July 26, 2016
ALLENTOWN – After his 20th start of the 2016 season was postponed by rain, Jake Thompson grabbed a ball and jogged out to shallow left field to play catch.
Most of his teammates had already high-tailed it out of Coca-Cola Park, where teeming rain storms wrecked havoc on the grounds throughout the afternoon and evening. Thompson wanted to keep his arm in motion.
The 22-year-old Texan has been in a groove for the last two months and it’s clear he’d like to stay in it just as much as he’d like to stick with the same organization when the end of July arrives next week.
“Hopefully, I’m not traded again,” Thompson said with a small grin. “It would be three deadlines in a row. But it feels good not to be going anywhere.”
The truth, though, is Thompson, acquired from the Texas Rangers in the package of prospects the Phillies received for Cole Hamels last year, and acquired by Texas from Detroit in a deal for veteran reliever Joakim Soria a year earlier, could certainly be going somewhere in the next week.
Jeremy Hellickson threw six shutout innings on Monday night in Miami, lowering his ERA to 3.65 on the season; only 38 qualified big league starters have a lower ERA this season.
Hellickson, a free agent at the end of the season and one that will surely seek a multi-year deal, has a 2.20 ERA in his last seven starts with an opponents slash line of .199/.225/.319. No, he will not be the hired ace a contending team salvages their top prospect for in the next week, but he will certainly be a very useful rotation piece for one of the many teams in search of pitching upgrades, and the simple state of supply and demand would lead you to believe the Phillies will receive a decent prospect (or two) in return.
Which leads back to Thompson, who just so happened to be scheduled to pitch in each of the same days Hellickson has since both the Phillies and ‘Pigs returned from their respective All-Star breaks.
“I think it was just a coincidence,” Thompson said.
You can chuckle, but that might actually be what Thompson truly believes. Or it’s at least the best way for him to discard all of the rumors that he’s a part of once again (although unlike the last two years, his change of uniform would be a welcome one for himself).
“I’m worried about my next outing here,” Thompson said. “I live by the pitch-where-your-feet-are-at method. So I got to get them out in my next start tomorrow here.”
Thompson is on tap to start the first game of a doubleheader (6:05 p.m.) in Allentown against Syracuse tonight. The fact that the trade deadline arrives in six days – and everyone from his friends, family, and meddling media members ask him about it – isn’t a distraction for the rising right-hander.
“For me, it isn’t,” said Thompson, the Phillies top pitching prospect. “If I take my focus away from my pitching and think about what could or couldn’t happen I don’t think my performance would be there. So I’m just trying to stay on track.”
Said Lehigh Valley manager Dave Brundage: “He’s certainly doing the right things and saying the right things with his actions.”
It’s difficult to imagine there’s a pitcher in any league – the International League, the Eastern League, the Florida State League, MLB’s National League – who has had as much success as Thompson in the last seven weeks.
Thompson, the Detroit Tigers second-round pick in the 2012 draft, brings a 22-inning scoreless streak into his start at Coca-Cola Park tonight. Since ending up on the losing end of an 8-6 defeat to Norfolk on the final day of May, Thompson has gone 6-0 with a 0.58 ERA in his last nine games.
Zero Point Five Eight.
“He’s been remarkable,” Brundage said.
Thompson has held opponents to a .195/.262/.257 slash line over those nine starts, struck out 37 while walking 17 in 62 1/3 innings over that span, and allowed just one home run. Thompson’s 2.29 ERA on the season leads all current pitchers in the International League.
“He’s certainly putting his name in the hat,” Brundage said of Thompson’s worthiness for a major league promotion. “He’s making some noise here in Triple-A, as far as, ‘Hey, pick me.’ You’ve got to have a spot, too.”
It would be more than a mild shock if that spot doesn’t arrive at some point in the next six days. The Phillies don’t have any need to hold onto Hellickson, and even if they value having a veteran in a rotation for the 2017 season, they can find one this winter in the same way they found Hellickson.
If he arrives to the Phillies clubhouse in the next week, Thompson would be the second-youngest pitcher in a starting staff without a pitcher older than 26, behind Jerad Eickhoff (just 26 three weeks ago), Vince Velasquez (24) and Aaron Nola (23). Thompson is two months older than his former Lehigh Valley teammate Zach Eflin (also 22).
Eflin, also acquired by the Phillies in a deal that sent a franchise icon (Jimmy Rollins) out of town, arrived to the major leagues shortly after Thompson got going on his current run of dominance. While Eflin (3.16 ERA in 11 starts with the IronPigs) was the Phillies most consistent starter at Triple-A over the season’s first two months, Thompson (4.23 ERA in his first 10 starts) was fiddling with his mechanics.
Thompson said he’s made a few “tweaks” since those first two months.
“(I had been) putting my body in bad positions to try to execute pitches,” he said of his mechanics. “My fastball was elevated in fastball counts. And you’re usually not going to be real good (when you're doing that), no matter where you’re at, especially at a level.”
Thompson has harnessed his mechanics in June and July. He has been able to put his fastball where he wants it and mix in an array of secondary pitches – a curveball, a slider, a changeup – to keep hitters off-balanced.
“It all starts with commanding the baseball to both sides of the plate and I think that’s what he’s taken to heart,” Brundage said. “The two-seamer has been his bail-out pitch. He leads the league in double plays. With that comes experience, comes confidence, comes a young man who’s 22-years-old and certainly getting his feet wet at Triple-A.
“I didn’t see the guy everyone had talked about early on. But I certainly now know now what everyone was talking about. He’s commanding four pitches … and his secondary pitches are average-to-above average at times. And you don’t say that about a lot of young pitchers.”
Thompson has watched some of his teammates, like Eflin and Tommy Joseph, make the jump from Triple-A to the big leagues in the las few months. He’s seen Eflin bounce back from his big league debut to roll out a 2.08 ERA (including two complete games, the most recent a shutout) in his last seven starts.
Thompson knows what it’s like to be in that kind of groove. After today, he’s hoping to take his own positive momentum into a big league ballpark, following in the footsteps of Eflin.
“He’s comfortable, he’s doing the same stuff he’s done down here,” Thompson said. “It’s definitely comforting to see it, it makes you feel like you have that ability, too.”