is and will continue evolving. And maybe that’s more about his teammates — the continued excellence of Blaine Boyer for instance — than it is him. It’s hard to say.
So where did Thompson come from? It might surprise you that 10 years ago, Thompson was a first-round pick (22nd overall) of the Florida Marlins. In fact, Thompson was one of five first-round picks — including the supplemental round — for the Marlins that year, along with Chris Volstad (No. 16), Jacob Marceaux (No. 29), Ryan Tucker (No. 34) and Sean West (No. 44). For comparison’s sake, the Twins nabbed Matt Garza (No. 25) and a hulking slugger named Hank Sanchez (No. 39) who barely made it out of Rookie League that year. Current Twin Mike Pelfrey was the No. 9 pick in that draft as well. Only Marceaux never made the big leagues of those five picks for the Marlins, and the sheer number of picks came thanks to losing Armando Benitez and Carl Pavano in free agency the previous winter.
Thompson is the last one still kicking around in the big leagues, with Volstad still active in Triple-A with the Pirates (3-1, 3.60 ERA, 5.6 K/9, 1.42 WHIP). It wasn’t always an easy road for Thompson either; in fact, it’s really never been easy for him. It seems sort of crazy to think about it, but this free spirit of sorts was caught being a yes man for a very long time before things clicked.
Thompson remembers the day when the light flipped on, and he decided he was just fed up and was going to start doing things differently. “You all remember Logan Darnell, right?” Thompson said of his former teammate and current 40-man lefty down at Rochester. “I was in Double-A in 2012 with him and I was still starting. And it was like the fourth or fifth start in a row where it was in the sixth inning, and I had given up a run or two with two outs and two guys on and we’re up one or two — basically a pitch away from having a quality, good outing — and I give up a homer. I remember sitting in the shower with Logan, saying, ‘I don’t know if I want to cry or quit, but something’s gonna effin’ change.’ At that moment, I was just like, ‘It doesn’t have to be like that.’ Why did I feel like I had failed? Because we lost. If we won the game and I gave up nine runs, I don’t care because the team won. In the end, that’s really all that matters.'”
The story checks out, and seems to correspond with a time around late July in that season where he allowed five or more earned runs three times in a five-start span. Interestingly, with his season ERA at 5.74 at that point, the Rock Cats shifted him to the bullpen the rest of the way, and he closed out the season with a 2.19 ERA and an opponents’ batting line of .277/.320/.362. That seems like a heck of a place to start out from.
But to fully grasp Thompson’s struggles is to see that he was a former first rounder being moved to the pen, and that was hardly the biggest of his issues. That was the fifth season Thompson has spent time at Double-A, and looking back it’s a level that didn’t treat him very well: 18-46, 4.95 ERA, 5.8 K/9 and a 1.54 WHIP. None of that resembles the look of a future big leaguer, let alone someone who has pitched in what BaseballReference.com terms ‘high pressure situations’ in 14 of his 24 appearances so far this season.
Thompson’s struggles at Double-A go back to him being a yes man, and they have to do with his repertoire. No pitcher who has thrown 20 or more innings this year relies on their slider more than Thompson, who has thrown it 50.9 percent of the time via PITCHf/x. It’s been a very good pitch for Thompson in a couple respects, as it has induced a solid whiff rate of 17.9 percent, while opponents are hitting just .200/.255/.340 against it.
It’s a pitch that was taught to him by current Marlins bullpen coach Reid Cornelius; it’s also a pitch that his next organization took away. “It was a cutter when I learned it,” Thompson said, reflecting on how different speeds on the pitch reflect different breaks, and throwing it slower like he has in 2015 can give it added depth. That typically reflects in it being termed a slider (slower, longer sweeping break) as opposed to a cutter (firmer, less break and depth at the plate). “I call it a cutter because of the mentality of it. It’s as though you’re throwing a fastball — an aggressive pitch. When I think slider, that’s like deception. I think of it as a cutter, though, a fastball that moves.” Thompson said he’s thrown it at times between 87-89 mph — “faster than my four-seamer” — and then it’s a true cutter, but in an effort to miss more bats, he’ll slow it down to get more movement, though he relies heavily on what Suzuki has to say on a day-to-day, or perhaps pitch-by-pitch basis.
Thompson found himself with the Nationals in 2009, traded straight up for OBP machine Nick Johnson at the trade deadline that season. And in the lefty’s mind, that’s sort of where the trouble started. “They didn’t want me to throw it,” Thompson said of the cutter/slider hybrid. “So I was trying to please them. I had something I knew worked for me and threw it in the trash for two years. With the Pirates (two years later), I didn’t even bring it back. Then it’s funny, because the Pirates DFA’d me and put me in the bullpen in Double-A in my fourth or fifth year in Double-A. So I said, ‘Screw this. I’m going to throw that pitch again.’ I remember, I was good when I did that. It was funny, because I was in the big leagues a month and a half later. I’m not saying I said, ‘Screw them.’ I said no, they told me to believe in myself, and that’s really all I’m going to do. It’s funny how, there’s obviously been some downs since then, too, but none of it had to do with the pitch.”
Speaking of ups and downs, it’s sort of ironic that Thompson’s first big break with the Twins came due to a suspension; it’s also how his time started with the team. Thompson was dinged 50 games at the beginning of the 2012 season for recreational drug use, and that makes for sort of an interesting parallel on each side of his Twins stint. The Twins stood by him — water under the bridge according to Ryan — and it’s paying dividends thus far, even if it’s been probably a longer play than either side anticipated.
But even with the various struggles, Thompson said all he wants to do on the mound is compete. It wasn’t always that easy, either. “I think for a long time in my career I tried to pitch to what would appease a coach or a front office, and the funny thing is if you get the guy out, everybody is happy,” Thompson said. “I was a yes man for a long time, I think finally it got to a point where if I could just compete out there, everybody could at least appreciate that. It’s the guys who don’t appear to be competing that guys get fed up with. I think for a while I might have looked that way in my past, but that wasn’t the case. I just didn’t really know how to compete. I had to learn how to do that, I guess, at a higher level.”
In a way it’s sort of funny that a guy who can be known to skateboard to the ballpark could ever be a yes man, but Thompson’s personal evolution has been anything but conventional.